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'Fans would come up and openly call me a b******s ' - The challenges of being an Irish manager in Ireland

Stephen Kenny is only the third Irish manager in almost 50 years to live in the country full-time. Eoin Hand and Brian Kerr talk to The42 about the unique pressures of being home-based.

SOON THIS ABNORMALITY will end, we will emerge blinking into the sun and our shrunken worlds will again widen to their hitherto broad expanses. 

And when that happens, Stephen Kenny will still be working from home. 

Kenny’s appointment to the job last weekend means the full-time Irish national team manager is also a full-time Irish resident for only the third time in 47 years. 

pjimage - 2020-04-07T160112.238 Home-based Irish managers: Eoin Hand, Brian Kerr, and Stephen Kenny. Source: INPHO

John Giles spent the bulk of his Irish stint in England although returned home to coach Shamrock Rovers, while all of Jack Charlton, Mick McCarthy, Steve Staunton, Giovanni Trapattoni, and Martin O’Neill lived abroad. 

That leaves Eoin Hand and Brian Kerr as the only Irish-based Ireland managers since the late Liam Tuohy. 

“I went from someone who was fairly recognisable to maybe around 30% of the people around the place to being recognised by around 80% of people”, Kerr tells The42

“Places I would have gone for a newspaper or a bottle of milk and an ice-cream for years without being noticed, suddenly people would be beeping their horn at me, waving out the window or shouting across the street.

“It certainly underlined the idea you were in a very important job, if you didn’t already know it. 

“In my case, a lot of it was enjoyable. Almost 100% of people were nice to me and said encouraging things, and that was sometimes overwhelming. I don’t think Eoin always had that experience.” 

Like Kerr, Hand lived in Dublin while he was Irish boss from 1980 to 1985, and while his encounters weren’t all bad, the nastier ones that came later in his reign cast a lengthy shadow. 

“When you’re living in the country there are often a number of lovely things about it, but there are also a lot of bad things about it as you just cannot get away from it. It’s all very well when you win games, but you have no private life. The stress became a big part of it, for me but also for my wife and family. My son Gary was in school around Terenure and one day he came home with the tyres on his bicycle slashed. He was only about 13.

Everything was about the results, it really was. If we won a game, great: I can remember Garret Fitzgerald was Taoiseach and I got a phone call from him after a win, but lose a game and it’s the total opposite. I could be sitting out with my wife somewhere socialising, and fans would come up to me and openly insult me, calling me a bollocks and so on. It’s constant, and I was living in the middle of it in Dublin. It’s so false when people are glorifying you to your face, as they are likely to be the same ones giving you a hard time. You would love the middle line all the time, instead of the highs and the very lows. It’s human nature and you have to prepare yourself for it, and I know Stephen is fully aware of that.”

The pressure on Hand built and built and built and built and eventually became too much. 

“Jim Beglin said I brought it up at team meetings toward the end of my reign. I can’t remember doing that, but I’m sure I did. It was a comment like, ‘Lads, you wouldn’t believe the flippin’ pressure I’m under, working and living in the country. You’re all living in England, please win for me.’

“I shouldn’t have brought that into a team meeting. But toward the last couple of games of my final campaign, oh, I’d had enough.”

eoin-hand-and-terry-conroy-14111984 Eoin Hand as Irish manager in 1984. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In a sign of relatively impoverished times made starker this week by McCarthy’s walking away with around €1.5 million in salary payments and a bonus from the final four months of his contract, Hand was so poorly paid by the FAI he ran a sports shop in Firhouse to make ends meet.

Its phone line proved to be another outlet for irate fans. 

Had the FAI been paying him a proper wage, would Hand have considered relocating to the UK? 

“I possibly might have…I might have. It would certainly be seen to be easier. My thinking on it would be being based in England, where our players are based, is the ideal situation.”

Kerr has seen it from both sides, having continued living in Ireland as manager of the Faroe Islands. 

“The people always felt the team should be doing better”, remembers Kerr. “I discovered up there that every country thinks their own national team should be doing a lot better than they are, unless you’re Spain and France and winning tournaments.

“They expected the international team to be capable of beating other international teams on a somewhat regular basis. They’d be disappointed at losing matches and it wasn’t accepted that it was alright to lose matches if you had a bit of a go.

“When you live in the country you hear that all the time: you know everyone is aware of what you do and has an opinion about how you do it. If you live in the country after a match is finished, you’re still among the people and around the reaction and the fall-out from it, good, bad and indifferent. When I was coming back through the airport from the Faroes, people would be saying, ‘You’re doing great.’ We might have lost a match, but people had an image that we were doing really well.

“There wasn’t the same interest, intensity or scrutiny in relation to what you were doing. I can understand why it’s attractive for managers not to live in the country, and it would have been easier, for instance, for Trapattoni to go back to Italy. I am sure people in Italy thought Trapattoni was doing great here.

“Even when Mick would go back to England, there wouldn’t be the same kind of knowledge or scrutiny on how the job was going. The image would probably be, ‘You’re doing very well; aren’t you doing great to be getting a few results from them.’

“That’s what Stephen won’t have here.” 

brian-kerr Brian Kerr in his days as Faroe Islands manager in 2011.

While there are rare pressures that come with the Irish manager being based in Ireland, Kerr sees a rare opportunity too. 

“There’s a link and there’s an identity, and I think that’s what a home-based manager does. 

“We have seen a lot about the Charlton years lately, but I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about the lack of interest in Irish football at that time. Charlton and [Maurice] Setters had no interest in the Irish game, and there was no link-up in what was happening between what was happening in Irish football and what was happening with the senior international team.

“The general public that became part of the Olé Olé brigade didn’t care about that, they were just interested in the fact that Ireland were winning matches and were at the finals competitions. There was no symmetry between the League of Ireland and the international team, they were completely separate. 

“That’s not being critical of Mick in any way. Mick, [his former assistant] Ian Evans and Terry Connor certainly went to games and were well in touch with the games and the different underage teams. 

“Martin and Roy, to some degree they got involved in going to games, but I wouldn’t say they were at an awful lot of League of Ireland games.

“I have always felt it’s an important part of the role of senior manager, and Stephen and his staff will be busy ensuring they are in-touch and ensuring people believe there is a link between what they are doing underage and schoolboy, intermediate, or League of Ireland football, to show that the senior team comes from those areas of football and without those areas of football being vibrant, progressive and competitive then we won’t end up with a good senior international team.” 

stephen-kenny Stephen Kenny is welcomed back to Oriel Park at a Champions League qualifier against Riga last year. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Hand and Kerr know the new Irish manager well, and are both confident Kenny will cope with the extra scrutiny that comes from being an Irish manager in Ireland.

Both mentioned the fact Kenny doesn’t live in Dublin as a benefit: “A lot of his movement will be smooth, and just up and back from the airport”, says Kerr. 

“Things will change”, concludes Hand. “Stephen’s jobs to now have been focused locally, and he will find this different. It’s about knowing who to trust, and he will know that as he is a shrewd man. 

“I’m delighted that he has got the job, I’m delighted it has been resolved and it would seem to me to be the right thing to do, and I do think Stephen will be fully aware of the pressures being number one will put on him while living in the country.” 

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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