Of the 18 players he brought to Malaysia that summer only Damien Duff went on to play in the Premiership, and to start a competitive international for Ireland. Six days earlier, a French side managed by Gerard Houllier headed home from the same tournament following a quarter-final defeat on penalties by Uruguay Of the French squad, eight have played senior international football, five of them will be at Lansdowne Road today and a sixth, David Trezeguet, is absent through suspension.
Eight years later, those sort of statistics make Kerr’s achievement that summer all the more remarkable. His genius on that occasion was to give Duff a free rein, to get some limited individuals punching above their weight, and to make the whole far more than the sum of its individual parts. Houllier reached the last eight with players like Anelka, Henry, Gallas, Sagnol, and Silvestre who now collect their weekly wage packets from the richest clubs in Europe. Kerr brought Ireland one step farther – where they were beaten 1-0 by an Argentine team managed by their current senior boss Jose Pekerman – with a squad the majority of whom are now dotted around the Eircom League and the English non-league scene. Neither of the two goalkeepers he used, Derek O’Connor and Paul Whelan, ever made it as full-time professionals.
It will take all of the tactical nous Kerr first showcased to the wider world back then if Ireland are to get a result against the French tonight. It’s not an impossible job. Despite all the newspaper headlines, the return of Zinedine Zidane is not quite as seismic an event as it might have been a couple of years ago. The greatest player of his generation has been on the downturn for quite a while and though still capable of moments of magic, he is not nearly as fearful a proposition as he was in the late 1990s
Of course, Ireland’s problem is that the same can be said of its talisman, Roy Keane. At this point in his career, he is not the man who dominated Zidane’s Juventus in the 1999 Champions’ League semi-final. The second leg of that tie was the game where the Corkman’s booking for a late challenge on Zidane cost him his place in the final. It could be argued however that Keane’s decline since then has been much less precipitous than his opponent’s.
There have been times in the past year when due to his fading influence down the middle that Real Madrid manager Vanderlei Luxemburgo has started Zidane wide on the left for crucial fixtures. Not a good sign. Unfortunately, Zidane’s comeback, Lilian Thuram’s moaning about the pressure exerted on him to return, and the gauche comments by manager Raymond Domenech about the way Ireland resort to the long ball whenever in trouble, have deflected attention away from France’s real coup.
Getting Claude Makelele to reconsider his premature departure from the international scene could be the rock this Irish qualifying campaign perishes on. Less glamorous than the World Cup-winning pair, the Chelsea midfielder is a French version of what Keane used to be in his pomp.
At Real Madrid, they tell the story of how when Makelele was at the Bernabeau, he was the only player whose fitness Alfredo di Stefano, the club’s legendary godfather, would pray for before matches. Beyond the hype and kerfuffle surrounding the galacticos, Di Stefano realized the most influential and largely unheralded figure in every good Real performance was Makelele. More than one Chelsea observer has credited his donkey work with providing the platform for Frank Lampard to grab so many headlines.
If Makelele is more important to France than Zidane or arch moaner Patrick Vieira, the same could also be said of Duff and Keane. The Chelsea winger has blossomed so much in recent years at international level that were he to miss out altogether or have his influence curtailed in any way by his worrying knee injury, it would be a serious blow. He, and to a lesser extent, Shay Given, are Ireland’s key players these days. In the absence of a traditional creative midfielder, Duff’s ability to attack defenses is the most potent weapon available.
What Kerr has going for him on this occasion is that he has a more settled squad than Raymond Domenech. An hour before announcing his squad to take on Ireland 11 months ago, Domenech was still furiously working the phones, begging and pleading with Zidane, Thuram and Makelele to come out of international retirement. This time around, they have answered his call ahead of schedule but even the return of that stellar trio has caused problems. Apart from smacking of desperation, it has reportedly impacted on the morale of younger players who had been promised time to find their feet at international level.
Although one or two malcontents within the squad have privately grumbled about his selections for various games, Kerr has no major problems with personnel at this juncture in his reign. What he does have is a huge question mark over his ability to deliver a win in a competitive game. His team has drawn too many matches they could have won and in the fall-out from those performances, he’s shipped more flak than any of his players for his perceived tactical conservatism.
Whether the fault for defending leads and inviting the opposition to attack lies with him or those on field, the time for being satisfied with a single point from any fixture has passed in Group Four. Ireland is unlikely to qualify either directly or for the play-offs by drawing any of their remaining games. With his influential enemies in the FAI reportedly having their knives halfway out of the scabbards already, Kerr’s own future in the job depends on winning matches like this.