If the lessons of the past teach us anything then, it’s that anybody could still get this job. For all his faults, Robson appears to have as good a chance just now as Brian Kerr. Never mind that the Dubliner boasts one of the most impressive bodies of work in all of international youth soccer, the former Manchester United captain’s star power keeps him in the race. Similarly, even though Peter Reid might never again be offered a Premiership post, Kevin Moran hasn’t one iota of experience, and John Aldridge’s first and only stint as manager ended a couple of years ago, nobody can rule out the FAI taking a punt on one of that trio.
While those candidates coming to the interview table with stellar playing careers on their CVs have one advantage over Kerr, dapper Frenchman Philippe Troussier has another. He’s not Irish and he speaks with an accent. That may sound a tad ridiculous to anybody who hasn’t witnessed the way the denizens of British and, to a lesser extent, Irish soccer have fallen under the spell of foreigners attempting to speak their language. Just because they deigned to mouth some broken English to reporters, Eric Cantona (more of a piss-artist than a philosopher) and Gianluca Vialli were regarded as sophisticated intellectuals around the Premiership. It was as if learning a few words of another language suddenly made them exist on a higher plane.
From the interviews he has given Irish journalists so far, Troussier comes across as a nice, polite guy who has done his homework on the setup. He deserves to be in contention because his track record is that of a man who can go into a country with a different culture than his own and get the job done. Apart from doing well with Nigeria, a nation with an abundance of excellent players, he got Burkina Faso to the final four of the African Nations’ Cup before arriving in Japan and overseeing their progress to the second round of last summer’s World Cup. This is about the point in his biography when we start wondering how suited he might be for Merrion Square.
In preparing the Japanese for their role as tournament co-hosts, he had close on four years to work with. During that time, he had the type of access and control over his squad that managers of European nations can only dream about. In 2001 alone, he had the Japanese players training under his supervision for 90 days and had them play something like 15 international matches. Any coach will vouchsafe that the longer you get to spend with the players, the easier it is to persuade them to play the way you want them to, and given that every international misses an average of one game per year, Troussier would have the Irish for about 15 days a year and five matches.
Under the circumstances in which he worked then, getting the co-hosts to the second round was actually something of a disappointment, and there is another important consideration regarding his eligibility for this role. In Japan, he was working with inexperienced players who all grew up in a culture where modesty and the subjugation of ego are prized values. That’s a world away from the universe where the cocky Premiership millionaires that populate the Irish squad exist.
“You can only keep players happy by earning their respect and I believe I could do this with [Roy] Keane and all of the Irish players,” Troussier said last week. “If you know my reputation, you will know that I’m a perfectionist, like Keane. If I was to get this job, of course I would try to persuade him to play. I want Roy Keane in my team. He’s perhaps the best player in the world in his position and, mathematically, qualification is still possible. There are six matches left. Six matches is 18 points. Finishing second in the group is not impossible.”
Troussier’s positive outlook is admirable and he makes all the right noises about Keane. Still, the FAI will be doing the game no favors if they judge this selection on the ability of one or other candidate to bring the Manchester United captain back into the fold. Since the current qualifying campaign is in such deep trouble, the appointment of the new man must be on a four-year contract and only the most optimistic would envision Cork’s finest wearing an Ireland jersey beyond his 33rd birthday in August 2003. So whatever they do from this point, it’s to be hoped that the FAI’s head-hunting committee will consider the Keane factor a part of the job description, not, as Bryan Robson likes to contend, the whole thing.
Milo Corcoran, John Delaney, and Kevin Fahy are the FAI officials charged with the task at hand despite none of them having ever managed or played professionally. Just in case that makes you despair, you should remember that barely three decades ago, the Irish team was still picked by the Big Five, a selection committee of amateur officials drawn from the different constituencies within the association, elected on an annual basis. At least these days, it’s only the job of finding a manager that’s left to the blazers and on this occasion, it’s taken only half as many FAI administrators as last time out to man the committee. In their world, that represents progress.