With the game slipping away from Ireland, the sight of Ian Harte and Gary Doherty standing on the touchline, about to make their entrance, was a reminder of the poverty of talent available to Brian Kerr. When a manager’s last resort in an emergency is the introduction of one Premiership has-been and another Premiership never-was, there is no more graphic illustration of why Ireland are unlikely to reach Germany next summer.
Despite being very obviously available, not a single Premiership or championship club came in for FC Levante Harte during last month’s transfer window. There isn’t much of a market for a highly-paid left-full who – slight drawback here – can’t actually defend very well. Similarly, Norwich’s attempts to unload Doherty at the end of last season amounted to naught. That he was on City’s bench for their encounter with Plymouth last Saturday sums up his current standing at the Championship club. These are not the sort of players any manager would fancy to turn around a game against a team like the French.
For choosing that pair over the other options on his bench, Kerr has been castigated in some quarters. There is a caucus that would have preferred him to bring in Sunderland’s Stephen Elliott, a decent prospect but an untried performer at the highest level, or to have opted for another midfielder to allow Damien Duff to move into the forward line. Although there are merits in both views, Doherty did wreak havoc during his cameo against Israel last June. The problem is that the Israeli defense didn’t boast anybody with the experience and class of Lilian Thuram. Against France, Doherty just looked out of his depth and most people would have guessed as much too.
Less than 48 hours had passed since Thierry Henry’s moment of brilliance decided the game when the “unofficial” stories linking the FAI with Martin O’Neill hit the ground running. This is kind of ridiculous. With two games left in the campaign, Kerr could still garner a playoff berth and that would be a good return from Group Four. The manager has certainly not had a great campaign, and while some of his decisions appear bizarre, it would be foolish to blame the failure to qualify on him alone. The difficulties actually run far deeper than his perceived conservatism during matches.
The hyperbole surrounding some of our key players in recent years is part of the problem. In certain quarters, the ability of Robbie Keane has been ludicrously exaggerated on the back of a grossly-inflated international scoring record. It’s almost like people believe that if they keep saying he’s world class then he will be. When he fails so badly against the best teams – this being a feature of his game with club and country – people then wonder why France’s world-class striker won the match for them and Ireland’s “world-class” striker didn’t do a thing.
There is no puzzle here. Keane has never really done it with any consistency against top quality opposition. This is the very reason he has knocked around so many clubs. Not only is he not world-class but – contrary to what some of those who defended his right to go for a few drinks during the build-up to an international claim – he’s also not superfit. Sean Og O hAilpin is superfit. Ryan McMenamin is superfit. Keane and Andy Reid (who tired badly in the latter exchanges) are not even as fit as Premiership footballers should be.
The problems don’t end there. Kevin Kilbane is inconsistent and limited, Clinton Morrison is game but limited, Steven Carr’s best days appear to be behind him, John O’Shea hasn’t progressed, and most pertinent of all, Duff was too easily snuffed out in the game that mattered most. Beyond the starting XI, there are larger concerns too. Liam Miller has disappeared off the map, Blackburn’s Steven Reid bears no relation to the cocky kid who played in the 2002 World Cup, and all the bright young things like Graham Barrett and Richie Partridge have failed to live up to the hype.
None of these situations can be blamed on Kerr and neither can the continuing failure of the country to produce quality strikers. Between Robbie Keane in one generation and Niall Quinn in another, it seems Ireland is capable of sending forth one decent forward every 10 or 15 years or so. Where would we be had Morrison now, or the likes of Tony Cascarino and John Aldridge in days gone by not declared to wear green? With the increased numbers of kids playing the game, how come so few talented teenagers turn into international strikers?
There’s no shortage of defenders and midfielders, and we are over-run with good goalkeepers but finding those who can put the ball in the net remains a puzzle. The striker crux – and David Connolly is not the answer to anybody’s prayers despite his debut goal for Wigan – is an issue that predates and will postdate Kerr. For now, his own greatest worry should be the lack of creativity in the side. Once Duff is rendered ineffective, it’s very difficult to see where an Irish opening will come from against a good defense, and the French manager Raymond Domenech was utterly justified in describing Kerr’s team as predictable.
Solving this dilemma over the next four weeks may keep or lose Kerr his job. In the meantime, we’ve found the long-term solution. Step forward Stephen Ireland, an 18-year-old Corkman who has scored three goals in his last three games for the Manchester City reserves.
“Stephen is immensely talented, the can-opener playing behind the front two who can thread a ball through” said Jim Cassell, director of Manchester City’s youth academy. “He can see passes that we can’t possibly coach him on.”
A can-opener. Would that he was a couple of years further on in his development.