“When we’re playing trial matches up in the AUL complex in Clonshaugh in the muck, I’d be looking at the pitch and Noel (O’Reilly, his assistant) would say: ‘Don’t worry, this gives us a chance; when we’re playing the likes of France and Portugal, their blokes won’t be used to this, the wind and the rain and the muck.’ And he’s right, those adverse conditions bring out something. It’s a great learning ground for our fellas. You can be sure that in a lot of those other countries, the boys would be going out on lovely manicured pitches, and playing in schools of excellence from the age of 13, whereas our boys would be used to playing on the side of a hill with long grass and dirt where they have to muck in. In a way that’s a good thing because it’s character building.”
Where others see adversity and get caught up in moaning about it, Kerr recognizes opportunity and gets on with the job. He uses the substandard facilities to his advantage as a motivational tool, while in the background he works zealously to improve the environment in which Ireland’s young players take their first steps. During six years in charge of the youths’ set-up, an era that, whatever happens now, will be regarded as one of the most glorious in the history of Irish schoolboys’ soccer, he did a lot more than just win trophies and grab the attention of bystanders. Below the waterline, he was steadfastly putting together a regional and national coaching structure to ensure that next couple of Irish managers should have an even better standard of footballer to work with than he did.
Foundation laying like that doesn’t usually garner headlines, but around the country, people involved in soccer see the worth of everything Kerr has done. They’ve all seen how seriously he took the title of “national” youths coach. There hasn’t been a corner of the 26 counties that Kerr hasn’t visited, either to check out some players he was tipped off about or to conduct a clinic or to just promote the cause of soccer beyond the Pale. In choosing him to succeed Mick McCarthy as manager at this point, the organization we love to criticize has made a visionary appointment that deserves immense praise. Refusing to be overawed by the stellar playing careers of the other candidates and the French accent of Phillipe Troussier, they gave the right man the right job at the right time.
Whatever happens over the next couple of years (and, of course, stocks may fall as well as rise), this is the correct course of action for the good of the senior team in particular and the game in general. Kerr can walk into the dressing room for the friendly against Scotland next week free of baggage. The half of the side who already know him (Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Richard Dunne, John O’Shea et. al.) associate him with successful sorties to some of the most prestigious youths tournament in the world. The other half have never bumped heads with him as a player or manager in England, so they should be happy that the new guy will come at them with no prejudice.
If the players read any of the newspaper coverage, they will also gain a glimpse of what kind of a work ethic he possesses. Once appointed as manager of the Irish Under-16, Under-18 and Under-20 teams in early 1997, Kerr set himself a punishing schedule that involved ridiculous amounts of traveling between Ireland and England. He felt it his duty to see every eligible youngster play a couple of times per season and getting that done required him spending half his life on flights. Hopping shuttles from Dublin to Manchester and London and Newcastle mightn’t be glamorous but it served its purpose. Kerr built up such an encyclopedic knowledge of the players available to him that when he lost key individuals through injury, he always had decent replacements in mind. This is just one of the reasons he managed to bring a squad containing a single bona fide star (Duff) to Malaysia in his first summer in charge and finished third at the World Under-20 Cup.
Something else impressive about Kerr in his previous role, and which bodes well for his new job, was his refusal to kowtow to the big clubs. When it came to getting players released for international tournaments (the benefits of which the notoriously insular English managers do not appreciate), he fought long and hard and often had to invoke FIFA rules. It probably cost him a few professional friends, and famously caused David O’Leary to brand him a trophy hunter (well, duh), but it ensured he brought teams to these events that never let Ireland down. All in all, the story of Kerr’s improbable rise, from managing the Crumlin United Under-13s when he was just 15 years old himself, to taking over from Mick McCarthy almost 35 years later, offers a very hopeful start to the still young sporting year.
Said Kerr: “If you can identify the little bit of torch that starts players, and then let the flame spread, if you can just find the angle to get the little bit of inspiration, then you’ll see that there’s certainly a lot of passion about the fellas. Finding it isn’t that hard for me. There’s always an angle in every match, always an angle to touch a fella’s, I don’t know, is it his soul or his patriotism, whatever? When a group is together, it’s important to identify some spark that brings out some real team spirit. With the international team, you’re fresh, you’re a different voice to what they are used to.”
Fresh. A different voice. And about time too.