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In British soccer, Irish managers need not apply

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Dave Hannigan

There was a time not so long ago when the message on Joe Kinnear’s answering machine went something like: “I’m out at the moment but should you be the chairman of Barcelona, AC Milan or Real Madrid, I’ll get straight back to you. Everyone else can wait.” These days, Kinnear can be found working his magic at Kenilworth Road, a decaying venue that Luton Town have concluded isn’t fit for a Div. 2 club, and the wonder is where all the promise he used to engender has gone. Once he took time off to recuperate from his heart attack a couple of years ago, the former Wimbledon manager never properly reappeared on Premiership radar. His name doesn’t even figure in the high-end speculation anymore.

The totally unsurprising demise of Dave O’Leary this summer, and Kinnear toiling so far down the food chain, have again brought into sharp focus the relative lack of success enjoyed by Irish managers in Britain. Notwithstanding the inevitability that, sooner rather than later, some desperate outfit will take a punt on the deposed Leeds United boss having learned a few costly lessons from his Elland Road experience, Martin O’Neill remains by far the brightest spot on the horizon. Of the 134 professional clubs in England and Scotland, just six currently boast managers from the Republic or Northern Ireland, and how many people could honestly claim to know Sean O’Driscoll at Bournemouth, Danny Wilson at Bristol City and Alan Kernaghan at Clyde make up half that number?

It says much then that Roddy Collins’s colorful return to Brunton Park (as part of John Courtenay’s blue and white army no less) is the most high-profile development of the close-season regarding Irish managerial talent. Evincing his brother Steve’s outsize ability to turn a good headline, he has received newspaper coverage way beyond the station of somebody whose only success in England so far has been avoiding relegation from the worst division in the professional ranks. When Don O’Riordan was cutting his own coaching teeth by getting his Torquay United side to play an attractive diamond formation in the early ’90s, the Dubliner might as well have been working down a mine for all that his compatriots knew about it.

Of course that was a different era. Alan Kernaghan was a regular at center-half in the Irish team back then. Now he’s starting his first full season in management in the Scottish First Division, overcoming obstacles like the lack of a reserve team, and the club stadium having to be rented out for an American football tournament over the last two weekends in order to raise revenue. Still, Kernaghan staved off a serious relegation threat in just a couple of months in charge toward the tail end of the last campaign, and as a one-time Manchester City defender who was roundly criticized throughout his international career for his lack of class on the ball, he at least shares something with Mick McCarthy.

Beyond that, the outlook is not too good. John Aldridge seems to have decided a steady career in the media is preferable to the type of extreme highs and lows he lived through in charge of Tranmere Rovers, and his assistant and former international teammate Kevin Sheedy didn’t do enough as caretaker manager to earn the job full time when it was available. Despite financial constraints, Aldridge looked to be making genuine strides at Tranmere when he guided them to the 2000 Worthington Cup final, but within a year, he was gone, suitably chastened by the financial reality facing most clubs. The best players must always be sold and their replacements must be bought on the cheap.

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Having been through exactly the same mill a few years earlier down at Southend, Ronnie Whelan eloped to Greece and then Cyprus. Even if his achievement in leading Athens’ side Panionos to the quarterfinal of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999 was a remarkable feat, he has often struggled with the politicking common to the game in those countries. The performances of Whelan and Aldridge, much like the efforts of Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton before them, can be used as further evidence that the best players rarely make the best managers. Niall Quinn’s recent elevation to a player-coaching position at Sunderland makes him the most likely former international to try to disprove that theory some time soon.

Still, it’s more probable that the next coaching success will be a lesser-known player who gets to serve a managerial apprenticeship far from the spotlight and is allowed to develop accordingly. In this regard, Wrexham’s center-half, Brian Carey, has the look of a contender. With three senior caps over the course of 13 seasons during which he captained a star-studded Manchester United reserves in the early ’90s, and served under Martin O’Neill at Leicester City, Carey is already working with his club’s Under-16 team and is earmarked as a future boss by the fans at the Racecourse Ground. When not reading all those stories about which National League superstar Roddy Collins is or isn’t about to buy, Carey’s is a name to watch.

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