Ireland’s under 19s recently qualified for next year’s World Youth Cup finals in United Arab Emirates after placing fourth in the 2002 European Championship in Oslo, Norway. Brian Kerr’s boys were beaten 2-1 by Slovakia after the Irish dominated the game but were unable to strike home.
“Tactically we were the better team, we had much more possession and we just lacked a bit of finish,” Kerr said.
The luck of the Irish was simply not to be on a day when woodwork saved Slovakia on three occasions. Nonetheless, Kerr was proud of his side as he reminded the Football Association of Ireland of the importance of funding the youth programs.
Several tournaments are on the horizon for Ireland’s younger sides and Kerr is a stickler for readiness.
“The priority for this U-19 team is to get them right and give them every chance at the World Cup,” he said. “I hope the association will allow us to spend some money in preparation for those finals.”
It’s not like the FAI are short of a few euro after their budget got a nice little boost from their Sky TV deal. Indeed, the sky should be the limit when it comes to financing the lads in green and one of the best youth coaches in the world, Brian Kerr. The FAI must pay heed to Kerr’s main U’ concern, which is obviously the hot and humid conditions to which his team must get acclimatized.
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For Kerr, it is not, and never has been, a case of happy to be there and to qualify for the big tournaments. He is used to and
demands top-notch performances. In Oslo, conditions were a lot cooler for the Irish to express their talents.
In finishing off their outstanding team display in the Ulleval Stadium against Slovakia, yet again Kerr’s system proved tactically sound and, most of all, creative. Tottenham Hotspur’s and ex-Belvedere schoolboy Stephen Kelly broke into the Irish team at the playoff stages against Holland. The Finglas fullback reminded Celtic, Chelsea, West Ham United and Everton that their interest in him was on the money when he scored against England on top of a man-of-match performance. Rarely has there been a shortage of footballing fullbacks for Ireland and it looks like Kerr is keeping that tradition in order.
On the left side of the Irish defense was Sunderland and ex-Belvedere Stephen Capper. In the 52nd minute, Capper’s long throw led to Stephen Brennan crashing Ireland into the lead. Capper is an accomplished U-19 for Sunderland and is always on the look out to go forward. Key to his performances in Norway was his consistency in defending while threatening down the flank.
Because of Kerr’s incorporated style of attacking play with much emphasis on width, Irish fans can prepare themselves for another great winger in Liam Kearney. The Nottingham Forest starlet and ex-Valley Rangers youngster has come through from the Irish U16s under Kerr’s nurturing, similar to the development of Damien Duff. Kearney may be a bit light, but once on the ball he’s got all the magic and trickery of the street player. His dazzling footwork had opposition all over the place and he can pass the ball too.
But it’s Michael Foley who steals the show when it comes to distribution. The Irish and Liverpool midfielder passes the ball in a similar fashion to John Giles — when he was in his prime, of course. The skillful Foley has a lovely touch, and if given any room he can open defenses with his array of passes. His play-making ability was the very core of Ireland’s success in the tournament and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him play for Liverpool in the near future.
No doubt there is fantastic promise for Irish soccer and indeed Kerr’s kids are already doing the business.
In the preliminary rounds the Irish coasted with victories over Latvia, 3-0, Austria, 2-0, and Croatia, 3-1. In the intermediary round, home and away, it had become clear that the Irish were a force to be reckoned with, beating Holland, 2-1, and a nil-all draw. At the championships, after beating Belgium by 2-1, Ireland fell to runners-up Germany, 3-0. Then it was all to do against England when the pluck of the green came from behind to beat old rivals England, 3-2.
Now, after a respectful fourth place finish, if the FAI cannot recognize the importance of meeting Kerr’s demands for preparing for the U-19 World Cup, where does Kerr go from here?
Kerr is a down-to-earth coach and person. He had humble beginnings and his initial break came when he coached the Irish collegiate team in the early 1980s. Then in the late ’80s and early ’90s he became manager of St. Patrick’s Athletic. Moving on to manage all the Republic of Ireland’s U-16 and U-18 sides in ’97 for his second stint with the international sides, he has never looked back. He had previously been part of the coaching staff when the Irish Youths progressed to the semifinals of the European Youth Championships in 1984. In his time as manager, he has turned Ireland into one of the best countries in the world at underage level after leading the U-20s to the semifinals of the 1997 World Cup, and the U-18s and U-16s to European Championship glory in 1998.
The 2002 U-19 championship was his 10th tournament in charge of an Irish team. It is absolutely crucial for Irish football that Kerr is given the treatment he deserves. It is important that the FAI recognize that Kerr holds the key to future of some of the best talent in “world football.”