From the former Tampa Bay Rowdie Rodney Marsh admitting he’d never heard of the guy to Andy Townsend describing the move as “a terrible mistake,” their utter bemusement at the FAI opting for a coach with no track record in the Premiership, and more importantly in their eyes, no playing career worth speaking of, has been funny to observe.
The denizens of English soccer (and Townsend should be ashamed of himself, given how well he did out of Ireland) simply cannot understand why the FAI could choose somebody who isn’t well known to Sky Sports viewers over several other candidates who were. Of course, they come from the old school, a place where a great player would get a managerial position just because he was a great player. Never mind that he might not ever have coached before, had no qualifications and represented a massive gamble. If he was a name, that was enough. Or at least it used to be. The two brightest young coaches in the Premiership right now are David Moyes at Everton and Steve McLaren at Middlesbrough. Despite having been average players, they are now regarded as two of the most progressive coaches in Europe.
The Kerr appointment, thankfully, is very much in the European mode. In Italy, they make former players study for a coaching badge before becoming managers. It’s a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff and forcing these guys to educate themselves about their new role. As a result, there are far more characters in Serie A who are cut from the same cloth as Moyes, McLaren etc., career coaches whose lack of playing talent counts for naught. Watching so many English journalists and newspaper reporters tiptoeing around Kerr’s lack of Premiership experience — and during one interview, he almost had to apologize to the man from the BBC for not being famous enough — brought to mind a little cameo from Euro 2000.
Nothing illustrated the problems facing English football, now and then, more pathetically than the sight of Kevin Keegan standing on the touchline as his dream of winning the tournament was falling apart before his eyes. When his players needed proper coaching and his stale tactics cried out for revision, the cameras cut to Keegan making a gesture with his shoulders and shouting at the cream of Premiership talent, urging them to, in his words, “Be Big”. That is what appointing a popular personality gets you in a crisis. Cliched advice. Of a kind anybody with a scintilla of knowledge of the game’s finer points could come up with. Kerr and his underrated assistant, Noel O’Reilly, will bring a lot more than that to the Irish bench.
They will bring years of experience in international football, time spent learning the art of getting results against players from very different cultures to our own. They will bring an understanding of every level of the game in Ireland. They know the trials and tribulations of our superstars but they also realize how many kids we have dotted around England trying to make their professional dream come true. Even if results will be all that counts, it’s refreshing to have people in charge who appreciate their wider role in the life of Irish soccer. And all this guff about them never having dealt with adults is so ridiculous. They were dealing with adults at St. Patrick’s Athletic for long enough and, if anything, managing a group of 17- or 18-year-olds who earn 20k per week (as they did over the last few years) is surely the best training ground of all for any manager.
The only blot on the landscape over the last few days has been the prevalence of Roy Keane headlines in the tabloids. Kerr has tried at every turn to avoid stoking that fire, but the issue of the former captain’s return won’t go away for a long time. Kerr and Keane do not have any history, good or bad, and will, presumably, anyway, come to the negotiating table with no baggage. Part of Kerr’s talent has always been supreme man-management skills, but we fear they may not be enough on this occasion. The reasons why Keane wanted to finish his international career after the World Cup remain more or less in place.
The FAI is still the FAI and boy do we all wish it wasn’t. He still wants to spend more time with his wife and family. He knows that his creaking body still needs more rest during the average season, not less. In the short-term, Ireland play two European championship qualifiers at the end of March that will require six or seven days away from home, two intense matches in four days (at the height of United’s season) and a lot of time on airplanes full of players he’s not overly fond of and officials he absolutely despises. McCarthy was a huge part of the Keane problem, but he wasn’t all of it and it’s really difficult to be too positive about any comeback.
Against the background of Alex Ferguson telling Keane not to go back, the best reason we can muster for a return are this: His hatred for McCarthy (and all he represented) remains strong and there would be no better way of getting revenge on his foe than answering Kerr’s call. Keane’s capacity to bear a grudge is legendary and the competitor in him may well envision bulwarking a miraculous Ireland revival in this campaign as the ultimate reprisal. It would represent the best proof ever that McCarthy was actually a chancer. Not the nicest reason in the world for a guy to want to wear his country’s jersey again, but it might just be the best chance we’ve got.