The then 34-year-old Hand won the day by virtue of a 9-7 vote. A close-run thing, one of the FAI officials involved later informed Hand he’d endorsed him only because he suspected Mulligan had once thrown a bun at him during some high jinks on a foreign trip in the ’70s. An old story, it’s worth retelling just now to remind everybody that around at the organization’s lavish offices in Merrion Square, only the names have really changed. The song hasn’t.
What else are we to think when the FAI’s quest for somebody to assist them in their search for a new manager stops at the door of Bryan Hamilton? A nice, personable guy, Hamilton has slipped so much down the game’s totem pole of late that his most recent coaching work of note was as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the A League. For somebody who was manager of Northern Ireland up to 1997, that’s pretty far off-Broadway. Still, he was the best the bungling idiots in the FAI could come up with when so many former Irish internationals (chief among them Liam Brady) looked at the parameters of the consultants’ task being offered them and passed on it. Who could blame them for refusing to work with a bunch that have the unique gift of turning everything they touch radioactive?
“I am pleased and honored to take this position and I hope my experience and independence will be an advantage,” said Hamilton, unsurprisingly given he had just found a couple of months’ handy work traveling around England interviewing jokers like Bryan Robson and has-beens like Kenny Dalglish.
“I am very pleased to help out and I know the FAI are doing everything in their power to make the right appointment. When you see some of the names being mentioned in relation to the job, you can see how important this appointment will be.”
Nobody underestimates the significance of the job. That’s why it makes us so angry that the FAI are conducting a ridiculous three-month-long process to find a successor to Mick McCarthy at a time when Brian Kerr, the best person for the job, already has a desk in their building. In the absence of an outstanding European candidate — a Fabio Capello or Giovanni Trappattoni — Kerr is the man. Apart from him brazenly declaring his interest in the role a couple of weeks back, there is one overriding consideration that makes him the ideal fit. This is the only manager in the history of Irish soccer to bring a team back from a major tournament with a trophy. Not once, of course, but twice.
Back in May, when Roy Keane moaned about nobody else in the camp traveling to the World Cup believing they could actually win the thing, he was dead right. Too many in and around the Irish squad believed that qualifying for the second round would be a marvelous achievement and were subsequently too content after losing on penalties to Spain. Guess what? This was a poor competition where ordinary teams went very far, and with a little bit more guts and a lot more tactical savvy from the bench, Ireland could have reached the semifinals. And once any side gets that far, it’s all up for grabs. Kerr’s international career proves that much.
In 1997, he went to Malaysia with a depleted squad for the Under-20 World Cup, so bereft of stars that just one of them, Damien Duff, would ever play in the Premiership. Kerr and his wily assistant Noel O’Reilly turned them into something far more than the sum of their parts and Ireland charted a third-place finish in the FIFA tournament, rated second in prestige only to the World Cup itself. It was an incredible feat, yet he surpassed it 12 months later by bringing home the European Under-16 and Under-18 titles in the space of a few weeks. If the man from Drimnagh was French or Spanish and was bringing that CV and a bit of an accent to the interview, he’d be a shoo-in.
That he’s not French or Spanish is one more reason why he’s actually perfect for this job at this time. With each passing international yet another youngster who passed through Kerr’s hands makes the Irish squad. He knows these guys inside out because he’s worked with many of them since they were 15. Sure, they earn lots more money now than they did then and are bound to be a little bit more difficult to handle, but Kerr’s gift for wringing remarkable performances out of individuals hasn’t suddenly gone away. When it comes down to it, who better to take over the management of the senior team than a man who has spent the last five years traveling the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland, making sure he got to see every Irish youngster worth looking at?
Despite the overwhelming evidence in Kerr’s favor, the FAI must still proceed with their vainglorious charade. A committee is in place and Hamilton’s brief is to report back to them once he has come up with a shortlist. That coming up with a shortlist of six or whatever is going to waste more time and money (not a problem for an association which just blew an estimated euro 2 million on that European Cup 2008 fiasco) when the ideal candidate is under their noses is strangely comforting. If the FAI were to do the right thing on this one, what would we expect next? A professionally run soccer organization. A plan for the future of the game in Ireland. The odd first-world facility to play in. The mind boggles, but, in the meantime, we can only pray.