Cautionary tales

Yet another Ireland qualifying campaign has ended in a near miss and Brian Kerr has paid the penalty for some strikingly strange decisions, as Paul Doyle relates

What do you do when there are 25 minutes to go in your last qualifying match and your team desperately needs a goal to avoid World Cup elimination? If you’re Brian Kerr, you take off your country’s record goalscorer. Then, with just four minutes left, you replace your other striker.

Kerr’s decisions to remove Robbie Keane and the in-form Clinton Morrison against Switzerland last month were symptomatic of his whole diseased reign. Granted he replaced them with two other strikers – well, Sunderland’s Stephen Elliott and centre-back-cum-wrecking ball Gary Doherty – but surely any other manager, including the bloke who runs your local Tesco, would have instead taken off a defender or midfielder to throw extra numbers up front? Even when boldness was most urgently needed, Kerr showed the flexibility of rigor mortis.

Kerr’s caution seemed perverse all throughout the campaign, most blatantly against Israel. In Tel Aviv, Morrison drove his team into a first-half lead. But then the Republic of Ireland sought to tease and toy with the home side for the remainder of the game rather than, oh I don’t know, score another goal. So Ireland have become so mighty they can afford to patronise hard-working, moderately talented opponents? Much as it pained me to see Abbas Souan equalise in the last minute, there was no denying the justice of it.

At home, Ireland started even better than in Tel Aviv and were 2-0 up after 15 minutes. Then Robbie Keane got injured and Kerr, for once opting to alter his formation, introduced the humdrum Graham Kavanagh to go 4‑5‑1. Again, the ensuing draw was just punishment for Kerr’s conservatism. As were the final group standings, in which Israel finished ahead of fourth-placed Ireland.

This wasn’t what was supposed to happen under Kerr. When he was unveiled as new boss to ovations from hacks and fans alike, including this one, a nation believed there was no better man to get the best out of a reasonable crop of players. Kerr himself talked this up, hailing his relationship with Damien Duff, in particular, as if he were some kind of surrogate father to Ireland’s favourite son. During the World Cup campaign, no one underperformed more than Duff. Except perhaps Stephen Carr, who announced his retirement last month but effectively took it two years ago – yet whom Kerr persistently picked ahead of European champion Steve Finnan.

After the Swiss flop, Kerr appeared on The Late Late Show to publicly plead for a new contract. He’s a likeable man and no doubt won over many viewers with his obvious passion for the job and lines such as, “I’m basically an Ireland fan, you won’t find anyone who cares about the team more than me”. That’s quite possibly true, but the fact is he failed abysmally to transmit that passion to the players, who under him produced some of the most gutless displays ever seen from an Irish side (Switzerland 2003 setting a new benchmark for lethargy).

So the FAI didn’t renew his contract. Announcing that decision, general secretary John Delaney claimed he knew exactly who he would ask to replace him, immediately sparking fears he would approach Bryan Robson – whom he’d wanted instead of Kerr three years ago. The popular choice would be Martin O’Neill, but now that he, like David O’Leary, has ruled himself out, the only obvious contenders are… um, no one. Unless you think John Aldridge’s spell at Tranmere, Kevin Moran’s career as an agent or Frank Stapleton’s punditry make them serious candidates.

Arsenal youth-team coach Liam Brady is highly regarded by Arsène Wenger, and when asked whether he’d be interested in the job gave the most unconvincing “no” since Tony Blair was asked if he’d exaggerated the threat of weapons of mass destruction – but as Kerr has quipped: “He tried it at Celtic and I seem to remember he wasn’t too great.” Then again, even if there were queues of obvious candidates knocking on the FAI’s door, there’s no guarantee any of them would be chosen. For the FAI works in mysterious ways. This is the organisation that appointed Eoin Hand in 1980 because rival Paddy Mulligan was suspected of once throwing a bun at a committee member; that gave Jack Charlton the job ahead of Bob Paisley even though they voted in favour of appointing the ex-Liverpool manager; and hired Mick McCarthy when Joe Kinnear was top of their shortlist. Almost anyone could get it.

From WSC 226 December 2005. What was happening this month