The lost passion of Brian Kerr: The best tool Irish football won't use
Brian Kerr is good at pretending to remember people he doesn’t know.
Before he even gets into the office, he’s confronted at the gates. It’s not a teenage superfan struggling to contain his excitement at the freak luck that would put him within touching distance of his hero but, rather, a well-dressed, well-built, tall elderly gentleman who’s definitely sure of himself but would feel a little more sure of himself if he could convince the lady he’s ditching without a second thought that he has some sort of history and rapport with Brian Kerr.
‘Jesus, there’s a familiar face!’
Kerr wishes the feeling was mutual as they shake hands and his shoulder is slapped with the conviction and warmth of an old chum. He probably wishes he had a name to use too, like we all do when someone else is constantly using ours but he’s polite, almost servile, as he’s asked about how the hell he is and how that ol’ tele gig is treating him and reminded – at least painted a picture of – the last time the pair met, at that fundraiser dinner a few years back.
Thankfully, Kerr remembers the dinner so it buys him a few bullshit-free sentences and, more thankfully, his PR chaperone is pushed for time so he’s able to navigate out of the conversation before getting into specifics about their own relationship but there’s still space for one last nervous exchange.
‘Really, really good to see you again, Brian.’
‘Yeah, good to see you.’
He never did get his name.
There’s something about Brian Kerr that people have a yearning to be associated with. It’s not like his presence leaves anyone star-stricken and there’s never any speech or nerve lost because he’s looking you in the eye but you’re simply compelled to talk with him and you always leave hoping he likes you. Brian Kerr might never hear screams and cries when he walks down the street but there are few like him – perhaps none like him – who untangle this childhood inhibition from the pit of a man’s stomach that draws you back to the vulnerability of trying to impress someone cooler than you, just in the hope that he might be your friend.
It’s probably just a football thing. There’s nothing better to instantly connect two strangers than a mutual appreciation of the movement of a round piece of leather and no-one knows more about that life than Kerr does.
Back when Virgin Media Television was still TV3, I was in their Ballymount headquarters one Tuesday night to do some behind-the-scenes shots of their Champions League coverage. Kevin Kilbane and Neil Lennon were the pundits alongside Kerr but I remember thinking how harsh it was that the best analyst of the three – and the one the other two often deferred to off-air - was seemingly relegated to the other building during the live game – it was some Arsenal walkover – to instead watch a Chelsea match that they’d later show highlights of. It’s a formula that they used a lot; three of them, including Kerr, would preview a match and then he’d be ditched to return about 15 minutes after full time. It was only recently I appreciated how I’d have made the same decision because Kerr’s job was so much tougher. For the game he was covering, there was no commentator and co-commentator to colour the storyline in real-time for the audience at home, no obvious flashpoints that everyone in the country was already discussing and less ad breaks to cut it up and break the analysis down to six-minute-long segments between three people. No, his job was to watch a more obscure game alone, pick out the highlights himself and then analyse an entire match that neither the viewers or Tommy Martin had seen, and to do it all on his own. Thinking about it, to have anyone else try that role when Brian Kerr is at your disposal wouldn’t be short of lunacy.
You see, whilst Eamon Dunphy seems to own the patent on the term ‘greatest football brain’ and reserves it exclusively for John Giles, it’s a disservice to Ireland’s most reliable encyclopaedia to automatically rule him out of the discussion.
The reason Kerr is such an easy man to gravitate towards is because it’s even easier to understand just how difficult it would be to really understand the depth of his football knowledge. And, amazingly, he doesn’t even realise the impact his brain and his mouth – which somehow manages to keep up – is having on the football-loving nation.
So, I tell him that his punditry is getting some reaction – I want to be his friend too, after all – and his modesty isn’t forced when his reply is a genuine question, ‘is it?’
He’s not on social media so he doesn’t see or feel the instant weight of his words but he just takes heart in the idea that some of his work might be paying back Virgin Media Television who’ve gone massive on international football, with nightly games, big-name guests and all this still in Nations League season. The small-talk causes a delay in recording though because Kerr is listing out the six games he covered from Thursday to Tuesday and that leads to him trying to recall the name of the Bulgarian midfielder who he liked the look of during their game with Slovenia.
He might forget a face if it’s someone he met at a fundraising dinner years ago but it’s like he never truly forgets a game of football. As if, on some level, they’re all stored away up there in some form forever and anything at any time can trigger the moments buried deeper in the archives if he really needs them.
He can instantly go back 50 years if you want him to and go right back to the 1969/70 season with Crumlin United. Kerr was only 13 when he took up his first coaching role with the club but it was three years later that he masterminded an undefeated season with the under-12 team. Even with all the experience he’s had and all the unbelievable success at every level, his eyes light up remembering those 11-year-olds he had whipped into shape and he could tell you the team too because he had to dig out all the old notes he made, the stats he recorded and the clippings he kept just to confirm recently that he actually did take them the whole season unbeaten and it wasn’t just romantic reminiscence playing tricks on his mind.
That level of pure, genuine love and prolonged expertise in the biggest sport in the world means that even one of the most Dublin men in Dublin will find it hard from time to time to get himself from A to B in this chunk of the earth, where he’s very much a part of the salt of, without a like-minded individual stopping him to just shoot the breeze, or to remind him of the last time they shot it.
Before the interview, a friend asked me to drop his name to Kerr – they used to work together, he says. “Tell him I said, ‘Leicester, 3 o’clock kick-off,’” he’s laughing now. “He’ll know what it means.” I didn’t tell him. To be honest, I was still doubting if they actually worked together because I couldn’t understand why Kerr would be doing shifts updating the website but, again, it was an example that brought home the unique standing he has in the capital city. It’s not that people would envy you if you told them you’re interviewing Brian Kerr, they’d just want to make sure that you know that they know him.
As part of his visit to the office, Volkswagen bring the European Championship trophy around. It’s a good way to drum up publicity because a building full of people working in media want a picture with the cup and they’ll do it with the brand logo in the background and whatever the campaign message is that they’re driving and those photos and messages will surface all over the internet and, within a day, word is out. There’s a young man who doesn’t care about the silverware though and, instead, he gravitates like everyone does at some stage in their lives to Mr Kerr. He doesn’t ask for a picture with the trophy, he wants one with Brian. But it’s not a selfie he’s after either, not an arm around the shoulder, but a photo of the pair of them shaking hands. Shaking hands. For whatever reason, I conclude that only Brian Kerr would be asked for a photo like that.
It’s interesting that his biggest fan on the day is a 21-year-old because he’d have been just seven the last time Kerr was working for Ireland in any capacity. And yet, 14 years after the man who had given almost two full decades of both voluntary and professional service to the FAI was let go never to be used since, his talent, his experience and his unrivalled passion for the Irish game is still powerfully palpable.
In fact, it’s getting hard to just enjoy Brian Kerr as a pundit because the better his ideas get and the sharper his tone, the more frustrating it becomes wondering why he hasn’t been contacted about any job in the FAI since 2005. It gets scarier every week to consider that one of the best coaches and football men in Irish history could even be allowed to go unused. Liam Brady said it was disgraceful that he isn’t at least involved in youth development and it’s not like Brian Kerr rejects advances or even plays it coy.
“It’s for other people to answer,” is the best he can explain what on earth is going on.
“It’s almost embarrassing for me that Liam would talk in that fashion but, equally, you could look at Liam and say what part has he played in Irish football other than being involved in Trapattoni’s regime for a period of time, with all the experience he had at Arsenal?
“And that is a problem across the game. We don’t have football people involved in the decision-making process in the FAI. We have a board of 52 or 53 people and a chief executive. None of them, in my understanding, have any great background in football, as managers, as coaches, as players. They have great background in administration.
“But me personally, from the day that I got a letter from the FAI – I didn’t even get a phone call, I got a letter from the FAI – telling me that my contract was not being renewed, I haven’t had any contact or any phone calls.
“I get the odd email about coaching courses in terms of maintaining my coaching qualifications but, other than that, I haven’t had any contact with them whatsoever.”
After his stint with the senior team came to an end without qualification to the 2006 World Cup, it maybe would’ve been just a natural thing that the outgoing manager would no longer be involved with the Association, but only if he hadn’t had such success previously and become so important and so ingrained in the bigger picture for football in this country.
Kerr might well be the only person to lead an Irish team to major trophies – and he did it twice in one year in 1998, winning the Euros with the under-16s and under-18s, as well as finishing third in the ’97 World Youth Championships – but the impact of his work was felt right down to grassroots coaching, it was enjoyed by the League of Ireland and it was integral in the development of the very best prospects in their most crucial teenage years.
“I had worked and volunteered with the FAI for five years with Liam Tuohy in the early eighties where Liam had lots of success. We were at three European finals and a World Cup. We got the semi-final of the European Championships and it was brilliant.
And then I had nine, nearly 10, good years with a lot of success with the underage teams.
“It was probably a short spell with the international team but, you know…” you can tell it still hurts. “We weren’t far away.”
A decade and a half after cutting ties with him completely, every one of those organisms that Kerr was once breathing life into are in perilous condition.
The problems facing the domestic league have become compounded and, despite success stories and a decent production line of players in that time, it’s still struggling to get the recognition it should have from its own country. If it’s not an identity crisis that hangs over its head, it’s certainly an existential one as, most recently, Martin O’Neill led the way in reaffirming the idea that you can’t really be a top player until you’ve made it out of Ireland and into England.
Whilst, all along, the means are suffering, the end is a far cry from success at major tournaments – despite an apparent emphasis on capturing short-term satisfaction by whatever method - and qualification for two of the last eight senior championships hit home the stark reality that there just hasn’t been anyone anywhere near the same levels of the like of Duff and Roy and Robbie Keane come through – never mind a consistent supply line of top players, Champions League finalists like Irwin, Finnan and O’Shea, and some of the most influential players to go across the water and thrive in the highest tier, like Shay Given and Richard Dunne.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, maybe it was just luck but, when Kerr was involved in Irish football development through the eighties and nineties and into the early noughties, these sort of players were produced and they were maintained. Now, anyone who shows any sort of talent is shipped over to England at 16 because it’s a cheap investment that clubs can afford to take a hit on when they decide that they no longer want the same players at 18. They leave school, they live away from home in a new country and join a different, harsher and much vaster system and only a tiny, tiny minority of them come through after all of it.
When I worked in Derry, we lost count of the number of feel-good stories we’d do of these 16-year-olds being signed by United, Ipswich, Leeds, Watford – it felt like every few weeks some youngster with a steel in his eyes was coming into the office to have his picture taken to be placed alongside words to some effect of ‘next big thing’. Whilst you can celebrate the success of the like of Darron Gibson and Shane Duffy and Shane Ferguson who all went over as teenagers and carved a professional career for themselves, we’d never be doing the follow-up story to the rest of them – most of them - who were back home at 17 or 18 having been spat out by the system and fallen completely out of love with football.
Mikhail Kennedy is still a hot prospect for Charlton despite having his career recently stalled with a year-long injury. He had been banging in the goals through the English underage divisions and did so for the club’s senior side too when he got a chance but he’d be the first to warn any Irish youngster of the tough reality of chasing that dream at 16. He’d experienced his own strife with homesickness and watched his younger brother join him in London but not adapt to the environment as well. In fact, when he first went over to Charlton Athletic, there were five Irish players in that set-up, he’s the only one of them still there whilst the other four aren’t even playing football anymore.
For Brian Kerr, who oversaw a more successful period of elevating Irish players to professional football, it’s a structural issue. And it’s a crying shame that we can’t keep top players here as another viable option – even a back-up one.
“That’s the unfortunate part of it all,” Kerr says.
“Every young fella wants to become a star player or a professional footballer and so do the majority of their parents as well. So, if there's a chance of them fulfilling that dream, they do their best to make that happen.
“The problem here in Ireland is the alternative to that hasn't been provided frequently enough in the past and that's where there's a huge deficiency in the model of Irish football.
“The League of Ireland clubs haven't been strong enough, haven't had the resources, haven't had the coaches, the backroom staff, the finances, the training grounds to support a professional structure that allows the best young players to come into it, stay in it for a reasonable amount of time, maybe stay in it until their football careers finish or graduate onto a higher level of football in Britain or throughout Europe.
“That hasn't been available to them. The first stop for the potentially most brilliant players is we go to England at 15, 16, 17 years of age and you go into a whole, totally different environment where it's hard for young Irish kids to adapt to. Only the strongest survive. They also need a bit of luck to make a breakthrough at first team level.
“Unfortunately, many of them come back home with their tail between their legs. No party for them when they come back, falling out of love with football, no academic qualifications, no qualifications to do any little work. They don't find it too easy to go back into an academic background and we haven't provided enough structures or support to those kids over the years.
“Please God, in the future, we will provide a structure, a proper academy and structure that allows the best players to maintain and find their way academically that gives them a base that they can go into another career if football doesn't provide a career.”
Sounds reasonable, sounds necessary and, to be honest, it sounds absolutely urgent. If the reality of professional sport is that only a fraction will make it in the end, how on earth can Ireland as a nation still be satisfied with the dominant model where you throw teenagers on a plane and send them to far-off lands in the hope that it won’t break them? Even though the great chance is that it will absolutely break them because of the sheer numbers, the math involved in football and, worse still, this way, we’ll have no say or influence in the process in Ireland because we’ve packed their suitcases for them and effectively washed our hands at the first sign of a good first touch.
“Let's face it, for the majority of kids, it doesn't provide a professional lifestyle or wage that means that they can prosper and bring up a family and buy a house and so on. Football... it's a miniscule number of players that get that opportunity and that lifestyle.
“So there's got to be a lot more emphasis on academic or, let's say, qualifications. They might be in a trade. Not necessarily everyone has to become a scientist or an accountant but people who have a gifted ability with their hands should be encouraged to perform, to get involved in trades and get qualifications serving an apprenticeship as well as their football.
“Whatever it is to be, their future has to be provided for and we haven't done that in Ireland.
“We've provided the dream. We have emerging talent programmes, we have international teams, we have trials for players going to England, we have players getting signed up for English clubs but we don't provide the alternative to that and that has to be the future of Irish football.
“There has to be investment and it has to be thought through well and it needs to be delivered on.
“Unfortunately we're miles away from that at the moment.”
And for whatever reason, we’re also miles away from Brian Kerr now and have been for 14 years.
One of the most successful coaches in Irish football, one of the brightest brains and one of the most passionate men, not just about this sport but about this country, is lying on the doorstep but simply being stepped over every morning as we all go in search of sustainable solutions in this, a time of crisis.
Brian Kerr might not have all the answers but he has experience and he has ideas and, more than anything, he has a willingness to see football in Ireland thrive. But he hasn’t even been asked.
“If anyone ever wants any advice from me, they can come to me.
“Lots of people do,” he says.
“But the Association certainly don’t.”