His unveiling as national team manager was dubbed a “coronation” on Sky Sports News. As a domestic coach he’d guided his club to a first title in over four decades, repeating the feat six years later. From there he was made Technical Director of his national association while also assuming control over underage international sides.
A former lab technician, he applied a forensic mind to coaching and guided his country’s U20s to third place at the World Youth Championship. A year later, in a hazy summer, he managed the national U16 and U18 teams to unprecedented success, both winners of their respective European Championships – the first ever international titles at any level.
In most footballing nations, he’d have earned his shot at leading the senior team and Brian Kerr took the reins of the Irish national squad on a wave of goodwill.
Kerr was a legendary figure at Dublin’s St Patrick’s Athletic and within League of Ireland football. As a youngster, he’d taken his first coaching role at just 15 to manage the Crumlin United under-11 side, realising he was more suited to setting up teams than perhaps helping them to win as a player. So began a love affair with analysing the sport and building an extraordinary database on the Irish game.
His father Frankie was a renowned boxer who’d won six Irish amateur titles in the 1930s. He was also the man who bought his 7-year-old son a season ticket for St Pat’s, sparking a life-long romance.
“I used to stand on a grassy bank on the (River) Camac side,“ Kerr later told RTE Radio’s Des’s Island Discs. “It’s a bit posher now, there’s a terrace and bars and all that, but the Camac is still bubbling along.
“I still stand there, nearly 60 years later. They gave me my first opportunity to manage in the League of Ireland. I was never good enough to play for them. I got to manage them for ten years, lots of ups and downs, but I always had great support.”
In 1992, when his beloved Saints were facing liquidation, Kerr was among the investors who helped to raise money to save the club. Two years’ previously he’d guided an unfancied squad including the likes of Paul Osam and future Ireland international Curtis Fleming to the summit of Irish football, dethroning defending champions Derry City.
In December 1996, he resigned from St Pats having led them to the league crown again that year to take up the role of Technical Director at the FAI. Two years later, he was at the helm as Ireland U16s and U18s became European champions, heights never before reached by an Irish international team. And in 2001, he led Ireland to gold at the Youth Olympics.
It was a triumphant return to underage international management after a bitter end in the 1980s. As assistant to the legendary figure Liam Touhy, Kerr helped steer Irish youth sides to three European Championships and a World Cup. His time ended infamously when senior team manager Jack Charlton stormed into the dressing room at an U19 game and, by criticising the performance, instigated the management duo’s resignation who’d felt they’d been irreparably undermined.
Two matches into the Euro 2004 qualifying campaign, Mick McCarthy stepped down as Ireland manager following a loss to Switzerland at a toxic Lansdowne Road. The fall-out from the infamous Saipan incident that saw Roy Keane leave the Irish camp at the 2002 World Cup was re-animated in the temporary seats of the Dublin 4 stadium as boos rained down on the pitch and chants of “Keano” echoed around the ground. McCarthy wanted no further part and the FAI turned to a man with a knowledge of Irish players bordering on cybernetic.
Brian Kerr took control of team affairs with the backing of most in Irish football, at least on the domestic front. Such is Ireland’s obsession with the British game that, like a later successor Stephen Kenny who made his name for his extraordinary exploits with Dundalk in the League of Ireland, it seemed Kerr had doubters from the start because he’d never managed in England.
British tabloids led with headlines “Brian Who?” while on this side of the Irish Sea, the adage ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ seemed to creep in when sections of the Irish media portrayed the manager as sometimes cranky in his dealings with them.
Inheriting two losses, he faced an uphill battle to qualify Ireland for the Euros in Portugal. He put the team in contention with two games to go but a disappointing draw at home to Russia and defeat away to Switzerland saw the Irish stay at home that summer.
The qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup began positively, with the much vaunted return of Roy Keane to the national squad. A 0-0 draw in Paris in a stadium almost half-full of Irish fans boded well but the surrendering of a 2-0 lead at home to Israel signalled what was to come and ultimately Ireland finished fourth in the group and Kerr’s contract was not renewed.
The manager had felt machinations within the FAI working against him as his time went on, later lamenting the lack of support, and these backroom shenanigans foretold devastating consequences to come for the guardians of Irish football.
It was the start of a needless shunning of a man with vast insight into Ireland’s playing pool and structures by the governing body. Kerr’s later outspoken grievances against the FAI frequently irked then CEO John Delaney who had protected himself from criticism to the extent that media questions were banned at the association’s annual meetings.
It would lead to a catastrophic environment at the governing body which saw Delaney leave in disgrace and the organisation he managed in a financial black hole.
Kerr, the most successful underage manager ever and former international coach later remarked that he might finally get a ticket to an Ireland game with a new leadership in place – a remarkable indictment of his treatment.
Following a spell in charge of the Faroe Islands, the man known as ‘Greener’ became something of a national treasure as a media pundit. His Dublin witticisms and sense of humour have entertained Irish audiences while sometimes bewildering his foreign colleagues such as Graeme Souness and Didi Hamann. Once referring to a pitch as being in “rag order”, or poor condition, a fascinated Souness vowed to incorporate Kerr’s colourful phrase into his own vocabulary.
But it’s among followers of the domestic game where Kerr is truly beloved. When first named as coach of St Patrick’s Athletic, he called it a “dream come true” for a life-long fan. It echoed his sentiments when unveiled as Irish manager all those years later.
“I never had a day where the supporters booed whether the results were good or bad,” he said. “I still love to go down and watch Pat’s and just be a supporter now, and stand on the terraces with the same frustrations and annoyances at times but always going with hope that it’s going to be a good night’s football.”
Having mentored the likes of Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, and John O’Shea through the underage ranks – perhaps the most successful period in Irish footballing history – alleged rumblings of discontent amongst some of Ireland’s Premier League cohort and annoyance at having to sit through opposition videos – a prerequisite at any professional club now – pointed to the fact that perhaps Kerr was ahead of his time.
Fifteen years later, there were similar echoes with Irish manager Stephen Kenny’s struggles to prove the sceptics wrong when faced with those same questions about coming through the League of Ireland.
When his fellow Dubliner first took the Irish job, Kenny said: “Brian will ensure football thrives across the country, his interest won’t be in playing golf and opening pubs.” It was easy to see the impact on Kenny himself who was attempting to leave his own legacy for Irish football.
“The way I look at it is,” Kerr once told the Irish Times, “enjoy the good days because the bad days are poxy.” In ‘Greener’, Kenny, like so many others, had a man who’d paved the path before him.
Image by Matthew Lysaght, a photographer based in Dublin who has been taking photos of people who are better than him at sport since 2017. Instagram: @matthewlysaght
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