FAI should go back to the future for U21 coach
WITH a little hindsight it's possible to look back at the year 2003 as the great lost opportunity in Irish football. Mick McCarthy had called time on a mixed seven years as Ireland senior manager. The net was cast far and wide for a replacement, ultimately luring the smallest fish in the shallow waters close to shore. Brian Kerr was anointed in a glitzy ceremony in the Shelbourne Hotel and a five-year slump followed.
Kerr wasn't entirely to blame for this. The problem was in the timing. Still reeling from the stinging rebuke of the Genesis report, what better way for FAI officials to curry favour than by appointing the most popular man in Irish football to a job he patently wasn't ready for? Only one, then treasurer John Delaney, argued for an alternative approach but he was drowned out by those surfing the populist wave.
Ultimately, Delaney would climb on board the dubious Brian Robson train but, before that, he had floated the sensible notion of Kerr working under an experienced, high-profile candidate. But there were no takers for it, least of all Kerr himself. A better career path, though, would have seen Kerr follow his miraculous underage exploits by taking over at the helm of the U21 team.
There was no vacancy at the time, of course. But there should have been. It wasn't just Don Givens' poor record as manager, but the fact that, from the beginning, he had professed no ambition to go further in the game. In most advanced football nations, underage teams are seen as a pathway not just for players, but coaches too. Why should we be any different here?
Imagine how things might have been. A Roy Hodgson or Kenny Dalglish mopping up the mess left from the summer of 2002, Kerr gaining another foothold on the international ladder, the embarrassment of two years under Steve Staunton a nightmare that might never have happened. Perhaps too we could have been spared the outrageous splurge on a decorated Italian and the questionable reliance on a wealthy businessman's wallet.
We are where we are, of course. And for all the FAI spin about progress and development, you have to strain your eyes to see any signs. The senior team is half-decent now but the League continues inexorably on its downward spiral. The senior manager and high-performance director are both foreigners which isn't especially notable except that the best football coach this island has ever produced is currently working miracles for the Faroe Islands. Isn't there something odd about that?
Suddenly a bit of wiggle room appears. Givens is gone and the job which might have been his several years ago is there for Kerr now. Whether he would want anything to do with it is debatable, of course. Kerr probably hasn't forgiven the powers that be for his summary dismissal in 2006 and taking a step down to the 21s, especially while the man who oversaw his departure continues in his role as chief executive, might be too bitter a pill to swallow.
He has simply too much to offer, however, for the notion not to be explored. And at a time when the flavour of the national team is likely to be further diluted by the appliance of more liberal eligibility laws, it has never seemed more critically important that talented home-grown players and coaches are brought into the fold and given the best possible chance of remaining there.
It is why the question of who succeeds Givens is so fundamentally vital and one the FAI must not botch. A lazy appointment from the English leagues or another foreign-based coach will simply send the wrong signal. Whoever it is must be assured that the job is both an apprenticeship and a trial for the senior job. Kerr is the best home-grown candidate but there are others too, Pat Fenlon and Stephen Kenny among them.
Fenlon has been one of the brightest coaching talents in the country for the guts of a decade and, a stint as Ireland U23 manager apart, it doesn't ever seem to have occurred to anyone that bringing him into the national set-up, even in a part-time capacity, would be a worthwhile investment for individual and country. It won't necessarily turn bright young coaches into world-class managers, but can it be any worse than appointing a self-styled disciplinarian with no ambition and giving him free rein for 10 years?
The next U21 international isn't scheduled until August, but there's no reason for the FAI to delay with an appointment that will say much about their vision for the future. Not with so many obvious candidates staring them in the face. And if they swallow their pride and agree that everyone deserves a second chance, then they will know that it is time to bring Kerr home.