Sport Soccer

Wednesday 21 March 2018

'If Kerr was boss for that he'd have been shot in Kilmainham'

Gary Doyle

It was getting close to midnight by the time Johnny McDonnell drove into his driveway.

Overhead, the black sky reflected the darkness of his mood. Earlier that evening, he had watched Germany knock six goals past Ireland and when he stopped to think about all that went wrong, his thoughts ranged from bitterness to resignation and then back to rage.

Now 47, McDonnell is the ultimate football man, a straight-talking, unpretentious lifer in the coaching world who worked his way up to international level after a schooling in the League of Ireland.

So Friday hurt. Hurt because he knows how many people care about Irish football and how deep that passion goes. Yet in Giovanni Trapattoni, he sees little more than a mercenary whose laziness is shamefully indulged by the FAI, a situation he finds deplorable.

"If that was me or someone like Pat Fenlon or Brian Kerr who presided over that performance," he says, "then we'd be brought up to Kilmainham and shot. People would say, 'sure, what do you expect? They're just League of Ireland men. What do they know?'

"I'll tell you now what I know. I know it's over with Trapattoni. He's past it. The game has moved on but he hasn't."


McDonnell has a great affinity with the Faroe Islands. "I've been around the world a few times now," he says, "but I'd never even been to Kerry until a couple of years ago when Brian (Kerr) asked me to go to the Faroes. It's precisely how I'd imagine Kerry to be -- without quite as much All-Ireland success."

Instead, success there is usually measured by the narrowness of their defeats. Seven years ago, they held Ireland for 50 minutes before fatigue and Ian Harte got the better of them.

In the last qualification campaign, they drew with Northern Ireland, beat Estonia and struck the woodwork twice against Italy before losing 1-0.

By now, McDonnell was their assistant manager. Captain of St Pat's under Kerr, when they won League of Ireland titles in 1990 and 1996, some disingenuously reckoned he was on a jobs-for-the-boys junket when he arrived in Torshavn with a clipboard in one hand and a set of training cones in the other.

"Brian has hundreds of friends," McDonnell says. "He didn't pick me because I'd have a laugh over a few pints with him. He trusted my ability."

In the last decade, while the League of Ireland continued to self-destruct off the park, it also housed hidden gems. In time, over a dozen players would progress to the Premier League, yet while the likes of Kevin Doyle and James McClean famously made their mark, the men at the heart of the revival, the managers, continued to be successful beneath the radar.

McDonnell was one of them. Six times he brought Irish club sides into European action. Six times he avoided defeat on home soil, with his victory over 2006 Swedish champions Elfsborg confirming -- in his own head -- that he could hack it at the highest level.

"People are always scoffing at the League of Ireland," he says. "But, despite our limited resources, we got the better of five different Swedish sides, a couple of Croatian teams and some big hitters from Scotland, Poland, Holland, Serbia and Russia in the last 10 years."

McDonnell's experience intensified in the Faroes, where for two years he and Kerr turned a conference room in the hotel where Ireland are staying this week into a football version of a war office, its tables covered in dossiers, tactic sheets and DVDs.

What McDonnell and Kerr noticed with the Faroese was the depth of pride they had in their shirt and how stellar opposition rarely fazed them.

"Ireland certainly won't scare them. The Faroes have faced Italy, Germany, Serbia, Slovenia in the last couple of years. Those teams come with a plan. With Ireland under Trapattoni, it is like the old schoolteacher who made us learn by rote. There is a plan, alright. It's just an outdated one."

Tonight, we'll see if it will be enough to revive a campaign which crashed on Friday. And watching it will be McDonnell. Ireland may be his country but the Faroes -- six months after resigning -- are his team.

Irish Independent

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