King's road winds to new heights . . .
Colourful manager has defied critics and can leave a lasting legacy in underage football
AS the heroes of the Irish U-17 ladies side come down to earth from their incredible World Cup adventure by returning to school, it is time for the man who took them to Trinidad and Tobago to prepare for the most important examination of his football life.
For Noel King, the road to responsibility has been long and winding. But with the dust now settling on his team's courageous exploits in the Caribbean, the Dubliner is facing into a very different kind of challenge.
He is the man in charge of the second most important national team in the country, with more eyes than ever on the fortunes of the U-21 side after the belated acceptance from the FAI hierarchy that change was required following a decade of uninspiring results and far too much angst under Don Givens.
To some, replacing 61-year-old Givens with 54-year-old King was considered an unimaginative step. There's a school of thought which argues -- understandably enough perhaps -- that the underage managing jobs should be used to groom up-and-coming coaches, particularly recently-retired players who are looking to stay in the game and further their educations. They didn't necessarily have to hail from this parish either.
Instead, the FAI plumped for a homegrown option, a step that raised eyebrows in certain quarters.
Like anyone who has spent the majority of his life in the incestuous world of Irish football, King has picked up his share of friends and foes in a colourful career where the playing highlight was his influential role in the first half of Shamrock Rovers' four successive league titles in the 1980s.
Coaching, however, was always his passion. He was already looking that way in his teens, and took his badges in his 20s.
Curiosity about the game took him to France from Milltown, for a brief stint with Valenciennes, before the offer to take over a Derry City team fresh to the League of Ireland brought him home. King was just 29 years of age when he became the Candystripes' player-manager.
As a player with Rovers, he was regarded as their coach on the field. When it came to set-pieces and planning on the park, his train of thought was sharper than many around him. That said, he was no shrinking violet. "He was nasty when he needed to be," recalls one former opponent.
At Derry, with huge crowds and a new full-time era including several foreign recruits, King secured promotion but parted company with the club to eventually be replaced by his old Hoops boss, Jim McLaughlin.
He would eventually end up back at Rovers, taking over as manager at a difficult time in the club's history -- a year after their painful departure from Milltown.
Given the antipathy that existed towards the Kilcoyne family for bringing the Hoops to Tolka Park, it was inevitable that the man in the hot seat would be viewed as a champion for that policy. King hardly dispelled that notion by speaking in favour of the decision, a conviction which was always going to leave him in a difficult place with sections of the dwindling support.
The bottom line is that Rovers were strapped for cash, although the big move to the RDS briefly hinted at a brighter future. King was under pressure to deliver success, with the club requiring large crowds to pay their way in Dublin 4. The writing was on the wall following the FAI Cup final defeat to Galway in 1991. He was gone by the end of the year.
"In some ways, he was a man ahead of his time then," recalls one Rovers player from that era. "He had a great coaching mind, and was keen to experiment with formations. He wanted us to play in a continental style, to try 4-3-3 and other things like that, but it wasn't the right time."
King suffered a period of wilderness in the 90s -- with a League Cup win the highlight of his tenure in Limerick. Despite his vast knowledge of the game, he was passed over for big jobs; perhaps acrimonious departures from Derry and Rovers had blotted his copybook. Brief spells with Shelbourne and Finn Harps at the beginning of this century gave him a way back into the senior game but, in reality, the most significant step he took was assuming control of the Irish ladies side in 2000.
He was initially able to fulfil those duties in tandem with other commitments, before he began to channel his energies fully into the development of the women's game here.
Working with your country suits an astute coaching brain, who can get stuck in on the training ground without the pressures of buying and selling, and dealing with chairmen and the other characters with vested interests who dominate club matters.
Of course, it helped that he'd already enjoyed a taste of the highest level of the international game. As national coaching director of the FAI, he was invited along by Jack Charlton to join his back-room team for the incredible Italia '90 adventure. For King, it was a formative, illuminating experience.
"When I was with the squad, I was taking notes, learning why he was doing what," recalled King recently. "I had some time in the hotel with Jack and Maurice Setters -- he opened up and let me in, which was remarkable. I was fascinated by the whole thing. I was there as a student, really -- I used to run around and play in the training matches with the lads."
Over a decade on, he gradually began to implement his own ideas on the ladies game, delivering steady improvement that culminated with the spectacular performances of the U-17 side in the last 12 months.
Reaching the last eight in the world, when Ireland's resources are meagre compared to other nations who take the girls game very seriously, was a remarkable achievement. It was enough to convince high performance director Wim Koevermans to opt for King as Givens' successor, with a bit of help from the volcanic ash which brought Europe to a standstill back in April.
Koevermans was in Ukraine to watch King steer his charges through to the European finals. Alas, they couldn't get home to celebrate that historic achievement. Instead, they were stranded in Crimea, and then Istanbul, until the cloud passed.
The joke in FAI circles at the time was that it gave King extra time to lobby Koevermans with respect to the U-21 gig. The real clincher, however, was Ireland's achievement in reaching the final of the Euros, and the manner in which a happy, functioning camp was constructed.
Under Givens, there was little to smile about in the U-21 dressing room. His uncompromising style polarised opinion. Idiosyncratic youngsters were exiled. The replacement needed to be understanding. In that respect, King, who possesses his own idiosyncrasies, fitted the bill.
For the opening victory over Estonia in Tallaght last month, he retained Givens' 4-5-1 formation.
The difference was the atmosphere around the camp. With a clean slate for those who had fallen foul of his predecessor, a liberated Anthony Stokes shone.
To many of the UK-based players, King was an unfamiliar character. But his hands-on approach on the training ground, in contrast to Givens, won them over.
"They will enjoy his sessions," observes another of his former players.
Stokes is 22 now, though, and King's responsibility will be the tutelage of the next generation. It's an exciting crop. There's Robert Brady of Manchester United and Conor Clifford of Chelsea to name just two. Shane Duffy will come under his remit as well. Important players for Ireland's future.
The FAI are satisfied with the appointment. Around Abbotstown, King is a popular character, albeit a straight talker who won't mince his words if something needs to be said.
The feeling, admits one staff member, is that the appointment represented a big break for "one of their own".
It has offered a man steeped in Irish football a real chance to leave a positive legacy.