Sport Soccer

Saturday 17 February 2018

Noel King - a man for all seasons

Noel King has wasted no time in getting down to work as Ireland's caretaker manager
Noel King has wasted no time in getting down to work as Ireland's caretaker manager
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

NOEL KING is a well-known man in Irish football circles and he was prepared for the avalanche of phonecalls which came his way.

As Ireland U-21 manager, King is readily accessible. The elevation to caretaker senior boss brings a whole new level of attention, however, and, as Brian Kerr once found out, a phone number that everybody knows can quickly become a hindrance.

King headed off the flurry of press queries at the pass by simply altering his voicemail. Those who dialled his number were greeted by a simple message.

"Hi, it's Noel," came the cheery voice, "I am delighted to have been named caretaker manager for the next two games and I'm looking forward to naming the squad on Friday."

There was no invitation to leave a message after the beep but, if anybody bothered, you can be sure they joined a long list.

As it happens, the demands of his interim gig have moved the goalposts anyway with the official announcement of the panel for October's World Cup dead rubbers put back to Monday as he attends to business in England.

The 57-year-old has enjoyed a diverse career, but this opportunity will bring him into uncharted territory.

BRUISING

His last official outing in his day job was a bruising 4-0 defeat at the hands of a talented Germany side in an U-21 qualifier at the Showgrounds, 24 hours before Giovanni Trapattoni's last stand in Austria.

By a twist of fate, King will spend his next fortnight plotting a way to take on Joachim Loew's senior team on their own turf, in a game in which the Germans are aiming to book their place in next summer's World Cup in Brazil.

But he will have to plan without John O'Shea and Richard Dunne for that exercise.

There'll be plenty of people in the Irish football community wishing him all the best. It may be a warped world with enough grudges to sustain a series of 'The Sopranos', but 'Kinger' is quite a popular character.

Indeed, in the context of Giovanni Trapattoni's comments about there being "no league in Ireland" which fuelled feelings of anger and disconnect, the stop-gap is very much a grassroots man.

The Dubliner is a former Home Farm, Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk, Bohemians, Derry and Limerick player who managed the latter two clubs, as well as having a high-profile stint at Rovers and a brief time at Finn Harps. In other words, he's crossed a lot of paths.

As a player, he was uncompromising, an enforcer, but coaching was always his passion and he favoured a considered approach.

He earned his first badges as a teenager and took a break from the League of Ireland to line out for French side Valenciennes where he broadened his education.

When the 1990 World Cup came around, he was the FAI's national coaching director and Jack Charlton invited him to join the back-room team.

It was an eye-opening experience that he appreciated, although his philosophy on the game would have been different.

One theory about his struggles as manager of Shamrock Rovers, a post he assumed in a difficult time post-Milltown, is that his ideas were ahead of their time, with his fondness for a varying of formations out of tune with their needs at that juncture.

In the late 90s, his managerial career had stalled and he was engaged in punditry work with TV3 – a dalliance that led to 'Apres Match' treatment.

It was the opportunity to take over the Irish women's team in 2000 which gave him a new lease of life, with the highlight of his decade in that field actually coming at underage level when he steered the U-17 girls to the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup.

The FAI had appointed him as Don Givens' replacement before that adventure in Trinidad and Tobago and he has impressed in that role, making the team competitive again, with a 4-2 away qualifying win over Italy last year the highlight.

Qualification for a European Championship remains a steep task and he would have preferred if Trapattoni had made the likes of Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick available when they were benchwarming at senior level.

He may find himself in a bizarre dilemma now if his regular assistant, Harry McCue, wants Brady for their important qualifier with Romania next month.

Ruud Dokter, the FAI's new high performance director, will help King out for the Germany and Kazakhstan preparations.

If the FAI had failed to land the Dutchman, then King would have represented a popular choice.

He is still a visible presence on training fields around the country – he served as lead tutor on the last UEFA Pro Licence course – and is always on call for schoolboy clubs who want a guest speaker to develop ideas.

His offspring have also moved into the coaching sphere and, in his spare time, he still finds room for a weekly training session with an U-14 team in the North Dublin Schoolboys League.

When he articulated his thoughts on this dramatic change of tack through the medium of the FAI last night, he referenced his journey from the bottom up.

"It's logical that you want to progress through the levels as a manager," he said, adding that he was inspired and delighted by the opportunity, but was also realistic about where it might lead.

Frank Stapleton, a former Irish schoolboys team-mate – they debuted against West Germany in 1972 – feels that King is unlikely to do anything too radical when he announces his squad.

"It's a difficult one for him because no matter what he does, it's not going to be a long-term vision," said Stapleton.

"I don't think there will be too many changes. They could bring in players who were maybe on the outside and then it might not work out."

King has hinted at a more ambitious strategy, though.

Initial trips to see Darron Gibson and Stephen Ireland indicate he is thinking outside the box and he is also an Anthony Stokes fan.

"I'd have no reason to block anybody out of the squad," he stressed, "Nobody will be excluded by me and why would I exclude anybody?"

It would be quite a bold move to invite all the exiles back and he'd be doing the next full-time boss a favour by removing the potentially awkward first date from their starting itinerary.

They are good problems to have, though, and given his preference for a flexible 4-3-3, the concluding double header could prove more interesting than initially envisaged.

After a damaging start to September, the FAI's short-term priority is to restore pride and lift morale in the Irish community.

They have placed that responsibility in the hands of a man who lives and breathes in that environment.

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