Sport Premier League

Saturday 16 December 2017

Brian Kerr: Dealing with Premier League managers isn't easy - I remember getting calls from Ferguson and Mourinho

If the FAI want to solve their problems with Ronald Koeman, the best place to start is by getting Martin O'Neill to pick up the phone

Brian Kerr with Roy Keane during his time as Ireland manager. Photo: Sportsfile
Brian Kerr with Roy Keane during his time as Ireland manager. Photo: Sportsfile

Brian Kerr

I am walking along the pier in Howth on St Patrick's Day. All around me, people are smiling and laughing. The sun is shining and my mobile is ringing. I take it out of my pocket, look at the screen, and read the name.

Alex Ferguson.

My instinct is to answer but instead I opt to wait until I'm back in my house and back in work mode - deliberately choosing to switch off from football for another hour or so, figuring the conversation with Alex was unlikely to be cordial.

This is 2004. A month earlier, we'd held a Brazilian side containing a forward line of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka to a scoreless draw. A year earlier, we'd lost a different kind of battle, the one to persuade Roy Keane to come out of international retirement.

Martin O’Neill offers words of encouragement to James McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill offers words of encouragement to James McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile

Yet by St Patrick's Day, 2004 - the process to get Roy back into the fold had secretly resumed. Within three weeks, we'd meet but before then I was due to announce my squad for the friendly against the Czech Republic, three days before Manchester United were taking on Arsenal's Invincible side in the FA Cup semi-final.

Out of Europe and out of the running for the league, the FA Cup was United's only realistic chance of silverware that season. And all of this is going through my mind as I finish my walk, drive back to my gaff and try to call Ferguson back.

Injuries

The phone rings out.

I try him at his home number - eventually getting him - before listening to his request. "Look Brian, we've a load of injuries and I need John (O'Shea) for that semi-final," he said. "We can't afford to have anyone else ruled out."

"No problem," I reply. "I won't name him in the squad."

And I didn't - leaving him, Liam Miller - who was also at United back then - plus Sunderland's Gary Breen, who was playing against Millwall in the other semi-final, out of my panel for the Czech game, figuring the potential was there for me to look for bigger favours at some stage down the line.

"Thanks for that Brian," Ferguson said. "I won't let you down when it comes to releasing players for any competitive games."

Sure enough, he didn't. Even when Roy agreed to come back - and was finalising his recovery from a rib injury just before a crucial World Cup qualifier in Basel against Switzerland, there were no complaints from Ferguson to me about the fact we had played him, although Roy, interestingly, said in his book that Alex was "f**king mad" with him when he returned to his club.

Crucially, though, United's club doctor had passed Roy fit and given the mutual respect which existed between the medical teams of Ireland and United, a constant line of communication was always open. As it would be now with every Premier League club - given that most of the Irish medical team who worked alongside me, Dr Alan Byrne, Dr Martin Walsh, Professor John O'Byrne and physio Ciarán Murray - are still with the FAI. All of them are highly respected and astute men, who in my time managing Ireland, impressed me hugely not just with their medical brilliance but also the way they liaised with their fellow professionals in England and Scotland, where the bulk of our players were based.

I've no doubt that mutual respect between the FAI's medical team and those Premier League clubs will still be there, yet I have also no doubt there will be an awkwardness between them and Everton now, given what happened between Ronald Koeman and Martin O'Neill in the last fortnight.

As public spats go, this one was fairly extraordinary, given that we are talking about two highly-regarded men, whose excellent playing careers have been followed by impressive careers in management.

Both are fine communicators, too, and yet we have come to a situation where we are having a squabble that is almost akin to a tit-for-tat playground exchange.

You wonder how it got this far and when I reflected earlier this week on my own exchanges with club managers during my spell in charge of Ireland, I struggled to remember too many tense moments, although one, in particular, stood out.

Ahead of a friendly international, and hit by withdrawals, I desperately needed players and desperately needed a favour. So I rang this guy, who'd been recently installed in a job, and casually sought information on a player who'd told me he was available if needed.

"You're not getting him," this manager, a decorated former international player, said to me.

"He's ours. Not yours. He needs treatment."

Irritated by the manner of his tone, and complete lack of respect I was being shown, I weighed up the idea of giving him a piece of my mind but thought it wasn't the time or place, aware that in a scenario where clubs were paying players huge amounts of money to be their asset, and that we were loaned those players for about 40 days a year, there were times when you had to fight a battle and times when you had to pretend to be Henry Kissinger.

"Best of luck with your game at the weekend," I said, not meaning a word of it.

I meant every word of my next - and only other - argument with a different Premier League manager, though.

This time I was the one taking the call, which came a day after I had spoken to one of our internationals about how he was settling in at his new club.

"Who the f**k do you think you are to be speaking to one of my players?" this manager said to me.

"Well, who do you think you are to talk that way to me," I shouted back.

"I've been speaking to this lad since he was 16 years old and I'm not going to stop now."

But here's the thing. You never had these snarling type of conversations with the top managers.

Ferguson and Jose Mourinho were so self-assured they didn't need to resort to any kind of territory-marking behaviour. Realising you had a job to do - even though that job conflicted with theirs - they let you get on with it.

It was a world of give and take. I was aware what Ferguson said to his players, when they were leaving Old Trafford before an international friendly, that he only wanted them to play 45 minutes of the match, but because the information was passed on second-hand, and because I was in the results business, I didn't pay a huge amount of attention to his wish.

Yet when he wanted O'Shea and Miller left with him in preparation for that FA Cup semi-final, I didn't have a problem facilitating the request, firstly because it was perfectly reasonable, secondly because it came directly from him and thirdly because you knew a time would come when you'd be the one asking for a dig-out.

Those issues aside, Ferguson had once, albeit briefly, been an international manager, back in 1985-'86, when he stepped into the breach following Jock Stein's sudden death. And like other Premier League managers at that time who'd all previously held international positions - Gerard Houllier, Bobby Robson, Kevin Keegan, Glenn Hoddle - there was a much greater understanding of my job spec and pressures.

While all four men were especially helpful, they weren't the only ones. Looking back now, I realise how lucky I was with the managers I was dealing with. Despite the perception they were all egomaniacs, I found them unbelievably courteous, often going way beyond the call of duty.

"Can I give you a lift anywhere?" Graeme Souness would often ask. Alan Curbishley once took a two-hour detour from his journey home to drop me to the airport. Martin O'Neill, then in charge of Celtic, was also always easy to deal with.

And the generosity didn't stop when I left the job, Mourinho being one of a handful of managers who wrote letters to me after my dismissal, wishing me well. He was especially good to deal with. So too were Everton.

The way things worked was this. If you wanted to check out of one your players, you'd ring the club in advance to arrange tickets - often texting the manager the day before the game to check if the Ireland players were likely to feature.

So, in September 2003, when I arrived early at Goodison Park for Everton's game against Newcastle United, their office manager told me to hang tight because David Moyes wanted to speak to me. Next thing I knew I was walking down this narrow corridor, around a corner, up the stairs and onto the pitch.

"How are you, Brian?" David said, gesturing for me to go for a walk with him, as he asked me how the job was going and what my thoughts were about the possibility of Kevin Kilbane - who was making his debut that day - relocating to left-back.

After shooting the breeze for 10 or 15 minutes, David casually said he had a few things to do but insisted on walking me to an executive lounge where he asked the head waiter to "make sure Brian gets properly looked after".

There and then, my mind drifted back to the great Irish players of Everton's past - back to Peter Farrell and Tommy Eglington, Peter Corr, Jimmy O'Neill, Don Donovan and Mick Meagan.

Kevin Sheedy and later Kevin Kilbane and Lee Carsley kept the link alive and when Roberto Martinez brought Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy to the club to join the already signed Seamus Coleman and Darron Gibson, memories of Everton once being known as 'Ireland's club' were rekindled.

All of which makes this recent breakdown in relations all the more remarkable. The suspicion is that the lack of personal contact between Martin and Ronald Koeman is the problem. Plus, you wonder if Roy's comment last November - "When did Everton last win anything?" - unnerved people in the club's hierarchy.

What strikes me is that this argument could - and should - have been sorted privately, yet it predates Koeman's time and goes back to when Martinez was manager and Bill Kenwright was chairman.

Then Roy spoke about how he "half-expected Everton players to be arriving into the team hotel on crutches".

Kenwright responded publicly, Martinez too.

Withering

And then last Friday night Koeman and O'Neill took the dispute to a new level, Koeman berating O'Neill and Ireland at a press conference, O'Neill issuing a withering statement in response, Koeman reacting to O'Neill's reaction by tweeting a sarcastic clarification.

Watching this all bellowing across the Irish Sea unfold, I simply couldn't understand why this wasn't addressed by a private conversation between the pair.

Nor could I get my head around the weak leadership shown not just by Everton's board but also the FAI's, given how a public exchange of smart-alecky comments is neither nice nor classy for a club of Everton's standing, history and reputation to be involved in. Equally, the FAI have lacked the strength of leadership to challenge Martin prior to the release of his statement.

And in the middle of all this is James McCarthy - a player who chose, as a teenager, to play for the country of his grandparents, at a time when he was playing for Hamilton Academical and getting dogs abuse from opposing fans, week after week, for doing so. Considering this was happening during his formative years, there's clearly a steeliness within him.

He'll need that now. Koeman hasn't showed much faith in him this season and now has criticised him publicly. All of which makes you feel - or fear - he and O'Neill won't be arguing about James McCarthy next season, because the player will be moved on.

Irish Independent

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