Wednesday 22 January 2020

Brian Kerr: Looking at old Liverpool v Man United team-sheets shows just how far Irish football has fallen

There was a time when Irish players dominated at Liverpool and United - those days are gone for good

How Martin O’Neill would love to see Irish players of the quality of Ronnie Whelan, Kevin Moran and Paul McGrath. Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images
How Martin O’Neill would love to see Irish players of the quality of Ronnie Whelan, Kevin Moran and Paul McGrath. Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Brian Kerr

February 9, 1986. Liverpool versus Manchester United.

There were 35,004 people in Anfield that day, witnesses to a 1-1 draw and also to something else.

A little like Monday's forthcoming reunion between the two clubs, there weren't too many Englishmen on show that Saturday afternoon - Zimbabweans, Scots, Welshmen, Ulstermen, Danes and Irishmen filling in the gaps.

And that was why, among the 35,004 customers who made it to Anfield on that February Saturday, a man called Jack Charlton decided there was no better place for him to spend his afternoon.

Six weeks earlier, the FAI had appointed him as their new manager; six weeks later, he took charge of his first game against Wales.

So what better place was there to be than here, on Merseyside, watching three of his players (Mark Lawrenson, Jim Beglin and Ronnie Whelan) move one step closer to a league and cup double, and another three (Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran and Frank Stapleton) feature for the team who'd end that year in fourth position?

Paul McGrath (inset) playing in a Liverpool-Manchester United showdown. Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images
Paul McGrath (inset) playing in a Liverpool-Manchester United showdown. Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

That was the way things were. For his first team selection against Wales on a wet Wednesday in March 1986, Charlton selected five players who'd win league titles with Liverpool in the 1980s, as well as David O'Leary, Liam Brady and McGrath - three of the finest players we've ever produced.


And today? Martin O'Neill will scan the fixture list and come to the conclusion that the most relevant match for him to attend is the one between Bournemouth and Hull or else the game between Stoke and Sunderland.

As for Monday's date between Liverpool and United? Forget about that.

That fixture certainly hasn't meant anything to an Irish manager in at least four years, since Darron Gibson was sold to Everton, but in reality since 2011, when John O'Shea was the last Irish player who regularly featured for either club.

And that has left an impact - an emotional as well as a pragmatic one because there have always been Irish players, from either side of the border, at Old Trafford, dating back to the 1890s. A chain has been broken.

"It's sad Brian," this Manchester United steward said to me last month, the day of the Manchester derby. He must have been in his 60s, old enough to remember the time when the greatest Irish player of all, George Best, was there.

Old enough to remember Tony Dunne arriving from Shelbourne, Kevin Moran from Pegasus, Paul McGrath from St Pat's, picking up Denis Irwin cheaply from Oldham or when they broke the British transfer record for Roy Keane. "And now it's gone," he said, in a thick Mancunian accent. "It's just so sad."

But just so inevitable - because three decades on from that long-forgotten 1-1 draw, the landscape in the British game has changed dramatically. Way back then, the playing personnel and composition of the two teams came largely from the British Isles.

On Monday, there'll be Spaniards, Ecuadorians, Swedes, Germans, Croats, Dutchmen, Belgians, Brazilians, Estonians and a collection of Englishmen - but, significantly, not one player from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.

You ask yourself why all the while knowing you don't have to consider the answer for long. Once there was a tradition - even more so at Old Trafford than at Anfield - of Irishmen playing a major role in the club's identity.

Patrick O'Connell, a Dubliner, was captain of United during the First World War. Jackie Carey wore the armband after the Second World War. Liam Whelan was one of the Busby Babes, John Giles came soon afterwards and then Frank O'Farrell, from Cork, was the United manager, long before the chain was continued by the likes of Gerry Daly, Mick Martin, Moran, McGrath, Stapleton, Irwin, Keane and O'Shea. Those Mancunian-Irish links and respect for old traditions are gone, though. They meant little to David Moyes and absolutely nothing to Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho.

And it isn't just a United thing. There was a time when Liverpool flew to their European games using Aer Lingus' aircraft, a time when Steve Heighway flew down the wing, when they took Whelan from Home Farm, Steve Staunton from Dundalk, Lawrenson, Robinson, Houghton and Aldridge from Brighton and Oxford.

Now, they shop elsewhere. The world has become smaller since the 1980s. Travel is much easier. So is communication. Clubs can monitor the best 11- and 12-year-olds in Africa, South America and Europe and track their progress in a centrally controlled system - something I saw first-hand when I was completing my Pro License in 2008, and Chelsea opened their doors and allowed us to observe their practice.


"How many of your youth team players do you think will break through?" I asked Frank Arnesen, their technical director.

"We're aiming for two each year."

That was eight years ago. Only one - Ryan Bertrand - made it at Stamford Bridge.


In eight years.

So, in this respect, what chance does an Irish player coming from the schoolboy system have at making it at a club like Chelsea? Or Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Arsenal?

When I was Ireland manager, I used to regularly turn up at White Hart Lane to look at Tottenham. And it was well worth my while. Robbie Keane was there; Stephen Kelly, Gary Doherty, Stephen Carr and Andy Reid. They all featured.

Now there isn't an Irish player in sight - and hasn't been since Robbie left. Nor have we seen one in the first team at Anfield since Robbie's brief spell ended in 2009.

Similarly, Chelsea has been an Irish-free zone since Duffer's time came to an end there. As for Arsenal, you have to go back to the last century, pre-Arsene Wenger, for a time when we saw anything approaching an Irish regular in their first-team.

And it's having an effect on the international team, whereas back in the Charlton era, when it was harder to qualify - with only eight places available for the European Championship finals and only 24 for the World Cups - Big Jack could rock up at Highbury and look at David O'Leary, a league winner in 1989 and 1991, or Celtic, where Mick McCarthy, Chris Morris and Packie Bonner won the league and cup double in 1988. Or Goodison Park, where Kevin Sheedy was winning two league titles, a FA Cup and a Cup Winners Cup in the mid-80s.

And if boredom kicked in and he got sick of those places, there was always Anfield or Old Trafford.

Now there isn't that choice. Instead O'Neill and Roy Keane will tune into Monday's game and think the things the rest of us do, about how Liverpool are in a better state than their rivals, how Jurgen Klopp has taken advantage of the year he has had in the job to assess his players and decide who is reliable within the system he is going to play.

Having had an unbroken pre-season with them, he has got their fitness up to the levels he wants them to be at.

The team has not changed that dramatically from the one he had last year but the players he has brought in - Sadio Mane, Georginio Wijnaldum and Joel Matip have made the difference.

Plus the change in goalkeeper from Simon Mignolet - who always looked a bit dodgy - to Loris Karius has had a positive impact.

They look settled and effective; whereas Manchester United's new boys, Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, do not, even though they cost considerably more in the transfer market. Eric Bailly, their signing from Villarreal, is the exception to that rule.

Already, a tone has been set this season. Liverpool, courtesy of their high-energy game-plan where the forward players constant rotation of positions allows them to be inventive and threatening - are looking strong.

Since drawing with Spurs, they have won four Premier League games on the spin, where their clarity of style, more settled starting XI and hard running have allowed them score 13 goals and look good doing so.

By contrast, Manchester United have problems. In their first major test of the season, in the derby game, they flopped miserably.

There is a problem with Wayne Rooney, and an even greater issue trying to find the right combination of players.

Manchester City exposed a lot of things wrong about his squad that day, and while he tried to do something about it in the second half of that game, playing with a more aggressive pressing style high up the pitch, the reality is that his team has not yet settled.

He may be reasonably pleased with the shape he has got his defence into but the problem with Zlatan is that, while he has been scoring goals, he does not put himself around enough.

Pogba was bought to be a major influence on every game but has not been.

Marcus Rashford, and to a lesser extent, Jesse Lingard are good at coming up with something out of nothing.

But my overall feeling is that Liverpool will have too much for them, too much speed, too much invention.

This being United's first real test since the defeat it City, you just know that if it doesn't go well that Mourinho will receive a huge amount of criticism. So you expect him to come up with a plan.

He would have looked at how Burnley beat Liverpool 2-0 and could well decide to copy their template, keeping a tight back-four, with a midfield quartet kept in close proximity and an instruction to go on the counter-attack.

It's worth noting that Liverpool have been vulnerable from set-pieces and that United have scored four goals from corners.

And it's also worth noting that Mourinho will be stung by the defeats to City and Watford and will come to Anfield with a plan. He is looking for answers and thousands of Irish fans of both clubs will travel there on Monday to see if he has come up with them.

Significantly, and sadly, though, those Irish fans won't be cheering for any of their own countrymen. Those days are gone.

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