Heat might still be on but Kerr is warming to task
Tuesday September 7th 2004

BACK to Basel then and, funny, it feels like we're new to town.

Flight EI4952 touched down in a divine, rustic sunset and the thought struck that it would take quite a tank of gas to cover the journey taken by Brian Kerr since October last. Roy Keane stood through most of the flight, gabbing across seat-backs to players we once imagined he despised. Kerr, himself, strolled the aisle, joshing.

Eleven months have passed since the Swiss were jumping on a limp, green carcass here and ducking plastic bottles fizzing from the Irish dug-out. Eleven months that feel like eternity.

Faces have changed, spites have softened, positions have moved. Maybe, more than anything, the manager has begun to assert his personality on proceedings.

A year ago, Kerr just needed to defrost a little. He needed to trust himself more, to take a look around and see how the nervous tides of this business can drain the colour out of people.

And, maybe, to understand that sometimes that very colour is actually what defines you as a man.

Little things betrayed his mindset last time in this Swiss town. On the eve of battle, the sole player made available for a media conference was Stephen McPhail. It was needless and ever so slightly cruel.

McPhail was on the furthest periphery of business in Basel back then. He would not even get a place in the Irish dug-out the following afternoon. Kerr knew it, McPhail knew it, the media knew it.

So, the poor lad looked vaguely mortified, stepping out in front of the gaping cameras and microphones. A perch set loose in the sharks' tank at feeding time. Polite, stilted questions followed. "What's your club situation Stephen?." Tremulous answers.

Everyone's brains just lint at the finish.

Kerr would never have done that before and, almost certainly, he will not do it again. It was a signal of his unease at the time. He had his guard up, clutching it like a panicked patient clutching an IV bag. Quotes were handed over virtually at gun-point.

Perhaps he felt that he was still dealing with someone else's property. That the team was a tricky inheritance. That loyalties within remained complex and potentially divisive.

Kerr, certainly, didn't look or sound himself in that first year at the senior helm. He gave off a reticent air. It felt unnatural.

Technically, he still worked off sound co-ordinates. In fact, the team he selected to play in Basel last October - contrary to so many professors of hindsight - made absolute sense. It was their demeanour that gave the game away.

Once pressure was applied, they just crumbled like a collection of wet sugar cubes.

We listened immediately after as he talked with optimism of the future and, in the wan glow of what had passed, it was hard to identify all those fresh, green shoots on the horizon. But that's the thing about Kerr.

He knows the kids coming through. With him, it's never bluff or hubris. It's never an Elland Road '86 exchange, never Big Jack taking Liam Tuohy's dressing-room space to unload a half-time team-talk to kids he has never previously set eyes upon.

Kerr knew the Andy Reids and Liam Millers when they were still, essentially, children. He has been part of the nurturing process. That's what makes him different in this environment. He's no longer guessing at personalities. And Kerr's great gift as a football man has always been his grasp of what constitutes team, his understanding that no matter the stage, football remains an exchange of vast simplicity.

There are only so many systems a manager can employ. The differences are made by the calibre of people at his disposal.

So many of the current Irish set-up feel an almost genetic commitment to the current manager. Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, John O'Shea, Reid, Andy O'Brien, Alan Maybury, Alan Quinn - and maybe most peculiarly of all Roy Keane.

Kerr's relationship with Keane is adult and re-assuringly temperate. It is clear that they communicate often and, better still, manage to do so from a base of mutual understanding. Kerr's lips are hermetically sealed when it comes to speculation about the Manchester United captain. You can tell that Keane respects him for it.

Not a solitary mention was made of the Corkman at Saturday's post-match press-conference simply because no-one believed there was a possibility he might travel to Basel. No-one, that is, outside of manager and player.

Irish soccer isn't used to mature, low-key inter-action between its principals. The FAI has long been Irish sport's House of Indiscretion, communicating to the world through leak, innuendo and, on occasion, the clumsiest of blood-spill.

So Keane's presence on yesterday's flight hinted at Kerr's growing comfort, at how he is sinking into the beat of it more freely by the day. We come here with much to exorcise, mind. But, yesterday, it felt like the process had already started.

Vincent Hogan
Time Out