It was blatantly uncomfortable, but we simply could not take our eyes off our television screens. This was the battle that we had waited for, a moment in time for Irish football: David vs. Goliath, rebel against the man, justice at last standing up to fight against incompetent authority.
The night was August 8 2016, the location RTÉ television studios in Dublin. The setting was Soccer Republic – a weekly highlights programme of the League of Ireland. At one end of the panelists’ table was former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr, at the other the Football Association of Ireland’s (FAI) Director of Competitions Fran Gavin.
“The frustration levels across the league are remarkable,” says Kerr. “The frustration levels of supporters about the facilities … the lack of facilities for women going to matches … the lack of facilities for pitches … the dressing rooms are desperate all around the country. They are ferociously bad facilities and there has been nothing done about it for years and years.”
Gavin moves uncomfortably in his chair, the camera panning to soak up every wincing muscle in his poker face. The microphone notes each inaudible sentence of his cut across each time by Kerr, a man who had given the best part of five decades to Irish football and to the League of Ireland, now let loose on an impassioned attack on a man who had come to encapsulate all that was wrong and mired about the governance of domestic Irish football over the course of 10 years. An invisible mask was beginning to slip, but the best was yet to come.
Gavin was present to provide an FAI perspective on a miniature revolt that had enveloped the league over recent weeks. It started when, towards the end of July, the Football Association announced it would give €100,000 to the League of Ireland in order for each club across its two divisions to develop a five-year strategic plan for sport, business and work in their respective communities.
Breaking down to €5,000 for each of the league’s 20 clubs, it would mean a meagre €19.23 per week for each club over the course of five years. CEO of the FAI, John Delaney, meanwhile, would earn close to €7,000 per week in the same period, with the audacity of the Association to encourage five-year strategic plans in an environment where clubs struggled to pay player’s wages and keep floodlights in operation, was deemed not only naïve but utterly insulting and an indictment of just how far removed it was from the league’s struggling day-to-day realities.
The controversy grew legs when two of the league’s top-flight clubs – firstly Derry City and then followed by Kerr’s native St. Patrick’s Athletic – had rejected the Association’s offer, with St. Pats providing two scathing statements which offered a poetic signage to the feeling of betrayal and anger which the entire league had felt for the duration of the FAI’s decade governing the league: “The board of St Patrick’s Athletic FC has decided that it will not accept the offer of 5,000 Euros made by the FAI towards the expenses of each club in preparing a five year plan.
“The board of SPAFC wants its decision to serve as a clear message to the FAI that it has utterly failed in its responsibility to the domestic game and to those clubs who, in spite of its indifference, have managed to keep some semblance of professionalism within football in Ireland.”
It was an astonishing response and one which supporters of the league, hoped more than genuinely believed, other clubs would follow. From a stilted combination of fear and, more than anything else, an utterly desperate need of the €5,000, others remained silent and accepted the money.
“Talking about strategic planning now, for five years’ time”, continued Kerr in studio, “is a load of bunkum.”
The audience blinks and social media erupts into a frenzy. Bunkum. Bunkum? The dictionary definition reads: The insincere speechmaking by a politician intended merely to please local constituents. Gavin had nowhere to hide.
• • • •
Brian Kerr was born in Drimnagh in 1953 and took his first role in management aged 13 when he oversaw a Crumlin United under-11 team, before moving to Shelbourne at 16 where he began his FA Preliminary coaching badges.
He was a season ticket holder at St. Patrick’s Athletic in his nearby Inchicore in Dublin before he was 10 and was in attendance when Bobby Moore hoisted the World Cup after the defeat of Germany in Wembley in 1966. “I was inquisitive about teams and players,” he reflected a number of years ago. “Somehow when I was 12 or 13, I knew what positions players should play by their body shape, by their ability on the ball, by their size.
“I was inquisitive about games and teams and structures and coaching, and trying to improve myself. I got a great kick and satisfaction out of being able to shape a team, win a match against what other people would consider a better opposition.”
In 1986 he was appointed manager of St. Patrick’s Athletic, previously managing Drumcondra, Shelbourne B and Shamrock Rovers B, having never made an appearance in the senior League of Ireland. He oversaw the club’s most successful period since its induction into the League of Ireland in the 1950s, winning six major honours and the club’s first league titles in 34 years – in 1990 and 1996 – before being hired as the FAI’s technical director in 1996.
This took place under the looming threat of liquidation from 1990 to 1994 at St. Pats, which saw the club move from its treasured home of Richmond Park to Harold’s Cross, saved from financial ruin only by a group of investors, including Kerr, who remortgaged his own home to save the club from the brink of extinction. It made the club’s second league title under his tenure in ‘96, playing with a squad on a shoestring budget, all the sweeter upon their homecoming to Inchicore.
Indeed, it was Kerr’s own motive to move to Harold’s Cross due to the pitiful state of their stadium Richmond Park which, owing to the locality’s sloped terrain in South Dublin, contained an almost two metre drop the length of the pitch from one goal to the other, and the restricted mode of playing it offered his side.
“I was the one who drove [the move],” confessed Kerr. “The pitch in Inchicore was too tight, too bumpy. There was too much of a slope on it for us to beat teams who sat in and played defensively against us. I think we had five 0-0 draws at home in 1988-89.”
In his new role as technical director of the Football Association throughout the late 1990s, he oversaw a tremendous flourishing of young talent in Irish football, managing sides from under-16 all the way up to under-20.
In 1997 his side, led by an outstanding 18-year-old Damien Duff, won bronze at the 1997 Youth World Cup while a year later he won Ireland’s first and only ever underage European Championships – two, in fact, in the space of one year – at under-16 and under-18 level. His sides would include blooming, fresh-faced young starlets in Richard Dunne, Andy Reid, John O’Shea and Robbie Keane.
This consistent pedigree of repeated success in the face of financial uncertainty based on youth culminated in Kerr being appointed manager of the Ireland senior national team in 2003 ahead of candidates including Sir Bobby Robson.
Kerr himself admits the unusual nature of his appointment as a manager with a background solely in League of Ireland and underage Irish international football, meaning his CV was devoid of the criteria all recent Irish managers had required, which was that they had played and managed in England.
“I thought it was unlikely that someone with my background was going to be the senior manager,” he said. “Our most recent history since Liam Tuohy had been that it would be someone who had played a lot in England, possibly managed in England like Mick (McCarthy) or Jack Charlton and Eoin Hand.
• • • •
“I felt it was unlikely, but at the same time in my own head I felt it was something that I probably would make a very good fist of, and something which I felt I had earned the right to have a crack at.
“By that stage I had been almost 40 years in management, I had done my coaching badges, had attended lots of coaching courses, had studied the game and had a reasonable degree of success with whatever team I had, and not always with great resources.”
Despite losing just four games from 33 in charge of the Irish setup Kerr’s contract was not renewed following failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup after draws against Israel and Switzerland late in the campaign. Despite this, he maintains to this day the highest win percentage of any manager in the history of the Irish senior national team.
• • • •
“There is no league in Ireland,” states Giovanni Trapattoni. It is September 2013 and the Republic of Ireland manager is suffering in the aftermath of a hammerblow 2-1 defeat away to Sweden in their Group C 2014 World Cup qualifier.
“Our players play in England,” he continues. “In Sweden there is a league. In Austria there is a league. That is different. Maybe you do not know, but I know this. I was in other countries as a manager and it is different. When every weekend there is games in the league (to watch) that is different.”
These words coming from a man revered the world over as one of the true greats of Italian and world football and the most senior national figurehead of football in Ireland at the time were an indictment of football authority’s dismissive view of the domestic game in the country. Twelve months later it was the turn of John Delaney, CEO of the FAI, to give his two cents on the matter.
“The League of Ireland is a difficult child for the organisation,” Delaney said in an interview in 2014. These two statements, coming one year apart, encapsulate and offer a window into the divide and enraged public reaction which followed Fran Gavin and the FAI’s proposed €100,000 investment into the league in July 2016.
“We have improved the standard of the league,” says Gavin, as we return to that August night of battle in RTÉ studios. “We have created an atmosphere to allow Shamrock Rovers to get into the group stages of the Europa League.”
“You created an atmosphere?” Kerr responds indignant and irate.
Rather than promoting an environment for success, it was apparent to the audience that night and to anyone involved within the league, particularly Kerr, that the FAI had rather fostered an atmosphere of fear, fines, blatant mismanagement and negligence to its domestic leagues and clubs, with Gavin’s claim of creating an atmosphere for Dundalk, Cork City and Shamrock Rovers to succeed as being nothing more than a blatant and sickening lie.
It was during Ireland’s Euro 2012 campaign and that Shamrock Rovers qualified for the Europa League, less than 12 months after Stephen Rice had given Rovers the lead against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, that their fellow Premier Division club Monaghan United had folded and withdrawn from the League due in large part to a lack of finance for sustainability.
This year, meanwhile, Athlone Town in the lower First Division were presented with a €5,000 fine from the FAI for failing to field a team against Waterford United in June, while Waterford themselves called out a rallying cry two months earlier in April stating they needed to raise €80,000 to see the 2016 season out.
• • • •
This was not interpreted as an atmosphere for success, but rather a light into the looking glass as to just how well the players, management and volunteers of Dundalk and others had done to achieve their success in a climate of deluded oversight and neglect from the people running their league.
At the present time, Dundalk themselves now stand on the brink of the greatest success in the history of Irish club football whereupon they can claim a third successive league title, win the domestic FAI Cup and all the while maintain the possibility of getting into the knockout stages of the Europa League. It was in the exact same environment of crumbling chaos as exists now, in 2011, that they too stood on the brink of financial collapse and extinction.
Almost every club in the League of Ireland can tell a similar story, from Brian Kerr’s St. Patrick’s Athletic of the early-1990s, to Cork City in the mid-2000s, to Sporting Fingal in 2011, to the current predicament of Athlone and Waterford.
• • • •
That night in RTÉ studios achieved little in actual progress to the league. But it did represent an extraordinary 10 minutes of television, pitting one of the league’s and Irish football’s most loyal practitioners against the modern encapsulation of the Football Association of Ireland and all its hypocrisy, set to the backdrop of Dundalk’s multi-million euro success story in Europe, as the remainder of the league struggled to pay its players’ wages.
“What prevails with the FAI is an approach whereby it decides everything and where it dictates policy with the occasional PR flurry to try and create a public image that its senior executives are committed to change and to improvement,” read St. Patrick’s Athletic’s second statement to the FAI on the rejection of their €5,000 investment proposal.
“Offering the proverbial ‘crumbs from the rich man’s table’,” it continued, “will not shift the resolve of those clubs and those individuals determined to create a properly funded and professionally managed league in Ireland.”
The FAI have of late made small steps in trying to promote the league and improve communication between clubs and the governing body. But claiming to create an atmosphere for success in an era where Dundalk lay on the cusp of UEFA Champions League qualification is selfish deception to the League of Ireland public, and a disservice to the hard work of those that put in the hard miles in the face of abandonment and financial uncertainty in the years before success for Irish clubs in Europe was fashionable and to, some degree looking forward, commonplace.
• • • •
Asked about the stress he suffered during the barren days and dark nights of potential liquidation at St. Pats, Kerr said he felt a level of duty to the fans having led the decision to move them from their historic home of Richmond Park: “The problem was the board didn’t have the resources to bring us back. I felt responsibility for moving them out of their traditional home. The thought that we might lose the ground,” he mused.
“I used to run the thing on a tight ship and it frustrated the hell out of me. But I stuck with it. I was balancing my time between ensuring that we were fundraising, making sure we had money day-to-day to keep things going, but also scheming towards getting back to Inchicore and keeping us competitive in the league.”
While on the move from its historic home, the legendary sports journalist Con Houlihan prophetically wrote: “Hardly three miles away – their supporters were not happy. The local people were not friendly, the drink didn’t taste right, the weather was colder.”
Men like Houlihan and Kerr came to represent and stand as leaders over a league that has seemingly been on the brink of crumbling into the ruins from which it was built for more than 50 years.
In a year where the FAI took in over €11 million on the back of its side’s European Championship campaign in France, offering €100,000 to the league where Seamus Coleman, Shane Long and Wes Hoolahan plied their trade, was insulting.
But claiming to create an atmosphere for success where clubs regularly shut down, struggle to make ends meet and fight an adverse uphill battle to attract more than 400 supporters to its games, was unforgivable and truly, in all its hypocrisy, a haul of intolerable and inexcusable bunkum.