World Cup 2006: Stuttering Irish keep Kerr under pressure

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The Independent Football

Outside the Gallari Jinx, one of the few cafés in the Faroese capital of Torshavn, the Republic of Ireland's manager, Brian Kerr, having finished his coffee, was happy enough posing for pictures with the fans. A snapshot of his chances of retaining his job if the Irish fail to qualify for next year's World Cup would not be quite so cosy right now.

Kerr is under gathering pressure. It is pressure that may surprise those outside the shores of Ireland but, in the context of his team's faltering progress in Group Four, it has been a coming storm which threatens to sweep him away in the autumn.

Since succeeding Mick McCarthy in January 2003, following the disastrous start to the campaign to qualify for Euro 2004, Kerr has incrementally rebuilt Ireland's standing. Victories have been earned over the Czech Republic and Holland as the Irish, temporarily, broke into the top dozen in the Fifa rankings. But that progress - 29 games played, 17 wins, just two defeats and a formidable 17 clean sheets - has been undermined at vital moments.

The harsh truth is that when it has come to the 13 competitive matches Ireland have played they have not defeated anyone ranked more highly than Georgia. They have suffered crushing disappointment when it has mattered against Russia and Switzerland in the last campaign and, so far, against Israel in this.

It not only means that they risk missing out on qualifi-cation for a second consecutive major tournament but also that their standing, when it comes to the seedings for the next European Championship campaign, may see them drop into the fourth ranking group of nations. Sobering stuff - especially for a generation of players such as Damien Duff and Robbie Keane, who set alight the World Cup in 2002 and who, rightly, could have expected to follow that up with greater success.

It also means that Kerr is undoubtedly in danger. Talks have been held between his representatives and the Football Association of Ireland about a new contract. His current deal expires next year. But it has been made clear that Kerr, even though his representatives claim he is in demand among clubs in England, will have to wait to see how qualification ends.

Kerr's manner has not helped. Relations with the media have deteriorated, partly because it is felt the man who led the Irish under-age teams to astonishing, unprec-edented success, has become remote and unhelpful. After all Kerr, when in his previous job, had railed against the lack of interest the media took in his activities. It doesn't soothe their mood that Kerr, the former FAI technical director and someone with, previously, no notable playing or management career, was installed only after a concerted campaign from the media backing his candidacy.

But beyond that Kerr has also failed to inspire at crucial times. The Irish still have not fully recovered from the shocking capitulation against the Swiss in Basle which ended their Euro 2004 hopes. Kerr complained he was "behind the eight ball" because of McCarthy's failures - a cheap shot - but the truth was he snookered himself. Against the Swiss their destiny was in their own hands.

And the sight of Kerr waving his players back when leading in Tel Aviv this Easter against Israel has been retold time and again as a sign of his innate caution. Ireland paid the price then by drawing, and followed that up with the disarray at Dublin last weekend which allowed the Israelis to come back from two goals down. There is a feeling that Kerr simply does not get enough out of his players' attacking power. This is, after all, a team drawn from the Premiership and no lower.

There has also been speculation over his relationship with some players, speculation that was only enhanced by Duff's comment that his best position was on the wing following the disastrous consequences of playing him as a striker against Israel. But too much is probably being read into this, especially as it should be remembered that Kerr successfully brought Roy Keane back from exile and has, generally, held on to all the players he needs.

It should also not be forgotten that, after the patchy midweek victory against the Faroe Islands, Ireland do actually lead their qualification group, but with home games to come against France and the Swiss and an away contest with Cyprus, they may well need nine points to qualify. A tall order, with Kerr claiming "most people will see us as underdogs" against the French. That comment was immediately met head-on by Roy Keane. "Underdogs? No, I don't think so," he said. "Not at Lansdowne Road. No."

His central midfield partner, Kevin Kilbane, who will equal Packie Bonner's record of 34 consecutive competitive appearances if he plays against France, added: "Without a doubt. I'm very confident, and I'm sure the rest of the lads are too. We've enough ability, and the players, to do it." He offered some backing to Kerr's view on the French but added: "We need to get at them and make it very difficult, but we will go into the game full of confidence."

That's something the Irish have lacked, especially when it is considered they have squandered leads in three of their qualifiers. For their sakes, and Kerr's, they need to get it right come the autumn.

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