Kerr's cautious and clever game can woo talisman Keane

By Jason Burt
Sunday 02 February 2003 01:00
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On Dawson Street in the centre of Dublin there is a large Waterstone's bookshop. The sports section is at the top of the stairs and there, stacked high, sits copy after copy of Roy Keane's autobiography – 801 sold to date in this branch alone.

On a shelf in the corner, next to Managing a Junior Soccer Team, are two copies of Mick McCarthy's World Cup Diary 2002. In total, 66 have been sold. "It's been a while since somebody bought one," the assistant says.

Not that Brian Kerr, the new manager of the Republic of Ireland, will face such competition. He is barred under the terms of his contract, which he signed last Monday, from writing a book, or having a newspaper column.

It is one of the lessons learnt from Ireland's traumatic and, at times, triumphant campaign in Japan and South Korea last summer. Another of those lessons, which came from the Genesis report commissioned after the Keane affair, was also put in place on Friday: the Football Association of Ireland, stung by accusations of amateurism, advertised for a first full-time chief executive.

Competing on the best-seller lists with his country's best footballer was never going to be an issue for the unassuming Kerr – although the popularity of the former youth coach could not be higher. "Brian's achievements are 100 per cent Irish," says Cathal Dervan, the journalist who ghosted McCarthy's book. "He is clearly the people's choice."

This is not an overstatement and was evident last Tuesday at the emotional press conference at which the new manager was "unveiled" ("Unveiled. It sounds like I'm some statue," says the quick-witted Kerr). Friends, family and even his teenage daughters were in the audience as Kerr – fresh from beating France at youth level – was hugged and kissed as he toured the room.

There is a sense of relief and pride, as well as nervousness, in Ireland that, despite the decades of success with Jack Charlton and McCarthy, it is finally a man born on their own shores who is in charge.

Dervan is one of those who believe that Kerr should have capitalised on this by including Keane in his first senior squad for the game against Scotland on 12 February. That was never going to happen, even though the former FAI technical director named 26 players, virtually every available Irishman playing at the highest level, and included David Connolly, the Wimbledon striker who had a mini Keane-style bust-up with officials prior to the friendly against Greece last autumn.

The Keane issue came up again. "I will deal with it in my own way but won't discuss the matter at the moment," Kerr said. "It is in the best interests of Irish football, the squad and the player himself that I adopt that attitude."

The player himself. There is a plan in place to bring Keane back, as Kerr desires, and it does not include picking him for the kind of friendly match that used to so irk the Manchester United captain.

Keane is receptive and has already said that he intends to speak to the new manager. Significantly, the player was told of the appointment in advance and many observers believe that Kerr will try to use his strong links with United's talented defender John O'Shea, whom he nurtured at youth level, and who also has a good relationship with Keane.

Perhaps most revealing of all are the words of Keane's former colleague at Old Trafford and long-time international team-mate, Denis Irwin, who said on Friday: "I can see Keaney playing again for Ireland. He will know that Brian will want to come over and talk to him but I think he'll play for Ireland again – especially after all that happened last summer."

Kerr will seek that face-to-face meeting in the next few days and will also talk to Sir Alex Ferguson, as many feel the United manager may be happy with the present situation. Keane is 31 and the surge in form enjoyed by Alan Shearer after his international retirement will not have gone unnoticed by Ferguson.

The outcome will soon be apparent. If Keane is to return he needs to do so for the Euro 2004 qualifiers away to Georgia and Albania. With Ireland without a point, they desperately need to succeed in those games which, crucially, come just as the Champions' League enters its final phases.

That is the dilemma – and the test for the new man and Keane himself.

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