Brian Kerr: A friendly with England is anything but

As a tune-up for Scotland match, clash with the old enemy comes at perfect moment

Managers always find it frustrating trying to get players enthusiastic for summer games and I remember Roy Keane missing some games for me in 2004 when he had booked holidays. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Managers always find it frustrating trying to get players enthusiastic for summer games and I remember Roy Keane missing some games for me in 2004 when he had booked holidays. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

When I was manager of the Republic of Ireland from 2003 to 2005 (that 10-year anniversary passed without much fanfare) something that really bugged me was the chosen players not being as enthusiastic about the summer internationals as I would have been.

There was always a rake of scheduling problems, be it the arrival of some and early departure of others. The manager can’t make too big deal of this in the media. You just have to go with it.

Of course this is nothing new. Even before the David O’Leary Icelandic incident, this has been the international manager’s curse.

For those who don’t remember or haven’t been told about this historic, long-lasting dispute, well, it established Jack Charlton as the chieftain around these parts. It should be a question on the Leaving Cert history paper by now. Anyway, it was 1986 and O’Leary was one of the best defenders in England, a veteran centre half with over 400 games for Arsenal, when Jack got the gig. Undoubtedly in his prime.

He was left out of the squad to play a little summer tournament in Iceland. So Dave booked his holidays. Jack decided he needed him after all. I’ve booked me holidays. Change them. I can’t.

O’Leary didn’t play again for Ireland until November 1988. He missed the Euros as Mick McCarthy and Kevin Moran held the fort behind Paul McGrath.

I’ve had a few of holiday incidents in my time. Roy Keane was one of them. He played against Romania in 2004, the much welcomed return from the Saipan-induced exile, but told me he had his holidays booked for the other three games. I always find it ironic when I hear him questioning player commitment in his new role.

Not that I took Jack’s hardline stance. We were enthused by Roy’s return to the fold and the qualifiers were further down the track. We had four games in 10 days which were scheduled more to make money for the FAI than anything else. Two games were in London.

O’Neill had a similar experience last summer. Now at least, with a competitive fixture on the horizon, this problem dissipates. With Northern Ireland behind closed doors and now England, it feels like the ideal build up for the crucial qualifier against Scotland on June 13th.

Even in these days of pleasantries, with visits to these shores by Prince Charles and previously his mother Elizabeth or Irish musicians filling the Royal Albert Hall all evoking a sense of vastly improved relations, Ireland versus England in football should make this more than any ordinary friendly match. Or mere preparation.

House of cards

England’s status as an elite football nation was scuppered once again at the World Cup in Brazil but as usual they are rebuilding their house of cards with a successful qualifying campaign that has yielded five wins from five in Group E.

True, this is the ideal type of game for Martin O’Neill’s charges ahead of Scotland; similar style and probably the same bite in the tackle to remind us of last November at Celtic Park. And what’s undoubtedly coming next weekend.

We are currently 60th in the Fifa rankings. In that sense, a win here would certainly help and there are places up for grabs but it means so much more than anything immediate. Even the Scots. This is England. In Dublin.

Over the years I have been involved in many games against our neighbours at underage level. Some went well, others not, but they are all remembered. Anyone remember Tommy McDermott smasher at Tolka Park in 1984? England were captained by Tony Adams, while we had Niall Quinn up front. One-nil. Great night.

But my favourite English memory came in Norway at a UEFA finals tournament in 2001 on a stiflingly hot summer’s day in Oslo. Having beaten Belgium and lost to Germany, it was do-or-die for us. We were 2-0 down at half-time and heading home. Whether by luck or cunning judgment, the two changes I made worked as we came back from the dead to win 3-2 with goals from Stephen Kelly, Paddy McCarthy and Stephen Elliott.

The staff still claim I berated Cromwell during my half-time team talk. Was I that mad? Maybe. But it was England after all. Whatever it takes. I couldn’t stomach a lashing by their hand.

Blood boil

The English staff was huge and had inadvertently been making my blood boil all week. We were all in the same hotel. “We’ll have a few pints of Guinness after the game,” they kept saying, not realising how condescending it sounded. Every one of them we ran into. “Hi Brian, we’ll have few . . .” Yeah, I know. Pints and a sing song. Can’t wait.

When we beat them, they were nowhere to be found. Funny that. The lads were great in that second half. I remember the English boys coming into our changing room to swap jerseys. It was a little embarrassing as nobody was willing to give up their green shirt. Not that one. Paddy McCarthy turns to me, “Brian, what the f**k would I be doing wearing an English jersey up around Finglas?”

Their young English fellas couldn’t have understood how big it was for us. That should always be the way. In that sense, it’s the perfect tune up for revenge over Scotland. It’s more than a friendly. Always.

BERLIN MATCH-UPS

Arturo Vidal v Sergio Busquets

Busquets provides the balance that allows the attacking traits of Iniesta and Rakitic to prosper. He intercepts opposition passes and protects his centre backs. He’s not a great tackler but gives a small team an important aerial presence at defensive set pieces. His range of passing is key to the Barça rhythm. Vidal will unsettle him. A brilliant performer for Chile at the World Cup, he’s shook off injury to have a stunning season for Juve. He’s the head of a diamond-shaped midfield but his incessant energy allows him roam the field making blocks and tackles, sitting beside Andrea Pirlo to erect the defensive screen one second before raiding in behind Barça’s high-line defence to support Tevez and Morata the next.

Patrice Evra v Lionel Messi

Now 34, many believed Evra to be a beaten docket after his last season at Manchester United. His trademark attacking runs disappeared from the arsenal, along with his pace and sense of danger, but he has rediscovered his mojo in Turin as part of a tight defensive unit that smothered Dortmund, Monaco and particularly Real Madrid, when he played a significant role in negating the influence of Gareth Bale. Pogba and the now injured Chiellini lent a helping hand in ensuring Bale was ineffective in the semi-final. They ganged up on the Welsh man. Can this work again? Against the floating right winger Messi has become under Luis Enrique? No, it can’t. Fifty-eight goals is extraordinary but it’s the sensational combination play with Neymar and Luis Suárez that has me in Berlin. I expect a repeat of the show we saw against Evra and Manchester United in the 2011 final. The magic remains undimmed.

Javier Mascherano v Carlos Tevez

Since his conversion from holding midfielder to centre half, Mascherano has become a steadying influence, which was also evident for Argentina at the World Cup when he was magnificent. His pace has been essential to Barcelona conceding only 21 goals in La Liga and four in the Champions League knockout stages. But Tevez has been in brilliant form, especially those goals on the break against Dortmund, bringing a renewed enthusiasm and aggression that could trouble his fellow countryman, who can on occasion be too casual in possession. Tevez is again the ultimate team player we saw at West Ham and Manchester United. Apart from his 29 goals, he works deep to assist his midfielders, something which proved crucial in victory over Real Madrid. Mascherano will be susceptible to Alvaro Morata’s height but his main worry will be the movement of Tevez.

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