Brian Kerr is on the corner of Etna Drive in Ardoyne, north Belfast. It is a wet, miserable day but the sun is shining out of a beaming Kerr who is talking to Frank and David, two men he has just met on the Antrim Road during a beguiling journey into Kerr’s past. He is, of course, the real Dub, yet Kerr’s parents’ city was Belfast. At 66, he is going back to his roots, or route.
“Jim McCourt!” he says with wonder.
“Oh aye,” Frank says, “everyone knew Jim McCourt. Even at 60 he was running the door at a GAA club. He once laid out a soldier in Falls Park, and he was an old man then.”
Kerr is entranced, and by more than McCourt. Other names tumble from his memory, street scenes, snatches of conversations, his own father Frankie, the famous Irish boxer with his unique connection to Joe Bambrick and Irish football. Then Kerr hears the local folklore – ‘Buck Alec’ and his pet lion with no teeth.
He looks up the back lane of Eskdale Gardens where he used to play. “This was early 60s stuff,” he says, “I was sent here on holidays to stay with my mother’s people, the Mooneys.”
Ardoyne was different then, a north Belfast suburb where the two tribes lived beside each other in the same streets. There were no signs warning drug dealers to beware back then, no peace walls, no untouched Saoradh graffiti.
But there was Jim McCourt. From the Falls Road, McCourt was the Belfast lightweight who won bronze for Ireland at the 1964 Olympics in Japan – the Irish team’s only Olympic medal from 1956 in Melbourne to 1980 in Moscow.
Kerr knew McCourt from that, but also up close. He would go with his father Frankie, himself a former Irish bantamweight champion, to see McCourt fight regularly.
“Jim McCourt, I kind of knew him through my father,” Kerr says. “He was this swarthy, compact, disciplined lightweight.
“We’d go to the National Stadium, South Circular Road. I’d have gone most Fridays during the boxing season, which seemed to be all winter.
“I’d say ’64 was the first Olympics on TV in my lifetime, certainly on our TV. We saw McCourt in Tokyo. I think his club was Immaculata: it’s funny those religious connotations, a lot of boxing clubs North and South have that – St John’s or Holy Family. And boxing isn’t the holiest of sports.
“My father didn’t say a lot, but I could tell he liked McCourt’s style, his selection of punches.”
Kerr’s father Frankie died when Brian was 14. He did not see his son’s coaching career or him becoming manager of Ireland.
Brian knows some details of Frankie’s Belfast life – he was born there in 1914 and left for Dublin in 1932. Frankie worked in the Athletic Stores shop and laced and delivered the ball with which Bambrick scored six for Ireland v Wales in 1930.
Brian stands in York Lane near the city centre and tries to conjure a terraced house that held Frankie and his seven brothers; then up to Carlisle Circus and Adela Street beside St Malachy’s College where Martin O’Neill was a teenaged pupil.
In the trade union offices on the corner is a mural featuring the Titanic and its stop-off in Cobh, photographs of Larkin in Belfast. There are also questions for Kerr: about best players managed. He names Duff, Keane and Gormley – Eddie Gormley, who Kerr had at St Pat’s.
More stories: bare-knuckle fights in the Markets, Charlie Tully’s paint brush and the shifting city demographics caused by Troubles ancient and modern.
On Annesley Street – parallel – is an old unused synagogue. This being Belfast, someone has scratched ‘FTP” on it.
“Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my father, his time and travels,” Kerr says.
“He boxed in Norway in the 1930s, France, Italy, America twice. You’re sort of thinking: ‘How did they do it? How’d they do that and keep a job going, a family and so on?’
“My mother was up in Oldpark. It’s quite emotional today to be on the streets where my Dad lived, his historical households, with a family like they had of eight brothers and another boy who my grandmother took in, the history of my grandfather travelling the world as part of the British Army and going back to Belfast. All that coming and going.
“He died when I was quite young, so we never had that father-son relationship when the son becomes a bit more mature. I was only a kid, we didn’t have those conversations.
“I’d love to hear those stories, of his good times in Belfast maybe. Then follow up on why he left for Dublin and so rarely came back.
“I think there was a low-key fury in my father about some of the things he didn’t like. The sectarianism, discrimination, the underlying conflict. He certainly never encouraged any of that in us. There was none of it in the house, he never had any great loyalty to church or state.
“What I did see what his great faith in the boxing community in the North. As much as he was appreciated in his own community in the South, and I sensed admiration for him as a coach and as a person, he had great admiration for northern people. The Orr family, great friends.
“So it’s fascinating to go back. My memory was sharp enough, the geography of the area. It’s emotional to see. Ultimately it had an effect on me, my family, my brothers and sisters. Meeting those lads we met – the way they talked is the way my mother and father talked.”
Broadening the mind
Kerr is a Dubliner, steeped in his home town. But the parental link to Belfast always gave him a northern sensibility. Perhaps it gave him a willingness to cross roads.
He recalls bringing St Patrick’s Athletic to Windsor Park for Linfield testimonials in 1988 and ’90, not the easiest of times. He says there were “practical” reasons: “We’d qualified for Europe and could’ve played friendlies against teams in the League of Ireland. But they were always trying to pinch your players or whatever. And I also wanted to do something a bit different.”
Still, it was a step not everyone would make and that desire “to do something a bit different” would soon lead St Pat’s players to ask of their manager: “What war zone are you bringing us to next?”
Kerr laughs: “That was not because of playing Linfield or Portadown or Glentoran, it was because we went to Libya in ’89 for a few days. We went to Tunisia. We went to Iran – that’s a long story.”
He starts telling some of it.
“Remember, these were part-time players, these were adventures in broadening the mind. Going to Iran in 1990, for instance, it wasn’t that long after the Shah was deposed and there’d been a load of turmoil.
“The Americans weren’t very popular – the hotel lobby had a sign above it saying: ‘Down with the USA’ in big silver writing over the reception desks.
“Those type of experiences, I felt they were life experiences as well as football experiences. So being in touch with Linfield wasn’t hard.
“It was volatile in Belfast, without a doubt. We were conscious of that. But we were unthreatening, we weren’t bringing crowds with us. We were going to play a match, get on the bus and go home.
“We didn’t get into deep discussions but the players were clever enough. They saw what these societies were like – and not just in the North.
“They saw it wasn’t easy for women in Iran – they saw it in the division in the swimming pool, which was open for half an hour for women and the rest of the day for men.
“All these years later, did it affect them? I think it helped with their awareness of the world, of Ireland, of the cosy communities they were living in. They’d day-to-day struggles of getting a job, trying to get into a League of Ireland team, getting to training. Here they could see it was going on somewhere else, somewhere more challenging.”
On the way to Ardoyne we pass Solitude, home of Cliftonville, the oldest club in Ireland. The Reds have just finished fifth in the Irish League. It was won by Linfield, managed by David Healy, with Pat Fenlon, Kerr’s former player, general manager.
As with League of Ireland clubs, there is often a hand-to-mouth existence in the Irish League and the next day brought news of a serious blow when Uefa said they would be removing one of the Europa League places. European money has become something of a lifeline. Kerr had already mentioned declining co-efficients.
“The North’s in the low 50s now,” he says, “only three or four nations worse. That shouldn’t be the case based on population playing.
“I know it’s difficult to compete against GAA and rugby. But it shouldn’t be that low in the rankings given the tradition of Irish football. And it’s the same in the South. We’re in the low 40s.”
As an authentic, sincere voice on the League of Ireland, Kerr adds, with a mix of sadness and frustration: “Our league is badly neglected, underfunded, there’s a lack of profile . . . in general grounds are outdated and unsuitable for modern sporting events and audiences – bringing women to matches, proper toilets, proper seating. That needs to change radically.
“From what I’ve seen in the North it’s the same. And they’ve too much fencing, too much wire, these feel like places they want to keep people out of, they’re not joyous.
“If I go to Brighton on a Saturday, or Huddersfield, you see the vibrancy on the walk to the stadium, you see stewarding that’s positive, you see it’s an event.”
Given the flux within the FAI, and the potential for change, is this a crossroads, a phrase Kerr must have heard previously?
“I think this is more significant than any time before,” he says, adding that he is “almost in despair” about the state of the FAI’s position on John Delaney, funding, infrastructure and, perhaps above all, the lack of a vision.
“We need to set new standards to make things happen,” he says. “We in soccer have not risen to the challenge in the way they have in GAA, rugby. Yes, we’ve a stadium – where we’re part-renters. But the rest of it is in bits.
“For the past 15 years I’ve felt: ‘This should be so much better’. That’s not about my own position, it’s about my concern about what other countries have done and what we haven’t done. The core problem is a lack of leadership
“What we have had from the FAI over the past 15 years has been the extraction of money from programmes to try to pay off the debt on a stadium. The vision has been: we will be debt-free by 2020. The vision has not been: we will have developed lots of brilliant young players by 2020.”
His fear is that despite some superficial changes, the status quo remains.
“What I see is what the group calling themselves the FAI wanted at the start of the recent chaos: they wanted Noel Mooney to come in from Uefa as the CEO and for John Delaney to step into a different position – executive vice president or whatever. And somehow we’ve actually got to that stage.
“We haven’t had any announcement that John Delaney has left the organisation. We believe he’s on gardening leave, still getting paid.
“And we’ve got Noel Mooney in there for the next six months. It’s just remarkable. Noel Mooney had his chance in Irish football in my book.”
Although he knows there are many still around who have been part of the FAI’s administration and are comfortable with what has gone on, Kerr is not devoid of hope. Plus, he sees a change in some newer faces – “educated people who have come through”.
“It’s different from the 1960s when Billy Morton said: ‘There’s too many bicycles parked outside Merrion Square’.
“They were working-class people trying to make a living and keep their teams going. They weren’t people buying land for a rugby club, or next door to the church making sure there was a pitch for the GAA club. They were not those people. They did not have access to the religious and political system of that time. Our football has suffered, for sure.
“I’ve no criticism of the GAA, what they have done across the country is extraordinary. But they had a great base with the Catholic church and the political aristocracy. Rugby has always had a different clientele.
“For us, for soccer, I think there’s an opportunity to change things now. But it needs leadership.
“I’d even change the name, find a new name. You don’t have to call it the FAI, you could call it ‘Football Ireland’ for example, whatever. We need something new.
“It’s a time for that.”
Kerr puts down his cup of tea. The rain continues to pour on Belfast. He’s got another address to get to, another road to cross.