Brian Kerr at a screening last week in Dublin of “Kerr’s Kids.”
At Villa Park, there’s a banner that runs the length of the North Stand. It reads, “Shaw, Williams, prepared to venture down the left. There's a good ball in for Tony Morley. Oh, it must be and it is! It's Peter Withe.” Readers of a certain age will recall the goal and maybe even the commentary. It was the legendary voice of ITV, Brian Moore, calling the greatest moment in the history of Aston Villa when Withe humbled the mighty Bayern Munich in the 1982 European Cup final. These days when they look up at those words, the Villa fans are perhaps reminded how far the club has fallen.
Still, they are probably happy to have some acknowledgement of the finest night they ever had all those decades ago. See, for a long time, the European Cup triumph was the glory that could not be mentioned around Villa Park. Doug Ellis, the long-time chairman, didn’t like people to talk about it or refer to it, much less create a kind of monument to it in the stadium. Why? Despite being involved in the club from 1968 until 2006, Ellis was briefly outed from the board during the years when Villa won the English First Division and then became champions of Europe. Since it didn’t happen on his watch, he did not want it to be properly remembered.
That cameo of bitterness came to mind last week when we discovered that in Abbotstown, the headquarters of the FAI, there is not a single acknowledgement of the period between 1997 and 1998 when Brian Kerr led Irish under-age teams to glory across the world. They finished third in the World Youth Cup, and were crowned European champions at Under-16 and Under-18. These were singular moments in the history of the sport in Ireland, victories that were never replicated and, we can unfortunately say, will never happen again to any Irish national team. Yet, it’s almost like they didn’t happen at all. How odd? And how pathetic of the current regime?
The renewed focus on Kerr’s absence from the Irish game is a consequence of the release of Kevin Brannigan’s excellent new documentary, “Kerr’s Kids.” The film revisits those magical years when a succession of teams representing Ireland went toe to toe and often bested the greatest footballing nations on earth. Of course, listening to Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and some of the finest Irish players of their generation talk about Kerr’s influence on them reminds us all that a tiny nation with no great reservoir of coaching talent has frozen out their most successful coach ever.
There’s more to it than the current regime’s bitterness towards Kerr since his success happened before their time, like sad Doug Ellis, they can’t be seen to pay homage to those magical days. There’s also the way that the FAI have ignored what the players did. Having a personal vendetta against Kerr is par for the course in the FAI doctrine of political warfare but this year, the 20th anniversary of those dual European triumphs was allowed to pass officially unrecorded. You don’t have to like Kerr to realize there’s something seriously wrong about that. It’s not as if the FAI have so many anniversaries of tournament victories to acknowledge. There have been no others. Ever.
One of the most endearing features of every All-Ireland final now is the ceremony before the game where the winners from 25 years earlier are wheeled out to be introduced to the crowd. The men are invariably chuckling as they get to revisit the greatest moment of their sporting lives. The hair is thinner, the paunches are being sucked in for the cameras but the joy they experience as the fans give them one more moment in the spotlight is a joy to behold. Why would anybody in the FAI not want the heroes of 1998 to be brought together for a reunion and introduced to the Aviva before one of this year’s internationals?
That’s the very least any organization would give these men who once were our golden boys. Yet, we should expect nothing more from the FAI. After all, during the build-up to last week’s international clash with Northern Ireland, it emerged that on the 25th anniversary of Alan McLoughlin’s strike at Windsor Park that sent Ireland to the 1994 World Cup, nobody in a green blazer had thought he might like to be invited along to the fixture. Following a lot of negative publicity on that score, the FAI belatedly reached out to McLoughlin, apologized for the slight and said it had been “a complete oversight.”
Now if only they had the wit, courage and class to do the same to Kerr and the teams with which he shocked the football world. We won’t exactly be holding our breath.