Strange days, indeed

THE big games against France in Paris and Dublin notwithstanding, at no stage in the Group 4 campaign so far have the stakes been higher for the Republic of Ireland than they will be this evening, here in Cyprus, where anything less than victory will almost certainly signal the end of the national team’s interest in next summer’s World Cup.

This is the big one or at least it will be until next Wednesday at Lansdowne Road, when it could all come down to 90 minutes of drama and decision against the Swiss.

Unless, of course, Ireland win, in which case there will be even bigger games to come in the death or glory play-offs.

Feeling a bit dizzy? When they talk about the pressure on football managers, this is presumably the kind of thing they mean. And it probably also explains why football people are so firmly wedded to the idea of one game at a time. Still, after the bruising build-up to tonight's big one in Nicosia, it would hardly be a surprise if Brian Kerr began to see that Himalayan range of challenges almost as a form of light relief.

"Nobody told me there'd be days like these," sang John Lennon. "Strange days indeed, most peculiar, mama." As both music fan and international football manager, Kerr could doubtless empathise.

A variety of different strands have come together to create this week's running story, in which the Irish manager seemed to be making the headlines for everything but his preparation of the team for the game against Cyprus. Football, though it might not always seem so, is still at the heart of it all.

The unresolved issue of the manager's contract, the FAI's silence and Kerr's own comment when asked about the matter, added further fuel to the fire.

Not, it must be said, that some sections of the media needed much stoking. From the moment that the trumped-up Keane-Kerr "bust-up" story appeared, there was a noticeable rise in temperature in the media attitude to Kerr.

And, in turn, in his towards the media. Defeat against France only served to sharpen the focus of those who seemed to revel in portraying him as a man in an almost desperate situation. "One week to go, Brian?" was how one taunting headline put it.

Other, more thoughtful pieces nevertheless still read a bit like career obituaries even though qualification for the World Cup, in Kerr's first full campaign in charge, was still a live possibility.

But if Brian Kerr was now clearly in the line of fire, he didn't help the situation by effectively shooting himself in the foot. The FAI maintain, and the press certainly had it down in black and white, that the manager was to give a media update pitchside after training at Malahide last Tuesday afternoon. It didn't happen, and though Kerr yesterday sought to shift the blame onto the FAI press office, in the vacuum that was created by his public silence, the papers were suddenly full of stories about snubs, pressure and a manager who was on the run.

Nor did Brian Kerr's agent help matters by questioning the depth of the talent available to the international manager. What Fintan Drury actually said on Today FM was hardly controversial in itself indeed, you'll find few observers who'd argue with the suggestion that there have been stronger Irish squads in the last 15 years but it was clearly a case of the wrong man, saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time.

And in the atmosphere of a developing media feeding frenzy, it would have provided even further fodder for headlines today had not Kerr himself at least temporarily defused the situation at yesterday's press conference. It might have stuck in his craw to do it, but had the Irish manager put the brave face on earlier in the week, yesterday would have been much more about that other compelling subject, a crunch World Cup qualifier.

Which, thankfully, is tonight's only topic. Or should be. It's football's turn to take centre-stage. Above everything else the media, the FAI and his friends and foes alike what will decide Brian Kerr's immediate future are the results on the field of play.

After a campaign that has had its shares of highs and lows, and that has been at times disappointing but hardly disastrous, the desired conclusion to a torrid week would be an Irish victory in the GSP Stadium tonight.

And, after that, victory over the Swiss. And, after that

But, hey, just for today, let's take it one game at a time.

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