Kicking down the barriers together

AS THE familiar figure took his place at the top table behind the microphones, it was almost like deja vu - except of course that, in reality, everything had changed utterly.

Brian Kerr faced the press on Thursday, as he had done on so many occasions in recent years, but this time he was making his first appearance as the ex-Republic of Ireland manager.

The occasion was the launch of the ‘The Brian Kerr Intercontinental League’ - an initiative of that admirable organisation Sport Against Racism in Ireland (SARI) - which sees teams representing 16 ethnic groups currently taking part in a six-week tournament in Dublin.

Brian Kerr’s views on the football press have been pretty well documented by now, so it would hardly have come as a surprise to him that in due course the questioning drifted off the main theme and onto his reaction to the new Irish management team and his own plans and aspirations.

To his credit, Kerr fielded the questions with good grace, when the temptation might have been to restrict the entire session exclusively to the business of the day.

Unexpectedly, however, the biggest headlines were generated by Kerr’s unsolicited revelation that during his time as Irish manager he’d received hate mail from racists upset by the presence of people like Chris Hughton, Clinton Morrison and Steven Reid in the Irish camp.

Vile stuff and the product of twisted minds, as Kerr said, but at least it was pretty much a unique experience in his many years in Irish football, during which time he had worked in the League of Ireland with black footballers of the calibre of Curtis Fleming and Paul Osam, among others.

But not a unique experience per se. SARI founder Frank Buckley told a story about a conversation he’d had with Damien Richardson, then the manager of Shelbourne, back in 1998. Frank asked Damien if he considered racism to be a problem in Irish football, whereupon the current Cork City boss opened a drawer in his desk and took out a bullet - this being the response of one self-styled “supporter” to the manager’s selection of Mark Rutherford in the Shels team.

If racism in Irish football has only featured sporadically up to now, the worry is that increased immigration will make it more prevalent in the future. The correct solution, of course, is not to see immigration as a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ but rather an opportunity to be grasped for the benefit of all.

On Thursday, Kerr spoke with eloquence and conviction about how his father’s involvement in boxing coaching had exposed the family to people from different countries and cultures.

“In our house, you’d often wake with someone from a far-flung spot lying on the floor beside you,” Brian recalled.

“My mind was enriched by mixing with them, hearing their stories and about the places they came from. It made me understand how important it is that we have open attitudes and that there shouldn’t be racism in anything - and not in sport in particular.”

Kerr said he understood that, for many immigrants, “scrapping to survive” takes precedence over ambitions to break into the eircom League or whatever. But he stressed that sport can play a vital role in helping people to integrate, and that the rewards all around could be hugely significant.

“There’s going to be massive potential there if people are prepared to look at it,” said Kerr.

“But if we wait on the sidelines and leave people to their own devices, leave them in their own ghetto, for want of a better term, then we’re not going to end up benefiting and they’re not going to end up having the benefits of what they could achieve at local level and recreational level.

“We’re not just thinking about international sport here. International sport is for the elite but recreational sport is for everyone.”

Listening to Kerr speaking on Thursday was to be reminded of how much the man still has to offer Irish sport, whether his immediate future lies in this country or not. One thing’s for sure, he wants next year’s Intercontinental League to appear under someone else’s name, appealing for sponsors to come forward and invest some “dosh” in the tournament.

Of course, ultimately its real success will be measured by how many ethnic players take their talents into the mainstream of Irish football, from the grassroots on up. As Kerr quipped, this is perhaps the only league in the world where the organisers are actively encouraging poaching of players.

To keep up to date with the league - which kicked off with a 3-3 draw between China and Poland at Dalymount - or to find out more about SARI, you can log on to www.sari.ie

All concerned deserve our support and best wishes.

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