Being named as the Ireland manager’s assistant would, at the best of times, be a head-spinning moment.
But when it happens at what feels to so many like the worst of times, it’s hardly a surprise that Keith Andrews reaches for words like ‘surreal’ and ‘bizarre’ to describe the experience.
“It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks or so, it happened very quickly,” says Stephen Kenny’s number two. “With everything that’s going on in the world it seems slightly surreal but, nonetheless, to be named assistant to Stephen is a very proud moment in my career, one I’ve worked hard at.
“But it just feels bizarre, doesn’t it? There’s a huge side of you that’s looking to what’s going on in the world, and in your country, on your doorstep practically. You’re glued to the news day in and day out and not really feeling you can do much about it, to be perfectly honest, other than stay at home and try and look after your loved ones.
“It’s been a difficult few weeks for all of us, some more than others, and the admiration I’ve got for those frontline workers, and people working in shops, and bus drivers, is huge. There’s that side of it but obviously at times you have to look at what you’ve achieved in getting this role and let it sink in. And it’s one that I’m very proud of.”
The green shirt, above all others in football, was always the ultimate goal for the 39-year-old Dubliner.
“When I grew up as a kid, the absolute be-all and end-all for me was to play for Ireland,” he says. “It wasn’t about growing up and playing for Manchester United or Liverpool — it was about playing for Ireland and worshipping the players that wore the green jersey. That’s what it was all about. Every step of my club career, if I’m being honest, I felt I had left it too late, that it wouldn’t come, that honour of wearing the jersey. When it did come at 28, it meant the absolute world to me. There were decisions that went on at club level to benefit my international career, to make sure I was in the best possible way to play for Ireland. I was very driven to play for Ireland. I’ve been very patriotic since a very young age.”
Andrews earned 35 caps for his country and, even though Ireland endured a painful tournament and the man himself was sent off in the final game against Italy, he still regards qualifying for the Euro 2012 finals as an achievement to be proud of.
“We know it didn’t go well, there’s no denying that, but it was the culmination of a bit of a journey for that squad and for me personally,” he reflects.
“We know the way the campaign had ended to try and get to the World Cup in 2010 — we don’t particularly need to go down that road now — but the galvanisation of the group, the resilience that group developed, and getting over the line to qualify for the Euros, was magnificent. And to take part — regardless of how it went — was obviously a very proud moment.”
Coaching was something he had in mind long before hanging up his boots on a playing career in England which encompassed spells at Wolves, Hull City, MK Dons, and Blackburn Rovers among other clubs.
“Certainly in terms of preparing for retirement it was always something I was keen to make strides in while I was still playing and having a career in the game,” he says.
“I suppose the coaching itself started when I was about 28/29 in the academies at clubs I played at like Blackburn, Brighton, and West Brom. I started my coaching journey with the FAI at about 29/30, a similar type of age, so it’s been going on — though obviously not to the extent it has been in the last few years — a long time. You’ve got to go and earn your stripes, you’ve got to go and make mistakes, in academies, with kids of the age of 14/15 that probably aren’t going to judge you as much as senior internationals will.
“I retired as a player coach at MK Dons and then had a full year with them as first-team coach in the Championship. I’d already been in with the [Irish] U15s with Colin O’Brien and Jason Donohue — who now manages the 15s — in a camp. That was my first experience behind the scenes as a coach/mentor to some of the young players. And the following year, I worked every camp with the 17s with Colin O’Brien, and also was involved with Paul Osam with the 16s as my schedule permitted. So that year, I spent over 90/100 days with the Irish teams — different age groups, but mainly the 17s. And fortunately, we managed to get to the European Championships and did quite well over there.
“Just in terms of learning the ropes, staff-wise, and, in international football, about how little time you have on the grass, how concise you have to be — it was invaluable.”
Andrews feels Kenny and himself are leaving the U21s in safe hands, with manager Jim Crawford having been joined on the coaching team by former international John O’Shea.
“Yeah, no pressure lads, top of the group! No, it’s been a brilliant year with the 21s, we’ve all enjoyed being a part of it, working with some really talented young players. We’ve come together as a staff and obviously now with the strides being made with Stephen going up to the senior team, and myself as well, Jim’s going to take over that team. I’d already worked with Jim with the 18s on a few camps, got on very, very, well with him, and no doubt he’ll do a brilliant job.
“Obviously, I played a lot with John during my career at international level, and have the utmost respect for him. He’s starting to make strides in his next development, he’s doing very well at Reading at the moment, getting a lot of experience, and I’ve no doubt he will be a brilliant addition to the backroom team.”
Meanwhile, at senior level, Kenny and Andrews have been joined by two more familiar faces, Damien Duff and Alan Kelly.
“Kells was goalkeeping coach during the whole time I was involved in the international set-up as a player and I got on with him particularly well,” Andrews says. “I remember when Liam Brady left the backroom team, Kells kind of had more of a prominent role in terms of being that go-between, between Mr Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli. He was brilliant for all the players, and he always kept in touch on and off throughout the years. So it’s great that Alan Kelly stays involved.
“And obviously Damien is someone that I know very, very well, again from playing with him. I’m very friendly with Damien, always kept in touch and we’d been on the pro licence together over the last 18 months or so. I’ve been in to watch Damien coach at Shamrock Rovers, I’ve been over to see him at Celtic, so he’s a very good friend of mine, and I’m very much looking forward to working alongside him.”
Andrews is relishing the busy schedule the staff and team will face when football does eventually make its comeback. Irish fans, he believes, have much to look forward to.
“People are going through a lot of pain and anguish at the moment and that’s probably going to go on for a period of time of course,” he said. “But I suppose [football is] one release for people and one element of enjoyment. It’s always been the case, hasn’t it?
“You go back to ’88 and ’90 — there were some tough times in the ’80s — and hopefully we can bring some good times and give people something to look forward to. Because with the amount of games that we’re hopefully going to have, the different competitions that we’re going to be involved in — huge, huge games — hopefully it will be an exciting next chapter.”
Currently, Andrews is doing his bit to keep the younger fans occupied by contributing coaching tips to the FAI’s online Homeskills programme. “I think it’s important that we try and protect them to a degree from what’s going on in the world [although] I’m sure they know, depending on what sort of age they are,” he observes.
“I’ve had plenty of texts and phone calls from friends, saying, ‘they’re not interested at the moment’. They were due to play competitions or some of them were going away on trips — Easter is always a popular time to bring schoolboys and schoolgirls away on trips to play in different countries.
“We know it’s been difficult for them, so hopefully we can give them just a little bit of focus and enjoyment. We’ve seen some brilliant videos coming in with tins of paint and bits of turf, it’s been brilliant to see, and hopefully that will continue over the next days and weeks.”