As the Faroe Islands confound the pandemic and get their league back up and running, Brian Kerr recalls his memorable adventures in the North Atlantic for.
That the Faroe Islands have been able to lead the way in the resumption of football in Europe hasn’t come as a massive surprise to Brian Kerr, the former Ireland manager who got to the know the country well when he took charge of the national team of this extraordinary North Atlantic outpost back in 2009.
The Faroes’ remoteness, he suggests, would have helped provide a natural barrier against the spread of the corona virus after it began its migration from China, helped by the fact that the tiny population always had a tendency towards a form of self-isolation from Christmas through to Easter, with travel in and out of the country strictly limited during the long winter months.
“It wouldn’t be like the way our people go commuting back and forth from Cork and Dublin to London every week,” he observes. “There would only be a couple of flights a day in the winter, so you don’t get that much movement.
“And then, in terms of social distancing, not a big problem there,” he adds with a chuckle, “because everyone has their own mountain.”
The country's success in taking additional measures to shield itself from the worst effects of the pandemic is reflected in the figures: out of its scattered population of a little under 50,000, there has been a total of just 187 positive tests - all since recovered - and no deaths. Recently feeling sufficiently confident to declare the archipelago of eighteen islands free of Covid-19, Prime Minister Bardur a Steig Nielsen said: “As a nation, we have achieved what few other countries have managed to do as a society and we should be grateful and proud of what we have accomplished. We will soon be able to get back to normal daily life as much as we can under these abnormal circumstances.”
Thus the backdrop to the worldwide headlines garnered last weekend by the Premier Division’s return for the first time since October, albeit behind closed doors but with the novel add-on that Norway’s TV2 have signed a deal to show the new season’s games live. As the station’s Sports Editor pithily explained: "A little less talk and a little more action - that's the job I hope that the Faroe Islands will do for us."
Back in 2009, the Faroese certainly got plenty of talk as well as some memorable action when Brian Kerr landed in lovely little Torshavn – a candidate for the world’s smallest capital – to take up his second posting in international football. He’d been there before, leading Ireland to a 2-0 win in a World Cup qualifier in 2005, but now he knew he would have more time to savour the astonishing natural beauty of his new home from home.
“There was this feeling I used to have whenever I’d get off the plane there,” he told me this week. “It was so spectacular, so gorgeous. And I used to think: ‘Imagine, they’re paying me for this gig!’”.
Mind, he also knew he was going to have to work hard for the rewards. The Faroes, after all, were the minnows straight from central casting, the ultimate walk-ons on the international stage. As a fantastic example of a gaffer ‘running the rule’ over his charges, Brian’s description of his first 22-man squad in 2009 remains in a league of its own.
"We have four carpenters, at least six full-time students – one of them had to fly to Copenhagen and back for an exam this week – two policemen, an accountant, one fella works in a sports shop, two teachers, Andreas works in a bowling alley, and he's doing a bit of carpentry as well. Simun is full-time in Iceland, Suni works in a fish factory, I think Frodi's a builder, Jakup is a teacher but he's on the town council as well, he's like a TD. That's kind of the run of it. The pool is quite limited, there's no one at Milan we've missed out on. The Granny Rule isn't much help either. The Faroese haven't been huge at emigration."
One of Kerr’s first ambitions was to try to get a team which had grown defiantly accustomed to a siege mentality to believe they could play a little further up the pitch.
“They played so deep, they’d be getting battered and, as a manager, your heart would be in your mouth,” he recalls now. “But it was no problem to them. I’d be going, ‘if we don’t get out of this box we’re going to concede six or seven’. But with them it was kind of like, ‘we’re used to this and we know we’ll be lucky and the ball will hit the bar or someone will miskick when they should score and we know the ‘keeper will make a few saves’.
I’d be going nuts but they’d be real calm under pressure. They were used to it. But after a while they did move up a gear and started playing out.”
And with some notable success too. Under Kerr and his right-hand man Johnny McDonnell, the Faroes enjoyed what was, for them, a number of milestone results, including a 2-1 win over Lithuania in a World Cup qualifier in 2009, a 1-1 draw with Nigel Worthington’s Northern Ireland in a European Championship game in 2010 and then, in the same campaign the following year, a celebrated 2-0 victory over Estonia, a result which marked the country’s first win in Euros qualifying since they’d beaten fellow rank outsiders San Marino in 1995.
In short, when Kerr made the decision to move on in late 2011, he could feel satisfied that he was leaving the Faroes team in a better place than he’d found them – as, indeed, was reflected in an improvement in their rankings - as well as bequeathing luminous memories for all concerned of what he called at the time “some special days”.
Not surprisingly, he retains a keen interest in their fortunes on the pitch to this day.
“They’re still much the same,” he says. “They wouldn’t have too much of the ball but they’d still be trying to play when they have it, even against the best of teams. A good few of them are still playing that we’d have brought in. So I have that familiarity with them and a passion for them to do well, always hoping they can pull out another big result, like the two wins they had over Greece (home and away in the Euro 2016 qualifiers)
which were sensational. They tend to get one or two results in every campaign. And they’re certainly not getting beaten heavily.”
And, in this foul year of 2020, he thinks there might even be an unexpected footballing benefit for the Faroes arising out of their resistance to the pandemic.
“Their remoteness always meant it was difficult to get any other leagues to take their players but that has been slowly improving and maybe these matches being on the telly might help,” he says. “They’re never going to be exporting players like they have in, say, Iceland, because there’s just not enough of them to go around but, of course, in the wider scheme of things, that’s actually a big plus for them at the moment.”
Kerr still keeps in touch with friends in the Faroes, including the team’s former kitman Barour Olsen, with whom he was exchanging messages this week about football’s rebirth on the islands. And Brian says he’d relish an opportunity to visit there again for the first time since he was on RTE duty in Torshavn for Ireland’s 4-1 win under Giovanni Trapattoni in October, 2012.
“It’s such an amazing place and I’m sure it hasn’t changed much,” he reflects. “Tourism is important to them but I don’t think it’s ever going to take off like in Iceland. And I don’t think they want that to happen either. They want to retain the uniqueness and the unspoilt nature of the place. Yeah, I’ve love to go back there.”
Another one for the bucket list, come the day of liberation.