Ireland

How a coca-cola bottle filled with coins helped Brian Kerr reach the top

This article is part of The Cinderella Stories, a series looking at teams who came from nowhere to leave a lasting legacy. Here Garry Doyle recounts the tale of how a ‘village team’ dominated a decade despite being financial underdogs.

IT WAS AROUND eleven o’clock on a day heavy with heat. Brian Kerr was silent, his morning tea-break interrupted by a story in The Star. SHEEP GRAZING ON RICHMOND PARK screamed the headline above a picture of a flock on the St Pat’s pitch.

Part of him must have wondered how it had got this far. They were league champions a few years earlier and even though they had received IR£120,000 in transfer fees for eight of their title-winning squad, they were still squatting in a greyhound stadium at Harold’s Cross.

Money was scarce. The dressing rooms and stands in Richmond Park required an upgrade, the threat of the ground being sold remaining scarily real. “It was hard enough to see players going off to rival clubs,” Kerr says. But this was worse, bordering on mockery.

And so a fight-back began as Kerr built his second great side. But this team was a white-collar one – ‘friends from school and those that hung around the club who’d done well for themselves’ – lawyers, financiers, accountants – people who used their expertise to help St Pat’s get out of administration.

brian-kerr Source: © Tom HonanINPHO

Next, Kerr got a pair of scissors, cut the article out of the newspaper and pinned it on the inside of his locker at UCD, where he worked as lab technician. “Money was slipping away, we were in danger of being shut down,” Kerr says. “But we weren’t going anywhere without a scrap.”

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His father was also a fighting man, a winner of six Irish amateur boxing titles in the 1930s. More than anything, though, Frankie Kerr was a sportsman – buying his son a season ticket for St Pat’s just after Brian turned seven. That’s where the attachment to the club stemmed from, that and an addiction for the game. As a boy, Kerr would regularly scan the fixture lists in the evening papers, then nip across from his Drimnagh home to Richmond Park for the Pat’s matches as well as Leinster Senior League finals. “If I wasn’t playing football, I was watching it, subconsciously learning about players and teams, tactics, formations.” He was 15 when he first became a manager and not yet 30 when he took an Irish colleges team across to play the Dutch.

His eye was uncannily sharp, a lab technician who knew all about the chemistry of a football team. So when the decent and experienced St Pat’s side he inherited split up – Athlone prizing several key players away, the scourge of emigration taking top marksman Paddy Dillon, Kerr went and built a team in his own image.

There was Mark Ennis, whose father, Noel, had played for St Pat’s years earlier. Ennis junior was in non-league football with Newtown Rangers and ripping it up on the Dublin GAA scene with St Anne’s. One weekend Kerr saw him score 1-5. Within a fortnight, he was sitting in the Ennis’ front room, drinking tea with his mum and dad. When St Pat’s won the title, Ennis scored 19 goals in 30 games.

Next he went to Drogheda with the loose change left over from all those sales to Athlone and got Dave Henderson, a commanding goalkeeper and quite the character. Maurice O’Driscoll, Johnny McDonnell and Mick Moody were also part of that deal. “Signed them for the price of an auld banger,” remembers Kerr. Shamrock Rovers’ player-manager, Dermot Keely, then got a call. “It’s like this, Brian, we’ve three defenders and I’m not going to drop myself,” Keely told him. “Peter Eccles is an international now, so he’s staying.”

That left Damien Byrne who was prized away on a free transfer. Curtis Fleming – who’d go on to become a full international and Premier League veteran – was discovered in underage football, Paul Osam spotted on the non-league scene. Joe Lawless, a target-man, was bought from Bohs. Then you had Pat Kelch, who had spent time at Manchester United as a teenager, just like Pat Fenlon had at Chelsea. Both were snapped up.

curtis-fleming-1731991 Curtis Fleming made his name at St Pat's before making the leap to Middlesbrough. Source: © INPHO

“The wage bill was IR £1,100-a-week,” Kerr says. Only £25 of that went to the younger squad players, with a £5 bonus included if they got into the first team. The local fruit and veg man sponsored some of the wages. People were happy to help, Pat’s being that sort of club. “You’re a gas crowd,” Keely told Kerr, “you are like a village team playing in a really big league.”

They finished second in Kerr’s first full season and fourth a year later. But still no one gave them a chance ahead of the 1989-90 campaign as the biggest spenders tended to end up with the biggest points tally.Well, St Pat’s bucked that particular trend.

It was the maddest dressing room I was ever in,” Henderson, who has been in the game for over 40 years, says. “Not mad, mad – funny, mad. We didn’t do things that were the norm. Like, in the dressing room at Harold’s Cross, there was this adjoining room to the opposition’s place, and Kerr’d have Nudger (his assistant, Paul Nugent) eavesdropping in on their team-talk.

“Suddenly you’d get this shush. You were told to keep quiet while Nudger listened to what their manager had to say. The madness was there because we didn’t have any expectation of catching Derry (the defending champions and long-time leaders). You know they say the wind always blows strongest at the top of the mountain. Well, we didn’t get to the top until near the end which is just as well as it didn’t leave us too much time to shit ourselves.”

They’d barely time to think about anything, each of them holding down regular jobs, squeezing football into whatever free time was left in their week. Henderson was a fireman, Moody a policeman, Fleming a shop salesman. One night, when training in a fairly rough part of town, Henderson had to mind Moody’s gun, wrapped up in a towel, placed inside his goal. Other innovations paid off, Kerr arranging a set-piece session every Saturday night, on the eve of a game, to allow Fleming time to get there after work. “He’d improvise,” Henderson said of Kerr. “Not every place had floodlights so cars would be strategically parked with their lights on to shine a light on our training.”

They clicked, as a team on the park, as friends off it. “I remember, years later, saying to Brian – ‘ah you got lucky there. You were fortunate that we all got along’. But it wasn’t luck,” Henderson says. “It happened by design because Brian would look into people’s backgrounds more than anyone else. He always got someone who fitted into the group.”

And then, in a blink of an eye, it was over. “We’d been written off by so many but suddenly people realised we were good,” Henderson said. “Anyone who achieves success with a new team is cursed because it gets pulled apart so easily.” So it proved. Over the next few years, Henderson, Osam and McDonnell went to Rovers; Fleming to Middlesbrough; Fenlon, Tocky O’Connor, O’Driscoll, Lawless and Kelch to Bohs; Ennis to Derry. “It was bloody awful seeing them wearing other colours,” Kerr says.

So he had to build again, putting together a legal team to get the club back to Inchicore. “I remember going to liquidation meetings fearing we were going to be shut down,” he said. “Money was slipping away.”

Christmas 1993 would deliver a nice present, though. They were back home in their old ground.

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By now Pat Dolan and Tim O’Flaherty had emerged. O’Flaherty was a kindly figure, sensible, prudent yet resourceful – the perfect chairman. Dolan was louder, brilliantly inventive in the commercial world, controversial with his opinions. “Having those two on your side made life so much easier,” Kerr says.

pat-dolan-st-patricks-athletic-manager-1997 Pat Dolan's arrival at St Pat's was hugely significant. Source: © INPHO/Patrick Bolger

It wasn’t the only support he’d get. A supporter from Wexford used to donate his overtime money to the club. Better than that, he set up this huge coca-cola bottle in his office, asking people to fire in their loose change. Well, it turned out that by the time the bottle was full, there was £4,920 in it. O’Flaherty gave Kerr the go-ahead to use the dosh for new players.

Dave Campbell was recruited while Dolan’s Galway connections resulted in Noel Mernagh, Johnny Glynn and Ricky O’Flaherty all being signed, the coca-cola money coming in handy. Better again, Osam and McDonnell had returned while John ‘Trapper’ Treacy had stayed the course throughout the barren years. 

Liam Buckley, a former international, had fallen into non-league football. “You are not finished yet,” Kerr told him, persuading this talented veteran to come on board. When Pat Devlin lost his job at Drogheda, Kerr rang to sympathise, a kind gesture that was instantly repaid as Devlin told him about Eddie Gormley, a superb talent who was a stone-and-a-half overweight. “You could knock something out of him, Brian,” Devlin said.

He was right. Gormley, for a period, became the best player in the league. “That dressing room was full of big characters,” Gormley recalls. “Like, we were blessed to have brilliant managers, Brian, later Pat (Dolan) and Liam (Buckley). But no one shirked responsibility. I remember one game, away at UCD, and I messed up. Lost my man at a corner. He scored.

“At half-time, I was bollocked out of it. Not by the manager. By my team mates. And you took it because they were right. You didn’t answer back. You held your hands up. It was a team filled with solid people and solid players. You always knew you had a chance going into every game. I’d say we were horrible to play against.”

Like Kerr and Henderson, Gormley fell in love with the place. “It was like a working man’s club. The year after the 1995/96 title win, I was getting tapped up all over the place, teams from the North, Shelbourne – who were the big payers in the league then. Eventually I decided to stay at Pat’s. Shortly after, the Shelbourne guy who was tapping me up said they would have doubled my wages. ‘But the one thing you can’t give me is a league winners’ medal,’ I replied. That was all I wanted.”

By 1999, he’d three of them. Kerr had gone at the tail end of 1996; the Irish youth job proving too alluring. In came Dolan, who combined his commercial activities with an unexpectedly natural gift for management.

“The thing to remember is that the two people who ran Pat’s then, Brian and Pat, are amazing football men,” Henderson says. “Like, they could run the FAI. They’re geniuses. I’ve been at full-time clubs. There is a big difference between players going in every day and players having a full-time mentality.”

Pat’s figured this out quicker than most. At one stage Kerr was the only manager in the league without an international cap. Yet he was also the only manager with a coaching badge, learning how to structure training sessions and how to psychologically build a team. “Brian was a details man,” says Gormley. “He always had the opposition line-up sussed. How he got the info, I don’t know. But his knowledge of players, their weaknesses, their strengths, their habits at set-pieces; the things they didn’t do at set-plays, we’d exploit those.”

eddie-gormley-st-patricks-athletic-races-through-the-ucd-defence-28121997 Eddie Gormley became one of the league's best players in the '90s. Source: © INPHO/Patrick Bolger

Dolan, too, was a reformer, the league’s first real educator on the perils of alcohol. He was strict. “We trained an awful lot more,” Gormley says. “He introduced gym work. Brian was great, made sure you looked after yourself. He was ahead of the curve; Pat kept us there.”

Then, after guiding them to the 1998 title, Dolan moved upstairs. Buckley was back, this time as manager. “Liam had a totally different style to Brian and Pat but was also very effective.” Another title was won in 1999, their third in four years, their fourth in the ‘90s. No question, they were the team of the decade.

Their legacy goes beyond trophies, though.

They sent forward Kerr and his coaching assistant, the brilliant Noel O’Reilly, to the Irish underage sides who made history, finishing third in the 1997 Under 20 World Cup before winning Under 16 and Under 18 European championships in 1998.

Across the league, rival teams looked at the increased demands Pat’s were asking of their players and sought to outdo them. Full-time football soon became a thing; results in Europe subsequently got better.  

Some things weren’t achieved, though. There was a lot of talk around the turn of the century about the club moving to a new stadium. But it never happened. What did take place, though, was special, the delivery of results in the community as well as on the pitch.

The village team became kings of Irish football. 

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