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Adrian Chiles looked pleased as he was introducing ITV’s Champions League coverage in San Sebastian on Tuesday, stood alongside Ireland’s new management team, Martin O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane. He was even confident/brave enough to liken them to “Laurel and Hardy,” with Keane stood well within arms-reach (Lee Dixon offered “dumb and dumber”, which was braver/dafter still). Chiles will almost certainly be bidding a farewell of sorts to charmless pundit Keane, now that the Corkman has decided that being Ireland’s assistant manager is a better bet than watching England scuff their way through qualifying campaigns. Keane will, of course, show the commitment to his new role that he’s so publicly and combatively demanded of others in Ireland’s set-up. So Keane will not emulate Gordon Strachan, who currently combines ITV punditry with managing Scotland. Unless Keane is some sort of hypocrite. And anyone reading Keane: My Autobiography, written about a 30-year-old Keane, while Roy was raging about “how many books (Ferguson) has written now” will know that he doesn’t do hypocrisy.
To some of us, Keane as Ireland’s number two (a description with more than one meaning) is a price worth paying for O’Neill becoming Ireland’s number one. The actual price that the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) have paid is another matter, of course. Giovanni Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli’s contracts were negotiated in 2008 at the fag-end of Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” times. Ireland’s economic “miracle” had already earned the inverted commas. But the FAI – in keeping with FA traditions elsewhere in the region – were far enough behind the times to remunerate the Italian duo as if the times were still good. And O’Neill isn’t coming cheap, however much the nation owes the European Union in bail-out money (one caller to Dublin’s Newstalk radio station this week said he hoped the rumoured salary figures “are in euro not sterling”).
He didn’t come cheap to his last two EPL clubs – Aston Villa and Sunderland (and you won’t find many nods of approval on Wearside for the O’Neill/Keane combo), although at least international football doesn’t, yet, have a transfer market in which O’Neill can dabble at semi-ruinous cost. Of course, there is a transfer issue of sorts concerning players opting for the Republic rather than Northern Ireland. And the FAI will surely have given due consideration to O’Neill’s potential abilities in that area – as a Northern Ireland international who would tell you he was born in County Derry rather than Londonderry. O’Neill is also, relatively tarnished goods – at least compared to the summer of 2012, when hindsight tells us and foresight told us, that Trapattoni should have created the Ireland managerial vacancy.
Back then, the concept of O’Neill “losing the dressing-room” was alien. Ireland have to hope that the bitter end of his Sunderland tenure was just a blip rather than a sign of football-managerial old age. But he is undoubtedly the number one choice, given his availability. Remember, Gerard Houllier was third favourite with some bookmakers just a few short weeks ago. O’Neill comes with respect already earned and a passion for the job, whatever the veracity of the rumours that he would rather be back in club management. FAI Chief Executive John Delaney told BBC Northern Ireland that O’Neill “could have had multiple (club) jobs,” but that he was “more than 100% excited” about managing Ireland.
So Keane is the story here. I entertained brief hopes that the O’Neill/Keane headlines which greeted the news of the appointments was a reference to Robbie – the “Keano” of the song, “there’s only one Keano,” for over a decade now. I even suggested the concept to friends after Ireland’s defeat in Vienna in September – and they didn’t walk away laughing…no more than usual, anyway. One even praised my thinking as “imaginative,” which indicated two things to me: 1) that it was nearly closing time; and 2) that there was no way the FAI would come up with it. Having said the latter, there clearly has been some imagination involved in these appointments, not least in imagining that Roy Keane’s relationship with his new employers, in particular Delaney, will be smooth from the start. Delaney has done the media rounds this week, insisting that he was “very taken” with and “very impressed by” Keane when they had their first “long chat” last week and that there hadn’t been that much “contact” in the past – a phrase I can’t pass without envisaging Keane making somewhat direct contact with the association chief.
Delaney told Newstalk that at their “absolutely brilliant” meeting, he and Keane had “discussed the past for about 30 seconds, it was all about the future and how two great icons of Irish soccer…and people like myself and the Association can work together for the betterment of Irish football.” On BBC Northern Ireland, he revealed Keane’s “detailed knowledge not only of the Irish players at the highest level in England but also at the lower levels.” And his “real knowledge of the League of Ireland here that” Delaney added, correctly, “may surprise people.” Indeed, Delaney has exuded a not-often previously-apparent confidence that the appointments will be both popular and, ultimately, justified. He even took things in his stride when Newstalk’s Pat Kenny rolled a tape of Keane ranting about “John Delaney? I wouldn’t take any notice of that man” in relation to Keane’s walkout on Ireland’s 2002 World Cup squad in Saipan.
“I’ve been involved with Ireland since I was 15…and that man didn’t have the decency to make a phone call. He could have phoned me, of course he could have. Try my hotel room,” Keane continued, referring to the then-FAI treasurer’s claims that he didn’t know the midfielder‘s post-tantrum whereabouts. “Irrelevant,” Delaney told Kenny, firmly and correctly, perhaps sensing that Keane’s words now sound like those of a jumped-up little pri…ma donna – a view then held by many, upon which I could not possibly comment. Delaney’s confidence will have at least partly come from the immediate tangible benefit of a ticket for Ireland’s friendly international against Latvia next week being hotter than envisaged when the fixture was arranged. But if it all goes as pear-shaped as many fear it might, Delaney has missed no opportunity to stress that Keane was O’Neill’s choice – “the backroom staff is his decision completely,” he told Kenny. “If (Martin) told me who my commercial manager should be, or my finance director, that wouldn’t be (his) side of it but when he wants an assistant manager…that’s the manager’s decision.”
Keane could bring the professional and winning mentalities to Ireland’s set-up that many critics believe it has lacked even during successful qualifying campaigns – among the loudest and most persistent of those critics being Keane himself, of course. Keane also knows the modern game as well as anybody O’Neill could have chosen, with his not-too-distant experience of managing at the top two levels of the English club game, from whence most of any Irish squad is destined to come for a while yet. And charmlessly strident though his punditry may be, he has always appeared well-informed and perceptive – although creating that impression isn’t over-difficult when you’re sat alongside Andy Townsend.
Strachan often creates the same impression, even if his cheeky-chappie style grates with many observers as much as Keane’s surliness. And Strachan has thus far taken well to international management, making the most of a limited talent pool – precisely the role for which O’Neill and Keane have been chosen. Yet Keane’s near-obsession with the Irish set-up’s perceived mental weaknesses has betrayed his own weaknesses almost as well as his EPL and Championship club management failures. “Only here for the sing-song” is the Irish version of Keane’s “prawn sandwich brigade” tirade against sections of Manchester United’s crowds in 2000. But these comments covered a time when Ireland largely punched above their weight.
There is no evidence that Ireland’s results would have been any better if players had displayed Keane’s bug-eyed determination and ferocity. Under Trapattoni’s Ireland teams were already as difficult to beat as they were to watch and were never there for the sing-song. And his criticism of Keith Andrews for praising supporters after Ireland’s dismal 4-0 defeat to Spain at Euro 2012 was grossly unfair on the Ireland midfielder. “It’s just nonsense from players speaking after the games about how great the supporters are,” Keane ranted, oblivious to the fact that Andrews was only answering the question he was asked. Keane dragged matches by the scruff of their necks because he could; an ability he only showed intermittently for Ireland, despite the glowing reminiscences to which we’ve been “treated” this week. As Delaney said: “He’s played great games for Ireland (and) delivered on many, many occasions.” But there were some not-so-great games and many – possibly even “many, many” – occasions where Keane did not “deliver.”
Certainly for now, Keane will have to work with players who do not have that ability and he will have to manage his own expectations rather better than he has before, although his ability to suffer fools will have benefited from his time in ITV studios. Yet I fear the worst from the scenario where a teenage squad debutant turns up half-an-hour late for the team coach and tells Keane “I didn’t ask you to wait for me,” as Keane told Jack Charlton in 1991. The appointment of a Derry/Cork combination should please critics of Ireland’s Dublin-centric set-up, among the loudest and most persistent being Keane himself, of course. And since Charlton’s era, there has always been a fascination over when (not if) ‘controversial’ TV pundit Eamon Dunphy would turn against any new Ireland regime.
This time, Dunphy’s relationship with Keane added to that fascination. He “wrote” Keane’s autobiography (some would delete the inverted commas and Keane himself claimed he hadn’t read it). And Dunphy fiercely defended Keane’s Saipan puerility. But their relationship has since emerged as “not close”, especially after Dunphy said the then-Sunderland manager was “not cut out for management.” And he quickly revealed that he initially considered Keane’s appointment a “gimmick” adding, “there’s potential there for a train-wreck, especially at press conferences.” But he has since acknowledged that Keane “will create excitement and a buzz around the team.”
Dunphy has already lauded O’Neill as “an outstanding manager, strong and smart,” adding “we’ve had seven years of messing since the Steve Staunton era…Martin O’Neill will get rid of all that nonsense…we can be confident now that the best team will be picked,” And in that Dunphy has probably caught the mood of the nation…for once. However, O’Neill’s biggest, task as Ireland boss will be to be the boss. He clearly believes that he can make Keane channel his ‘energies’ positively. And if O’Neill can make Keane accept being governed, the “winning games” and “qualifying for tournament finals” stuff will be a breeze.
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