Warrior, patriot and even a joker – it's the Second Coming of Roy Keane
Roy returns to fold with first press conference in Ireland job, writes Lise Hand
A GLIMMER of mischief ghosted across Roy Keane's face. "We've had a lovely few days," he said. "The hotel's been lovely, the food's been excellent, the training ground is lovely – no pot-holes. We had footballs, it's been great, bibs, everything. It's been major progress."
Laughter rose from the packed-to-capacity press conference. The laughter contained genuine amusement mingled with a mixture of relief and disbelief. Relief that Keano was so . . . well . . . likeable. And disbelief that he could indulge in a bit of mickey-taking about the seismic dust-up that was Saipan.
Nobody quite knew what to expect from his first press conference in his new job. For a start, assistant managers of national teams generally don't hold solo confabulations with the media. And if they do, the event sure as heck isn't shown live on three TV channels – RTE Now, Sky Sports and TV3, there aren't banks of photographers, squadrons of sports journalists and even special rock gig-style paper wristbands for access.
But then this isn't a run-of-the-mill second in command. It's Keano. The fiercest of footballers who emerged from tunnels in Lansdowne Road and Old Trafford like Spartacus emerging into a lion-filled Colosseum. Keano, the volatile, uncompromising midfield general who alternately inspired his troops and demoralised them. The national player who either stuck to his principles or abandoned the Boys in Green, depending on which side of the Saipan fence one sits.
It's the bewildering kaleidoscope of Roy Keane characters which has turned him into an object of fascination – there's the solitary Keano walking Triggs; captain Keano with his veins popping with passion as he blazes around the field; or mouthy Keano putting a hard boot into the prawn sandwich brigade, into his team-mates or – literally – into the opposition.
Nobody was sure which Roy Keane would turn up in the Grand Hotel in Malahide, and beforehand there was an air of tension among sports reporters torn between being wary and worshipful.
Mobile phones were checked and re-checked to ensure they were on silent, and then a sudden hush fell on the room when he strode in a few minutes ahead of schedule, engulfed by clicking cameras – except for the lone loud voice of the Sky chap urgently reporting back to base: "HE'S HERE NOW, HE'S HERE NOW." It was the Second Coming of Keano.
Fit, lean and unsmiling, he initially seemed to be in full Spartacus mode, momentarily casting his eyes heavenwards as the cameras clicked furiously. And when one journalist observed that Roy had turned up early, asking would he demand such punctuality from the players, he was rewarded with a gimlet stare. "You expect that from anybody, to be on time for work. Jesus, you know, I'm not looking for miracles," he bristled.
But then a different Roy emerged. A thoughtful, slyly humorous man whose answers were startlingly devoid of the usual cliches or circumlocution.
When asked what he thought he could bring to the job of assistant manager, he mulled over the question. "Lots of experience, lots of knowledge, hopefully I like to set high standards – a lot of people seem to have an issue with that. A lot of criticism I faced over the last 15 or 20 years is that I'm very demanding and I don't settle for second-best," he said. "I'm certainly not going to apologise for that."
Roy may have had a spectacular and bitter fallout with Alex Ferguson, but in his new boss Martin O'Neill he has found another tough father figure.
"We're certainly not buddies," he declared. "I think I'm going to have to be the good cop. He makes me look like . . ." he cast about for a suitable example . . . "Mother Theresa," he concluded to more laughter. "It should be interesting," he added.
But in between the humour and the straight talking, there were glimpses of just how much this job means to the man. Several times he spoke about how it had been an easy decision to take the Ireland job. There had been no reservations – "none whatsoever", he declared.
A while later he added: "I know people think I'm a little bit crazy, but I would've been crazy to turn it down. There wasn't one bone in my body that said, 'Nah, this is not for me'."
There was a sense that he'd been a little bit lost since he was sacked from Ipswich almost two years ago. He insisted that he'd "kept busy". He kept going to games, he did a bit of commentary work on the telly.
But there was a sense that he was adrift without the football brotherhood. "I've missed having the bit of craic, I love football chats, we've had good craic with the staff and players the last couple of nights. I missed that side of it, I have to say, that's one of the real plusses, getting back into football."
And maybe, given the messy, unsatisfactory end to his time in a green shirt, there's a chance of redemption now. "There's an emotional attraction to it, to get back involved with Ireland," he admitted.
But will Martin O'Neill have to tame him? "There's nothing to tame, like some sort of animal," he protested.
Everyone in the room – including the new deputy-gaffer – was enjoying themselves. This was a markedly different Roy than the adamantine warrior of so many legends. There's a quiet charisma to him, the belligerence has mellowed although his aversion to making apologies of any sort remains firmly in place.
But maybe we've all mellowed too. We're all in a different place now, and maybe he needs our respect and affection as much as we need a bit of the spirit of Spartacus.
It wasn't just a press conference. It was a homecoming too.
see sport: pages 61-63