Wednesday 20 September 2017

Dynamic duo plot a destiny for others to follow

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill (right) and assistant manager Roy Keane
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill (right) and assistant manager Roy Keane
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, right, and assistant manager Roy Keane
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane issues instructions as manager Martin O'Neill looks on
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane
David Kelly

David Kelly

It was a night of sporting rubbernecking. It was difficult to delineate between those who had come to bear witness to what may happen on the field, as opposed to the prospect of what might happen off it.

Twelve months ago, Ireland played a dutiful friendly against a Greek side to whom they generally bequeathed the gift of an eminently forgettable 1-0 victory.

Less than half of the attendance here deigned to pitch up for the fatuous exercise; the contrast to last night's air-gulping expectancy could not have been more profound.

There was an electricity everywhere; unlike in the dog days of Giovanni Trapattoni's era, when it was akin to listening to the reading of a will by candlelight.

The buzz was faintly overblown in some quarters; as if we were attending the Cheltenham Gold Cup, yet secretly coveting a magnificent pile-up at the first fence.

The expectation from this partnership, at least the presumed Dionysian explosion from the Roy Keane half of the partnership, has fuelled much of the incessant pre-match hype.

WEARINESS

As if weariness has been supplanted by wariness.

It is not within the DNA of the Irish to embrace volatility; instead we would rather peer in mock disgust from afar, spewing feigned horror at such an outcome before telling anyone who will listen that they had always anticipated such a scenario in the first place.

This management will not shy from the turbulent path. For them, their credo will be to thrive, not merely survive. Expression, on and off the pitch, will be allowed to flourish.

There can be no motion without friction.

Not all of it will be for public display; that is the greatest challenge for this management team, particularly the half that has lived the majority of his life immersed in the glare of the spotlight.

This duo have always chosen to plot their own destiny first and then demand of others to follow.

There are only a few hundred in the ground when Keane emerges from the tunnel for the warm-up at the appointed time – 6.57.

The only concession to the lazy caricature of those who condemn him before he takes his first steps in this job is that he walks out alone.

He chews gum incessantly, prompting a fleeting reminder that there are some traits of Alex Ferguson's character he does not entirely eschew. He plunges for the bibs and prepares the footballs, the physical manifestations of preparation that so signified that distant volcanic other life.

He jests with his colleagues before directing the troops; the soothing banalities of a sporting life he has missed for some time.

Keane's awesome first touch directs shooting practice; James McClean blazes a shot high into the bleachers. Keane smiles wanly. What do we expect? A right uppercut to upbraid the errant shooter?

O'Neill has not yet emerged from the dressing-room; they are at once a partnership and yet individual forces.

In a far corner of the field, Steve Staunton and Niall Quinn chow for TV money; Keane assumed the once poisonous 'Mother Teresa' mantle from Quinn this week.

A blizzard of swirling history seems to be dissipating before all our eyes.

This night is about the future. And, more than the dynamic duo off the field, the team they'd detailed to perform upon it, their first statement of intent on the long road of experimentation before Euro 2016 qualification begins in 11 months.

O'Neill enters as if enmeshed within his own caricature; almost deferentially, with little fuss, no elaborate wave to the crowd.

He stares intently at the Irish flag during the anthem, home thoughts of a Kilrea childhood perhaps toying with the presence of his 61-year-old self and the distances he has travelled to get to this place.

For 10 minutes, he sits and shuffles, now cross-legged, then legs swinging furiously, conducting an intense monologue with himself, like Woody Allen reciting a new script to himself.

Opposition goal-kicks are awaited with the fretful demeanour of a man awaiting the birth of his first child; he is a bundle of nervous energy.

He rises to his feet to exhort McClean; he makes the odd pertinent note and stuffs a pad in the inside pocket of his neat blazer.

Keane and the rest of the management are in tracksuits.

It is wholly clear who is in charge. O'Neill does defer. But he is the boss.

For now, Robbie remains the most important Keane for Ireland's cause. When his almost inevitable goal arrives, the reaction is restrained on the bench.

O'Neill applauds; Keane delivers the instinctive fist pump of the old prize fighter. There are no theatrics. Emotion is checked at the expense of professional rigour.

O'Neill's empathy with his wingers his most pronounced, particularly with man of the match McClean, from whom he produces a consistency of effort which has been lacking of late from his erstwhile employee.

O'Neill also exhorts his team to press higher than his predecessor; against a Latvian team who will find their level when playing Yeovil next week, that is a relatively easy task.

Aiden McGeady, another former charge who scored on his debut for Celtic under O'Neill, also benefit; both the pressing and engagement with wingers combines to provide the second goal as he returns the favour to the Derryman.

Keane's raised hands are a defiance of his own and our troubled past; a gesture to embrace a positive future.

The reality, however, is that Ireland remain an ordinary enough team; two extraordinary men will hope to provoke something beyond this team's genuine limitations.

From this day forward, we can begin to assess more than just the personalities on the line, but how those personalities can influence their players. As the banner unfurled at half-time proclaims, rather grandly, "north men, south men, comrades all."

By the games end, the faces of Keane and O'Neill are creased in smiles. The odd couple a happy couple, exchanging perfunctory handshakes.

Personal and professional reputations are on the line for both these men. Their skin is in the game and the game is under their skins.

Irish Independent

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