Ireland walking a drink culture tightrope
"Living in Ireland, the drink is going to be there all the time. When I come back I get a bit of a buzz for two or three days. I think it's embedded in us. This thing, 'let's get out, there's something on here and there'. Drink. It's in the air."
The gospel according to Roy Keane may not possess the lustre of former times given his most recent managerial fallibilities, but, as the fella says, it takes one to know one.
Keane's involvement with the Irish set-up, stemming from the halcyon days of the early 1990s when players openly supped porter among their adoring fans -- and, heaven forfend, pesky scribes -- offer him a unique insight into the drink culture that is attached, albeit not exclusively, to the national team.
From Paul McGrath through the squad's perennial residency in Rumours, from Starsky & Hutch impressions on Harcourt Street to gin-soaked barbecues on a sultry Pacific Island, Ireland's relationship with drink has always formed as intimate a relationship as that between Ryan Giggs and his in-laws.
Attempts to inform a stiffer, stricter regime, as policed by Brian Kerr, only for his star striker Robbie Keane to flaunt his disregard for the policy, have always been doomed to failure.
The current incumbent, Giovanni Trapattoni, attempted to instil his own particularly draconian, old school disciplinary influence when he inherited the post, to which Andy Reid can still ruefully attest as he continues to be exiled from the squad after being singled out from a clutch of players who deigned to break a curfew.
Now comes news of another allegedly breached curfew in the team's Portmarnock hotel last month, linked to an alleged bust-up in the team hotel between a senior player and a senior member of the management team amid scenes redolent of the fag end of a particularly messy night back in a student flat after the pubs have shut.
In a season when Richard Dunne was fined for a drunken outburst against his Aston Villa coaches and optional Irish international Leon Best was reprimanded for appearing in a Newcastle nightclub on the eve of a Premier League game, the off-field excesses of Irish footballers have again been thrown into the spotlight.
Trapattoni's hard-headed approach to those Irish players who refused to answer the call of their country ushered in a remarkably successful month of action -- a Carling Nations Cup success, three hard-earned points in Macedonia and a notable victory for an under-strength side against world-class Italy.
However, it is clear that he, for all his avuncular attempts to impose the sort of rigorous discipline the 72-year-old would expect, that which Robin van Persie this week bemoaned of his English colleagues in the Premier League, have been buttressed by a cultural dependency on adolescent behaviour.
What was alleged in a Sunday newspaper yesterday -- and anyone at a League of Ireland game last Friday or in Twitterland could identify the subjects -- may not have fatally damaged team morale. The results this past month vividly illustrate this.
But who is to say such recidivist behaviour cannot harm Ireland with tougher tasks lying ahead against Slovakia at home and Russia away?
It is a thin line and the FAI's demonstrative actions in asserting that the alleged incident is merely a figment of the imagination -- yesterday they issued a firm "no comment" -- implies that they feel comfortable maintaining a similar balancing act.
The manager remains seemingly unperturbed, assuming that the purported handshake between the alleged warring parties is sufficient to render the affair as a non-event.
Certainly, Trapattoni's most recent public utterances upon the topic of his players' extra-curricular activities would seem to suggest an almost weary acceptance that boys will be boys.
"The rules are rules," Trapattoni told us earlier this year in the wake of the respective Best and Dunne imbroglios.
"There is the moment after game, when I allow the players to have one or two drinks and when I say: 'It's time to go to bed', it's time to go to bed. I want to build the team with this mentality.
"When a story came out that they had apparently gone in the pub, I asked them about it. And I allow them one or two after the game when we can drink a beer with the doctor. There are four, five or six players, not many, and after the game we may drink wine together.
"I have to allow them to let steam off somehow. If that's what they like, that's fine. We're not in prison and it's better when I allow them a drink, rather than forbid them. Then they would have to run off and do it behind my back. You have to trust them. You can't be with them all of the time. You can't go to bed together. You also need them to take responsibility."
Last October, there were Sunday newspaper reports of Irish players appearing in a north Dublin nightclub after the loss to Russia and more allegedly pitched up there just three days before the 1-1 draw with Slovakia in a crunch qualifier in Zilina.
Irish captain Keane was also in the dock at Spurs in 2009 for organising an unsanctioned Christmas party trip to Dublin, while he also upset Kerr when being pictured carousing on the town and singing karaoke days before a crucial World Cup qualifier against France in 2005. The problem of Irish soccer players drinking is a social and cultural one; in the past, players were not as richly rewarded and there was an acceptance that nocturnal activities would rarely appear in the media.
In this age of camera phones, super injunctions and social media, a seemingly cosseted collection of footballers, normally protected by burly minders, agents and electronic gates, are just seconds away from public exposure and ridicule, to the extent that, say, rugby and GAA players in Ireland rarely experience.
Leinster's Heineken Cup winners went on a self-confessed late-night in Kiely's following their win; they were the European champions, though. The key here is context; they were winners and mingled freely with their uncynical fans.
Trapattoni has tried -- and predominantly failed -- to stem the problems in his Irish camp. Even when he dismissed Reid, Trap was forced to admit that up to 10 players had broken a curfew in Germany, hours after the side beat Georgia and four days before a draw in the scorching heat of Montenegro.
Clearly, Trapattoni was liberal enough to allow his players to indulge between crucial World Cup qualifying matches when crucial World Cup qualifying points were dropped. Three years later, he still tacitly allows his players to troop dutifully down to their familiar north Dublin hostelries.
Which seems fair enough; wearing a green shirt should not be a duty, despite the often drawn and weary faces of the often distant millionaires within it.
But it is also a privilege. Having the endearingly Irish 'one or two' should never be prohibited; unlikely Irish successes of yore were predicated upon such quaint notions. The problem occurs when the line has been crossed from high jinks to high stakes. It is then that the issue appears through a glass darkly.