Wednesday 17 December 2014

Ireland's early birds are up for the larks

Smiles all round as Keane proves excessively punctual and O'Neill cracks the jokes at first Irish training session, writes Liam Kelly

Published 13/11/2013 | 01:00

Roy Keane gets in some dribbling practice before yesterday’s training session in Malahide. DAVID MAHER / SPORTSFILE
Roy Keane gets in some dribbling practice before yesterday’s training session in Malahide. DAVID MAHER / SPORTSFILE

"ROY – get on down to Malahide by 9.30 in the morning, will you? The rest of us will be there about 11.0."

"Okay, gaffer," says Roy.

Goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh chimes in: "Can't we go earlier – like maybe 5.30?"

Well, it didn't quite happen like that on Day One, Year Zero of the new Republic of Ireland management era, but the underlying theme of enthusiasm and eagerness to get on with the job was apparent at the Malahide United grounds yesterday.

Keane and McDonagh were on the premises at 9.30, even though training didn't start until 11.0.

And while mischievous Martin O'Neill joked that he had ordered an early start for Keane, he quickly clarified that no, in fact, Roy had taken it upon himself to get to the training ground early in order to have everything organised in good time.

Sure, wasn't it a grand day altogether. Lovely sunshine, nice temperature for the time of year. The still, blue water shimmering and calm offshore.

Good humoured players – Robbie Keane quipped to the normally dreaded 'meeja' horde, "haven't seen yez out this early before, lads. There must be a new manager".

We smiled. We were happy. And so were the fans who came to watch training.

The media mob got to see the first 15 minutes of training, which consisted mainly of a warm-up and a few minutes watching the lads play the traditional 'piggy in the middle' game.

Two players started in the middle. It was one-touch for the guys on the edge of the circle and, despite it being a warm-up bit of ball work, there were one or two crisp tackles in the enclosed space.

Roy was standing by, observing. He was invited to join in, but declined. And then we were politely shepherded off to leave the lads to their workout.

O'Neill is the gaffer, but every move Roy made was watched closely.

He didn't actually make many moves at all, at least not while we were there, but the cameras clicked and the eyes were narrowed to see if ... if what?

He suddenly exploded in rage? He kicked a ball away in anger? He berated players for not training as intensely as he wanted them to train?

Maybe, at some time, there may be a requirement for some vehement contribution by Keane.

It could happen if the team is at home to someone like Austria, and getting sloppy with the passing, or players are ducking out of tackles, or coasting when they should be grinding.

But not this time. Yesterday was a getting-to-know-you session for all concerned within the management group and the players.

Sweetness and light. No tension. And no need for any because we are so far away from a competitive fixture, with the rest of season 2013-14 to come, and then a World Cup in the summer before the adrenalin and nerves return to the Irish international scene.

Casting about for angles for articles, one of our group spotted an ad: 'Say goodbye to ordinary, hello to extraordinary'.

No names, no free advertising, but that slogan could well apply to the dream team management duo of O'Neill and Keane.

I looked out to sea, and pondered the sight of Lambay Island, reputedly the first place that the longboats of the fierce Vikings made landfall in Ireland, over a thousand years ago.

Could there be something there?

Maybe a pithy little comment implying that the nervous anticipation of the Vikings coming towards the seashore could hardly match the national clamour over the Martin & Roy show coming to town?

Too far out, man. And anyway, the Facebook, Twitter and computer games generation are probably largely ignorant of, and couldn't care less about, the Vikings.

QUALITY

But many of them do know their football. And they also know that in O'Neill and Keane, they have two quality football men in charge of the Irish team's fortunes for two years.

The players know that, too. And they soon will find out the answers to some important questions, such as 'can Andy Reid bring his guitar along for a post-match sing-song?'

And 'can we have a few beers and enjoy ourselves after a match?' – something which Giovanni Trapattoni never quite appreciated about the Irish footballing psyche.

Well, O'Neill hails from a generation of players that knew how to enjoy themselves when the work was done, and he's no prude.

Ireland's new manager also has a quirky sense of humour, and he rose nicely to the challenge when queried about Reid's guitar-playing.

"If he plays it well, I haven't a problem with it, but at some stage Andy will have to go to bed, and if he's still playing it at 5.30 am, even if we won, I might get fed up with that," explained O'Neill.

Point taken. Andy might well wait a while before packing the songbook and the guitar along with his boots, just to be on the safe side. As for the issue of a jar or two, or even three, post-match, the gaffer had an open mind. But let nobody be in any doubt that he demands performance before pleasure.

"Winning the games is very, very important," he said. "I am not a dinosaur and I do believe in giving the players a little bit of time, particularly if they have earned it. But if they haven't earned it, I'll tell you I can be as severe as anybody."

Irish Independent

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