No room for loyalty in business of football
Support for O'Neill rare solidarity in ruthless environment
Published 28/10/2013 | 01:00
ACCORDING to the dictionary, to be loyal is to give or show 'firm and constant support or allegiance to a person or institution'.
Last Tuesday, Roy Keane accused Alex Ferguson of not knowing the meaning of the word. By the definition of loyalty, it is hard to think of too many people within football who fully meet the criteria when it comes to the cold, hard business of the game.
Players tend to constantly look out for just the one person (themselves of course), while the football clubs, personified by their decisions makers, firmly concentrate on the institution (their own club to be precise) for that is how they control self-preservation.
If there is a decision to be made that benefits both the person and the institution, it's generally a bonus, a marriage of convenience.
Ferguson cherished Roy Keane as a person until he ceased to be useful to the institution. Keane was obsessed by Manchester United, the institution, until the manager made the call to cut him free from it.
Club football is a part-time bedfellow of loyalty in the traditional sense of the word. That point is stressed even further by looking closer to home.
Today, most of the players who battled hard for little reward in the League of Ireland this year are out of contract and unemployed.
Only a lucky few are tied down for 2014 – because they are more useful to the clubs than the others – and for some of that contingent, the supposed security doesn't guarantee payment over the winter.
Dundalk have made the best progress, tying down the nucleus of their squad and, while that demonstrates a certain affinity with Stephen Kenny and the positive atmosphere created at the club by their exploits, the final decisions were largely guided by pragmatism.
One of their star assets indicated to a Dublin club that he would jump ship if they paid him 52 weeks of the year because that's what Dundalk were offering.
They refused to go that far and the player pledged his services to Oriel Park. It's hard to condemn his thought process in the current climate. His negotiation strategy was logical.
The further you drop down the food chain, the more implausible the concept of loyalty to a club becomes. Yet it's also where another brand of loyalty thrives.
Considering that he has lined out for eight different clubs, the latest of them being Drogheda United, Gary O'Neill doesn't exactly fit the 'loyal servant' criteria. As a family man, he's had to play the percentage with his career choices. Sometimes, he moved of his own volition, other times employers moved him along.
His sudden diagnosis with testicular cancer has prompted a remarkable response from his fellow players, regardless of their club allegiances. With the help of the PFAI, they have driven a fundraising effort to ease the burden on his shoulders.
The warmth stems from O'Neill's basic decency, and the reaction has illustrated that footballers are capable of loyalty in the truest sense of the word when their profession's warped interpretation is removed from the equation.
Indeed, the outpouring of support for Stiliyan Petrov across the water has portrayed the stars of the Premier League in a better light, with John Terry emerging as an unlikely confidante and friend to a guy that he's never actually shared a dressing-room with.
Last Friday, the worlds of contrasting wealth collided when Keane paid O'Neill a house visit.
When the Corkman learned of O'Neill's situation on a trip home, he immediately donated €5,000 to the fund and sought out his contact details so he could offer some encouragement, leading to their meeting in Ashbourne.
"Nayler and Roy are text friends," said O'Neill's Drogheda team-mate Alan McNally when a snap of the pair popped up on Twitter on Saturday, before joking that "Nayler never has credit to send me a text!"
The 32-year-old faces a long and challenging road but he has been strengthened by the support of his pals in a profession that is too easily demonised. It helps that his jovial character has helped him make plenty of friends along the way, who will always have greater loyalty to a mate than they will to an institution that can hire and fire them.
Keane and Ferguson's fallout proves that neither have a perfect grasp of the original definition but then, as manager and player, their bond was always going to be transient. Perhaps their biggest mistake was temporarily believing that they were really in it together.