Robbie Keane said last month that he wanted a manager who 'had balls'. Now Ireland have two . . .
Two huge characters have no option but to lean on each other for the greater good, writes Dion Fanning
Published 03/11/2013 | 02:00
When Martin O'Neill addressed a group of young people at Áras an Uachtaráin in 2008, he remarked, "I am full of anomalies, ironies, paradoxes – downright contradictions to be perfectly honest. I think I might have got all of those from my father."
The anomalies, ironies, paradoxes and downright contradictions of Ireland and Irish football will be demonstrated in the coming days when O'Neill's appointment with Roy Keane as his assistant is officially confirmed.
The deal with O'Neill was done on Friday night. His long-term coach Steve Walford will also be joining him and with Keane added to his management team, the FAI will have secured the best candidate and they will also have made a daring move that will energise Irish football.
There are reasonable questions about how the management structure will work. Some question if Keane has the temperament to work under somebody, forgetting that sometimes he hasn't had the temperament to work over people too. Or alongside them.
Keane's volatility can't be avoided no matter what position he holds in the management structure and nobody can say they are surprised by it when it arrives.
Yet Keane also brings intelligence and an intense drive. If it is hard to see the football logic behind such a move, there is an argument to be made that international football also demands other more intangible qualities. No man has more intangible gifts than Keane.
"Keane," O'Neill said in a Sunday Independent interview three years ago, "can be anything he wants to be."
He will get the opportunity now with O'Neill. It is also a management team which can capture the imagination of the country when the Irish team was in danger of becoming the forgotten tribe of Irish sport.
Keane suffered rejection as a boy when he wasn't selected for Irish underage sides and he has suffered rejection of a sort, even if there was self-sabotage involved, as a man and captain when the extraordinary days in Saipan ended with him missing the World Cup.
As Irish football decides how it wants to evolve, Keane's experience will be invaluable. Equally importantly, the management team will have an authority that will benefit all levels of Irish football.
Keane is believed to have considered working alongside an experienced manager before as he thought about how he would return to a game which had labelled him, almost too conveniently, as difficult.
Keane can be difficult but he is intelligent and curious too and in his encounters with O'Neill he has found somebody engaging as well, a man who looks at things differently.
"I think Keane's a very, very interesting character," O'Neill said in 2010. "He would look through you with those eyes as if you didn't exist and he can be as warm as the next man if he feels comfortable in the surrounds – maybe that's part of the thing I like about him."
Irish football should get used to experiencing both sides of Keane's character again over the coming months and years if the project is successful.
The FAI's process has been criticised by some and there will be questions asked about how necessary Ray Houghton and Ruud Dokter's road trips were when the candidate the FAI wanted from the beginning is confirmed.
More importantly, however, the FAI have got the man they wanted and, to his credit, John Delaney has kept his word that the past would have no bearing on anything the association would do for the good of Irish football. An O'Neill/Keane partnership may or may not work but nobody could accuse the FAI of not being bold in pursuing what they believe is best for the game in Ireland.
On Friday afternoon, Ray Houghton called the representatives of those he had interviewed and told them that the FAI had decided to "go another way" and that an announcement about the new manager was imminent.
The FAI made swift progress last week and on Thursday, O'Neill had met with John Delaney in London and it is believed that O'Neill put forward the idea of Keane as his assistant at that stage. Thursday's Herald suggested that Keane was in contention as O'Neill's number two. By Friday, it is believed, the deal with O'Neill was agreed and all that remained was for the new Ireland manager to confirm that his team would include Keane.
The FAI, rightly, felt that the manager should be able to appoint his own back-room staff. A month ago, a report in the Irish Independent had stated that "the FAI's interest in Martin O'Neill has cooled significantly in the last week after a series of background checks has suggested the Derry man's candidacy is not as appealing as initially thought".
Those checks focused on the absence of John Robertson during O'Neill's time at Sunderland. If O'Neill was to do the job the way he wished, it was essential that he was allowed create the right team for Ireland and this was something Delaney recognised.
O'Neill might have been weakened by Robertson's absence at Sunderland. But their struggles since he departed have confirmed the view stressed by sources close to the club when O'Neill was dismissed that there were many factors in his relative failure and not all of them were caused by the manager.
Keane and O'Neill have got to know each other better in the years since O'Neill gave that interview three years ago and, while they are not close, they have always got on well. They may also find that Ellis Short, Sunderland's owner, is a subject on which their views overlap.
Both feel they have something to prove and the FAI, backed by the financial contribution from Denis O'Brien, were always keen to secure a manager who would capture the imagination. Robbie Keane said last month that he wanted a manager who "had balls". Now Ireland have two.
It would be easy to see Keane as O'Neill's long-term successor but Marco Tardelli was once viewed as the next in line so the FAI will know that everything is dependent on success and ongoing success.
"I don't think any international manager has to concern himself with a long-term future," O'Neill said in September. "If he's part of something that he sets up, well and good, but he has to win football matches."
O'Neill is believed to be interested in winning matches in the long-term for Ireland.
In the short-term, there will be the unusual situation where the media might be more interested in hearing from the assistant rather than the manager. O'Neill is an intelligent man but Keane has been central to so much in the story of Irish football and the story of Ireland.
Yet it will be O'Neill's management that ultimately decides if they are a success, although his relationship with Keane will be fascinating.
Three years ago, O'Neill was full of insight and admiration for Keane, even if he understood his struggles as a manager. "He's putting pressure on himself because he wants to succeed. He was such a wonderful player and everything happened because he could dictate on the field what happened. You lose that power as a manager. It's not as if this game is like American football and every play you can go back to the coach and the coach can set something up because the game's stop-start."
O'Neill expressed regret that Keane had left Sunderland when he did. "I was disappointed he left Sunderland. Yeah, of course, you can be arguing with a lot of people and maybe at some stage you think enough is enough. I was disappointed because I thought he had been doing very, very well there. You'll get hiccups along the way and maybe things weren't happening for Roy as quickly as he wanted things done. In management you sometimes have to plateau a little bit and there can be a downside before you go up."
The idea of Keane learning from O'Neill in the job is intriguing but it will be secondary. O'Neill was the man the FAI wanted and, at the end of a frustrating public search, it will all seem worthwhile.
Why the FAI needed any public process is unclear. "It hasn't been conducted in a very dignified way," Eamon Dunphy said on RTE yesterday and he wasn't alone in feeling that way. "Ridiculously frustrating," said one source close to Mick McCarthy before adding: "To ask Mick McCarthy how he would manage Ireland is a load of old bollocks." McCarthy was understandably unwilling to meet with Dokter and Houghton as he was a manager under contract but he might also have sensed that the FAI were hoping to land O'Neill.
In the aftermath of Giovanni Trapattoni's departure, the FAI were clear and united in the belief that O'Neill would be the manager they wanted. However it was stressed yesterday by FAI sources that Brian Kerr's assertion on Friday that FAI officials had met with O'Neill before the Sweden game was "absolutely not true".
At that stage, the FAI still hoped that Ireland could make the play-offs. When Ireland lost in Vienna the following week, they moved quickly, boosted by O'Brien's confirmation that he would continue to be involved in paying the salary, and hopeful that O'Neill could be persuaded to take over for the matches in October.
When he hesitated, they embarked on the process conducted by the headhunters which was viewed with scepticism by some who were interviewed.
While McCarthy became the favourite for a time, there was always a sense that O'Neill – the man the FAI had wanted before they appointed Steve Staunton – was the man they craved. If not O'Neill, they would hope to find another dynamic manager who would capture the imagination.
None of the candidates managed to do that so the FAI waited for O'Neill, something they might have been better off doing in private without the distraction of the headhunters' process.
O'Neill remained the first choice and in recent days it became clear that a deal could be done. He will be analysing for ITV alongside Keane on Tuesday night and, while the appointment might be confirmed tomorrow, he will be unveiled later in the week.
Keane was at Wigan on Wednesday night, a ground he likes attending because it gives him some peace and when he sits in the main stand, he can avoid "small talk" as he described it in one interview.
International football will grant Keane the space to retreat as well and also the opportunity to develop.
If he is confirmed as part of the team, he, too, will travel to Dublin later in the week. Alex Ferguson will also be in Dublin on Friday to promote his book which, in its extreme criticism of Keane, appeared to have damaged his chances of returning to management.
O'Neill has known how wounding the job can be and how there can be moments of doubt. "I'm sure there isn't a person in this life who outwardly exudes great confidence like a Brian Clough but doesn't sit in of an evening on his own and actually wonder and concern himself. I'm quite sure that's the case. I'm actually even sure that it's the case with Mourinho," he said three years ago.
There has always been more to both men than the public perception. In 2010, O'Neill reflected on Keane's struggles with management and provided a perceptive analysis. "You're depending on other people. Roy has to depend on people which has not always been in his nature."
Irish football is now depending on O'Neill and Keane. How they depend on each other will be the next great intrigue of Irish football.