Monday 25 September 2017

'There's nothing to tame, you know – I am not some sort of an animal'

As the media circus pitches its tent ready for a feeding frenzy, roy Keane launches latest chapter in a colourful career with an unfamiliar tranquility

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The working day began in 'Dicey's Diner,' a tiny, green, metal cabin by the training pitch, out of which Roy Keane emerged just after 9.30.

With a clipboard in one hand, bottle of water in the other, he moved to the field in conversation with fitness coach, Dan Horan. For half an hour they tended to the banal duties of preparation - positioning cones, setting down rope-ladders – before striding across the car-park accompanied by goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh to check the gym.

Keane stopped for every request. politely posing for pictures, signing autographs, returning a breezy 'good morning' to anyone who tossed the greeting in his direction. He looked comfortable.

This man whose life story gets presented to the world in a blizzard of metaphors – and who would, before the day was out, summon two remarkably stark ones of his own – seemed tranquil. He could be overheard discussing coaching licences with McDonagh and the career experiences of old colleagues.

NATIVES

Watching him, you couldn't help but wonder what life must be like being Roy Keane. Sky Sports had two camera crews on duty here. One would decamp after training to The Grand Hotel for his press conference, the other would be despatched to a city pub to observe the natives, 'em, observing Roy.

Roy Keane signs autographs for supporters at the end of the Irish squad training session at Gannon Park yesterday
Roy Keane signs autographs for supporters at the end of the Irish squad training session at Gannon Park yesterday

And through that prism, Keane chose to offer fleeting glimpses of life from behind those dark eyes. The invitation to do so would fall in each and every question.

Would Martin O'Neill, perhaps, prioritise trying to "tame" him now? "I hope not," he sighed to a great throng gathered between the mirrored walls of The Grand's Guttenburg Suite. "There's nothing to tame, you know. I'm not some sort of animal, you know what I mean? I'm a footballing man, I like to work hard and push people and I suppose that I have got that slightly wrong on one or two occasions over the years.

"But, generally speaking, I look back and think I got a lot of it right. The day I lose any passion for football, I will keep well out of the game. When you're talking about having passion for the game, being demanding, if that's a problem for people there's something wrong, you know. If you're playing any sport, if you haven't got passion then you're into big, big trouble."

Keane has a depth that nobody ever quite gets to explore. Just about his entire adult life has been spent in the narrow, shallow world of professional football, so he recognises all the phoney intimacies that pass for normality here.

The exaggerated friendliness of back-room staff; the surface earnestness of media, their tone feigning personal interest as distinct from hunger for a story; the tremulous awe of fans. Roy looks out at a largely artificial world and feels little apparent fondness for it.

This country has never had an adult, rational relationship with him because we simply don't know how. So, yesterday wasn't about Ireland or football. It certainly wasn't about tomorrow night's friendly against Latvia, for which the radio ads rather pointedly declare: "Be there, it's all about to kick off!"

Yesterday was about obsession and voyeurism, about the circus-animal distance that still prevails between Keane and an Irish audience.

He would do three separate media sittings, each one punctuated by questions arcing towards his dark side, his short fuse. Keane understands the editorial traction these briefings will always carry. He wilfully salts them with black humour.

As Martin O'Neill's No 2, did he maybe see himself in the role of friendly uncle to the players?

"Yeah, I could be, if things go well," he shrugged with that alligator grin. "If we're winning, yeah, Jesus! If we're not, listen, you've always got an uncle that you don't really like, don't ya?" Then, more seriously, he considered how the caricature that follows him about, might actually make this union work.

"Strangely enough, if people are thinking that – particularly the players – I don't think that will be an issue over the next few years, because I'm not as bad as everyone makes me out to be in terms of criticising players" he said. "Demanding of players, of course, and hopefully that will never change.

"But this idea of being... I don't know, being a bit more softer with players... because obviously I'm not going to be the one dropping them or leaving them out... that might give me the opportunity to be nicer to players, but without being a pal to them either.

"Hopefully, the players are in for a pleasant surprise, particularly the lads who've not worked with me. I know people can believe what they hear and read and, if they're thinking for some reason that some monster's going to turn up and, all of a sudden, I'm quite placid..."

His own two words then. Animal. Monster. In a laid-back, easy way, Roy shone a light on the parody that has come to pass for his football personality. Maybe his re-acquaintance with the Irish game will now slowly decommission Saipan. Maybe the regularity of his presence here will be redemptive.

"Getting back involved with Ireland is great" he told us.

"I've always enjoyed all that, despite whatever has gone on in the past few years, I've got my pride. I was always proud to be involved and now I've got this opportunity to get involved and have a different role, particularly helping the players and I think I have a lot to offer.

"That's my job. That's the role I've got. So, to question what happened previously or why it might happen in the future, it's almost irrelevant. Just focus on the now. We've had a lovely few days, the hotel's been lovely (smiling), the food has been excellent, the training ground is lovely... no pot-holes, we've had footballs, it's been great, bibs everything. Major progress!"

He talked too of the "emotional attraction" of becoming acquainted again with the Ireland team.

"I know when you're a manager, it's very much a business," he reflected. "But I'm quite an emotional person. To get back involved with Ireland... I know some of the players. I'm looking forward to working with some of the lads I've not worked with before... the whole package. It's good for me, it's good for my family. It's good to work with Martin to try and help the team qualify. Everything.

"As I said, I couldn't think of any... like in any opportunity, any job, you look at the pluses and the minuses... and I couldn't think of any minus why I shouldn't get back involved. None whatsoever. So it's all good.

"I like to set high standards. A lot of people seem to have a problem with that – a lot of the criticism I've faced over the past 15-20 years is that I'm very demanding and I don't settle for second best. I'm certainly not going to apologise for that."

All of the imagined tensions – with John Delaney and Jonathan Walters, Damien Delaney and Aiden McGeady – were pushed aside as piffling irrelevancies with the life-expectancy of fallen hailstones. When you live your football life as Roy Keane has, reconciliation is an everyday event. Spites get stored only from the wildest storms.

One of the few kind references Alex Ferguson makes to Keane in his new book is a rather patronising, "Roy's an intelligent guy. I saw him reading some interesting books."

Yesterday, Keane made clear the improbability of any rapprochement between the two, delivering some veiled reference to "lies" and remarking pointedly "that's for another day."

He spoke of his "massive respect" for O'Neill, yet was quick to assert that their relationship would be defined only by the sharp imperatives of business. "We're certainly not buddies," he stressed. Then, minutes later: "We're certainly not a pals' act!"

On O'Neill's view that Keane had been ill-advised in Saipan?

"Martin is entitled to be wrong!"

And, on the manager's joke that Keane could now play the "bad, bad cop" to his "bad cop," Keane said, "I think Martin got it wrong! I'm going to be good cop. You don't know Martin as well as you think you do, he makes me look like Mother Teresa. It should be interesting."

He dismissed as "a ridiculous question" the idea that he might have spoken to some of the players before accepting O'Neill's invitation to be Ireland's No 2. And, listening, you were drawn back to a particular line in Niall Quinn's autobiography about Keane and the energies that sometimes give him the air of a ticking bomb.

"The only difference between Roy Keane and the rest of us here," wrote Quinn of the World Cup in 2002 "is that Roy thinks there is a difference."

ARTICULATE

Yesterday, that synopsis did not lose an ounce of credibility. For Keane was wonderful value, articulate, challenging, wilfully self-deprecating. He spoke like a man who, for all the attendant glare of media hype, regarded this as some kind of personal homecoming.

He told us how he'd missed football, missed the laddish banter of the dressing-room, missed a professional connection to Ireland.

After two and a half years out of the game, his enthusiasm sounded authentic.

"It goes to show how strong Martin is as, unfortunately, people might see me as a threat, or some sort of trouble maker," he said. "But, hopefully, Martin has seen something in me that I have something to offer.

"People think I'm a little bit crazy, but I would have been crazy to turn it down. There wasn't one bone in my body which said this wasn't for me."

The prodigal was home. Sleeves rolled up and ready to go.

Irish Independent

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