Sunday 16 June 2019

Heretic who just wants to speak the truth

The world needs disruptors like Roy Keane to ask the awkward questions, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

ITV pundit panel featuring Gary Neville, Ian Wright and Lee Dixon share a laugh as Roy Keane loses his cool live on air
ITV pundit panel featuring Gary Neville, Ian Wright and Lee Dixon share a laugh as Roy Keane loses his cool live on air

Eilis O'Hanlon

Noel Gallagher once said of his brother, Oasis frontman Liam: "He's like a man with a fork in a world of soup."

When it comes to being at odds with the world around him, Liam Gallagher is a Zen Buddhist monk in comparison with Roy Keane.

The former Republic of Ireland midfielder made headlines again last week when he refused to get caught up in the giddy "football's coming home" atmosphere across the water as England headed into a World Cup semi-final against Croatia.

As others around him lost their heads, convinced that fate had personally stepped in to heal the country of all those years of hurt, Roy Keane kept his own noggin firmly screwed on, forever the little boy who delights in pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

In fact, it's probably wrong to say that he delights in doing so. He might take some satisfaction in it, but he'd do it anyway, even if he got none whatsoever, because it's the right thing to do.

He's the contemporary equivalent of the man whose role, according to unreliable legend, was to stand behind triumphant generals during victory processions, and whisper in their ears: "Remember thou art mortal." Keane has turned not getting carried away into an art form.

Our neighbours across the Irish Sea certainly needed a dose of it last week. There was nothing wrong with being swept away on a tide of optimism, so long as it's resting ultimately on a bed of realism. Keane wanted England to win too. He just knew, from painful experience of previous Irish campaigns - ones of which he was a part, as well as those from which he was either excluded or excluded himself, depending on your point of view - that the divide between ebullience and despair is narrower than it looks, and one can quickly turn into the other.

"If they show enough courage, they'll win the game," as he put it, "but they've been in this position before and messed things up, so let's see."

In the end, his warning proved prescient, as it had so many times before with Ireland and England alike.

He didn't gloat when it happened, but nor was he prepared to forget why it had happened, reprimanding the players for making too many basic errors, and the pundits for "planning the parades" before the match had even started, acting as if England had the World Cup in the bag, when in truth they still needed to navigate what had, in the past, proved insurmountable hurdles.

He's assistant manager of the Ireland national team. It's not as if he hasn't been there before.

Some over-excited punters on Twitter were incensed, slamming Keane as a "one note bore", a k***head", the "President of Negative Nancyland". By contrast, genuine football fans - as opposed to those tiresome celebrity hangers-on plastering their social media profiles with flags of St George, all of which will be gone again by this time next week as they hop on a new populist bandwagon - tended to agree with Keane when canvassed by sports journalists.

They knew he was just telling it as it was, pandering neither to some phoney nationalist spirit nor to the fairweather fans he once derided at Old Trafford as the "prawn sandwich" brigade.

He'd said the same thing many times about his own country. It wasn't personal. For Keane, it's philosophical.

There are, of course, plenty of grouches in football analysis. Eamon Dunphy became infamous for his refusal to join the veneration of Jack Charlton, and Mark Lawrenson of the BBC always sounds as if he's just lost his last fiver and run over his favourite pet chihuahua on the same day.

Lawrenson, though, is just a miserable sod, it goes no deeper than that, and Eamon Dunphy does have the capacity when the mood takes him to become as giddily excited as any other fan about certain causes, sporting and political.

Keane, though, is different. He gives the decided impression of regarding both Triumph and Disaster, in Kipling's famous idiom, as equal imposters.

It's not simply that he doesn't want to be a member of any club that would have him as a member. He actively wants you to know that your club is a pitiful thing, and the very idea of belonging to it a nonsense. In fact, you can "stick it up your b******s", as he once brilliantly told manager Mick McCarthy in Saipan.

Dunphy, who wrote a celebrated biography of Keane, pops up periodically to announce that the Corkman has become a "caricature" of himself in recent times, a "joke"; and there's always that risk after years in the public eye.

But there's still something unquestionably radical about his grouchiness. His refusal to get swept up in collective hysteria is a valuable lesson in life, not only in football. Roy Keane is a one-man antidote to suffocating forced positivity.

This "all must have prizes" culture was what he was really attacking last Wednesday evening in the ITV studio. "I didn't mind you being happy, but you were getting carried away," was how he put it to former Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright, who's a lovely chap, but not what anyone would call an understated one. "You need a reality check - you're a grown man."

That's a message which should be plastered on billboards across the country to quell the increasing silliness of public life. Ed Miliband was the UK Labour leader who led his party to defeat at the 2015 general election. In his spare time, he now presents shows on BBC radio, on one of which last week he dressed up as a medieval town crier, ringing a bell and yelling: "Oyez, oyez, oyez, it's coming home."

Last Wednesday, he tweeted, sans punctuation: "Roy Keane is just awful I am sorry."

One of these men is indeed awful, but it isn't Keane.

In a world of fake smiles, and mutual backslapping, and corporate shininess, the Irishman represents the individual against the crowd. He's the country's small warning voice not to lose the run of itself.

He's also very funny, which doesn't hurt. Whether he knows he's funny, or means to be, doesn't matter. It's not possible to embrace the essential meaningless and absurdity of everything without being funny. That's what we get from Beckett too - blackness, bleakness, but hilarity with it.

Keane is a disruptor, a heretic, a provocateur, and the world needs those people. That's why Donald Trump won the US election. Trump is a ridiculous figure, but everyone can see he's ridiculous, so there's nothing particularly interesting or surprising about saying it. The trick is in realising the idiocy of the people and things which everyone else insists on taking terribly seriously. The delight is in saying it out loud.

Roy Keane plays the same role, stirring things up, but while disruptors in politics can be dangerous figures because the consequences of their rule-breaking are bound to remain unknown for some time to come, the merit of cultural disruptors is more immediately verifiable. There is no downside to the awkward questions which Keane poses.

That's why he still has such a unique hold on the Irish imagination, years after he stopped playing. Even on the inside, he feels and acts like the perpetual outsider. Roy Keane doesn't want comfort or consolation. Like every prophet, he just wants the truth, and he thinks you're weak for being fobbed off with less. He demands that we take responsibility for our own actions, our own mistakes, and he's certainly not interested in joining the sort of sickly sweet group hug in which the English media has been indulging since England was put out by Croatia. The world would be hell if it was run by Roy Keane; it needs people who can lie to themselves and compromise. But it also needs prophets crying out in the wilderness. He annoys all the right people, and that's more than enough to celebrate in this age of sentimental conformity.

Sunday Independent

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