Wednesday 23 October 2019

The game is up: Roy Keane and the same old story

It's taken a long time, but Frank Coughlan has finally seen the common denominator in a long line of sagas involving his fellow Corkman

Almost a perfect day: When Roy barely acknowledged boss Mick McCarthy after the Netherlands game in 2001
Almost a perfect day: When Roy barely acknowledged boss Mick McCarthy after the Netherlands game in 2001

Hands up, who's heartily sick of the man? That many. Well, if I wasn't drumming my fingers along a keyboard, mine would be up to.

That's not to say the Roy Keane's latest antler-wrestle with reason isn't fascinating in its own right. In the way you couldn't help rubberneck as you pass-by a car wreck.

But most of us have had enough of him as a character of any real interest. This man we've long had down as a mystery wrapped in an enigma is neither.

No mystery to someone doing the same thing over and over, or anything enigmatic about being predictable and obvious.

It's taken a long time for that particular penny to drop for many of us. Heroes are rare. Averting our gaze from feet of clay is easily done.

Nottingham Forest signed Keane from Cobh Ramblers in June 1990, just as Jack's Army was making landfall in Sicily and Sardinia.

That was 28 years ago. If life or experience has taught him anything since, there is precious little evidence of it. His more unquestioning supporters, and I would have counted myself among them, are guilty of much the same.

Plenty of others, footie aficionados and the mildly acquainted alike, had a very different take on him even in those formative years.

Where many of us saw a fearless crusader made of stubborn pig iron, shrewder types concluded we were simply witnessing the loutish behaviour of another footballing loose cannon straight from central casting.

Much of it, though, was based on snobbery. Soccer, don't you know. Too much money, too little education. Wrong side of town. What could you expect? Sniff. Then there was the Cork thing. Whatever levels of self-congratulatory, smug superiority the denizens of the second city smother themselves in is easily matched by the barely concealed loathing of those who count themselves blessed to have been born somewhere else.

By virtue of this evaluation, Roy was just another chippy Cork urchin who would put his city before his country and put himself before both. I didn't see it like that at the time. No reason to. Like most people who liked their football, it was obvious early on that he was a phenomenon.

Talent. Heart. Engine. Brain. Nerve. What wasn't to like?

He would turn out to be Brian Clough's last great find and, probably, Alex Ferguson's most influential signing.

So far so great. I was in Lansdowne in 1991 when he scored on his debut against Chile. A pick of a lad with a bit of that Jimmy Barry-Murphy swagger. Distilled Cork insouciance. Loved him. Hard too. Northside hard.

He was just 20 and with countless glories to follow.

His performance against Juve in the Champion's League semi of 1999 is the stuff of United legend. The grumpy and resolute manner in which he dragged Ireland by the bootlaces to Korea-Japan in 2002 is another.

His achievements as a player, both as a hunter gatherer of silverware and leader of men, cannot be questioned. He wasn't a maestro you'd drool over like you might an Iniesta, but he was a force of nature. But then there's all that other stuff. So much of by now that the memory of his imperious years ripping up the Premiership have become something of an irrelevant sideshow. A faint blur.

The Roy we loved out on the cut grass, dictating pace, recycling possession, driving teammates, tackling, box-to-boxing, winning hearts and minds and rarely losing have receded from our collective hard-drives.

We are left with this week's Roy and the Roy of so many other weeks just like it.

Saipan is, of course, the wound that took longest to heal. It was a week that lasted a decade or longer.

The national anguish, the hurt, the disappointment, the betrayal, all those obscene words filled out with asterisks. At the time he gave a television interview to RTÉ's new Northern Correspondent Tommy O'Gorman, a man who would become used to eyeballing men practiced in saying no surrender.

What about the children, Tommy asked. But the children got over it. It was the rest of us who snarled at each other for long years to come.

I was on Roy's side. Absolutely. Part of it was the Cork factor, to be honest. I had bruises in my chest from being poked at by Dublin friends, colleagues and deadbeats who saw me as their best chance at getting even with a traitor.

I did my Cork thing: superior, condescending, dismissive. We're bred that way. It came naturally.

But I believed Roy, too. Here was someone passionately committed to winning and not just the turning up. He had no interest in being a sing-along Paddy.

His attitude was almost a metaphor for the Celtic Tiger and everyone loved that cool cat around then.

Exactly half the nation saw it that way. Exactly half the nation didn't. But time has patiently and painstakingly collected evidence since then that has gifted the moral high ground from one side to the other. With the benefit of perfect hindsight, the character flaws were obvious long before Saipan, but it was his sacking from Old Trafford in 2005 when the stubbornly short-sighted began to see the real picture emerge.

I was still blind to it.

But by the time his managerial careers at Sunderland, in 2008, and Ipswich, 2011, had imploded because of the same sort of hubris, intolerance and inflexibility, even loyalists like myself began to ask ourselves the obvious question: What's the common denominator here? Roy's gift for self-destruction of course and his burning desire to throw a match on petrol whenever possible.

If one match sums up Keane as man, superman and pantomime villain it was on September 1, 2001. U2 were playing Slane, but the place to be was Lansdowne where Ireland was squaring up to the Netherlands in a do-or-die World Cup qualifier.

In the first few tense minutes Keane launched into The Oranje's playmaker Marc Overmars, flipping him into the air like a ragdoll. By the time he landed, Ireland were one up without having scored.

He was majestic. Then he smudged a perfect day by barely acknowledging his manager Mick McCarthy in a famous post-match moment, captured in a now iconic photograph.

I didn't see it that way, of course. But that photo finally came into focus for me this week. Finally.

The game's up, Roy.

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