Saturday 18 November 2017

Vincent Hogan

Roy of the rages must accept he's not Number 1

Roy Keane
Roy Keane
Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane work together for ITV during the Champions League.

ROY Keane doesn't so much divide people as deploy the inner fool that resides in just about every football fan's mind.

The rational becomes irrational at the mere mention of his name. If you followed the weekend Twitter response to early rumours of his pending alliance with Martin O'Neill, it will have felt as if Saipan was still a fresh, weeping sore rather than the 11-year-old soap opera that once sundered a nation.

The lost soldier in the jungle came to mind as a certain national immaturity kicked back in. No Irish man or woman in modern times generates such a divergence of opinion.

Bad bankers, clergy and politicians are faced down with pursed-lip equanimity, yet the mention of Roy's name sends people back to war.

During the 2002 World Cup finals, journalistic friendships shattered over the Keane story, many never to be fully repaired.

It became an imaginary question of morals on both sides of the argument.

Those against him, saw nothing but betrayal in Roy's actions. Those for him, regarded Mick McCarthy as the ogre.

We forgive and forget a great many things in Irish society – but the evidence of recent days suggests that in the matter of Roy Keane we remain a broken nation.

O'Neill's reported decision to choose him as his Irish assistant now smacks of a maverick mind choosing to take a route that carries the conflict of thrill, wild possibility and clearcut danger.


Keane has always been faithful to a kind of John Wayne-persona in his dealings with the football world.

He understands precisely how intimidating he can seem to others. His way is to play on that perceived ferocity, keeping intimacy at arms' length.

When his reign at Sunderland had unravelled to an unhappy close, one club official observed rather worryingly that "when Roy is angry, he won't talk to people".

And the stories are legion of his impatience in management with journeyman footballers who could not meet his professional standards. The very same fury that once had him yelling "see you out there" at Patrick Viera during a pre-game spat in the Highbury tunnel.

Quite how O'Neill intends to harness that trademark rage, or indeed if he has any plans for it at all, we will not know until the two men – presumably – sit before us later this week.

But to be of value to the new regime, a certain re-invention almost certainly has to occur in Roy Keane. He has never deferred naturally to another human, but the job of assistant will demand he does so now.

O'Neill, presumably, believes Keane is ready to be that person. Time alone will tell.

What we do know is that Keane's presence on the new management ticket has sent a tingle through Irish football. O'Neill alone would represent a thrilling appointment, given the FAI has been courting him with fluctuating intensity for more than a decade now.

But O'Neill and Keane together feels like the deeds of the house being thrown on the table. Go all the way back to Brian Kerr's appointment in January 2003 and Keane's name has always, somehow, been part of the narrative for an FAI managerial coronation.

Back then the leading question asked of Kerr in the Shelbourne Hotel was would he seek some kind of national reconciliation with the Corkman, still exiled since Saipan. "I have a plan in mind as to how I am going to deal with it," admitted Kerr.

His plan would suffer a very stark derailment the night of his debut game as senior manager against Scotland at Hampden Park when, having publicly indicated that Keane had agreed to return, he then took a call during training to reveal the Corkman's dramatic change of mind. Instant embarrassment for a new manager who should have been spared such discomfort.

Keane would, of course, return in time for Kerr, yet steadfastly on his own terms.

Three years later when Steve Staunton vaulted from a job coaching Walsall reserves to become Kerr's successor, Keane's name again resonated through the gathering.

Staunton had been one of those Keane fell out with so publicly in the Far East yet, after Ireland's worst finish in a qualifying group for 20 years, he had seen his own name linked to the post – albeit alongside those of Alex Ferguson, Terry Venables, Claudio Ranieri and just about anyone in football not considered some kind of social deviant.

One week before Staunton's appointment, Keane had made his debut for Celtic in a Scottish Cup defeat at Clyde.

Scottish journalists were already over-heating in response to an experiment that positioned him alongside fellow firebrand Neil Lennon in the Celtic midfield. It felt a bit like tossing nitroglycerine on a fire. But Keane, the player, was palpably coming to an end.

By the time Giovanni Trapattoni arrived in May of 2008, Keane – the manager – had begun to evolve at Sunderland sufficiently to be again name-dropped in the early speculation over Staunton's successor.

In a sense, he has always been somewhere on the edge of the Irish football imagination as a kind of pending moment of truth for the game here.

Now that moment has arrived and the hope can only be that Keane understands fully and accepts the co-ordinates of a role with which he is so starkly unfamiliar.

John Wayne simply will not work in this Irish dressing-room.

An aura of intolerance for the limitations of unexceptional footballers will not work in the Irish dressing-room.

Intimidation can only be counter-productive. The man O'Neill unveils as his assistant this week will need many things, but maybe nothing more urgently than humility.

Is it in Roy's gift to find that? The doubters will be many but, then again, John Wayne's real name was Marion.

Perhaps an undiscovered stranger lies beneath the caricature.

Irish Independent

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