Wednesday 21 February 2018

A whole bundle of reasons to be sceptical

It is hard to identify Roy Keane's value as an assistant manager, writes John O'Brien

John O'Brien

Back in the salad days of his management career, when he had turned Leicester and Celtic into forces worth reckoning with, Martin O'Neill once expounded on the critical qualities John Robertson brought as his assistant. The pair had been acquainted for the guts of three decades by then, first as players under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, then in management at Wycombe before moving on to greener pastures.

"Sometimes in management, you don't know which pen to pick up, which bell to push, which player to pick, which telephone to answer," O'Neill said, revealing a vulnerable side to the confident, erudite figure that patrolled the touchline. "So you panic. Then John Robertson walks in. Panic over. He'd just amble up with a fag in his mouth and change the atmosphere without knowing it."

You read that small passage and can't help wondering what it is, in O'Neill's mind, that makes the selection of Roy Keane as his assistant seem like a good idea as he embraces the challenge to become the next Ireland manager. O'Neill and Robertson worked, not because the Scot fitted the popular caricature of the No 2 as slavishly devoted yes man, but because he brought a different personality and helped smooth the edges off O'Neill's abrasiveness.

To see this working, to be genuinely enthused by the prospect of O'Neill and Keane holding Ireland's future in their joined-up hands, this is the first hurdle you have to negotiate. The idea of Keane putting out fires as opposed to hurling tyres on the bonfire, the notion of Keane ambling towards a tense situation and instantly defusing it by his presence alone. Sorry. Just can't buy it.

When it comes to filling vacancies for the Ireland job, of course, we have come to expect such compelling twists and madcap tangents. O'Neill's appointment on its own would have seemed too tame, too common for a football organisation that likes to wrap these things up with a bit of pizzazz. And while it could yet turn out to be the greatest stroke of genius in Irish football, every sinew of your being screams it will be a relief merely to reach the next qualifying campaign with the ship still afloat.

It's tempting to think there might be some noteworthy triumph in all of this for the FAI. When they finally got round to dispensing with the dead duck reign of Giovanni Trapattoni, the two most prominent names on everybody's lips were O'Neill and Keane. And now, if the deal can be struck, they will deliver not just one of those prospects, but a double whammy.

But, of course, it's not as straightforward as that. The talents of O'Neill and Keane blended together in no way add up to the qualities they bring individually unless they can forge a productive partnership together. And, right now, we don't know of any history they have together, the reasons O'Neill believes Keane could add value as an assistant – even typing those words seems strange – or whether the notion has been imposed upon him. All we know is that there is a whole bundle of reasons to be sceptical.

In truth, we're in speculative punt territory here, one that will come at a hefty price. It's hard to imagine an O'Neill-Keane "dream team" ticket won't weigh in at under €2m a year. And while a portion of that cost will be offset by private investment, it still sends out a questionable signal at a time when grassroots football continues to suffer and the Airtricity League champions cop a derisory €100,000.

The trouble is, perhaps, we have been spoiled for far too long, a lingering legacy of the Jack Charlton era when people thought the glory days would never end. They passed long since, though, yet people still pictured Ray Houghton and Ruud Dokter courting heavyweights like Guus Hiddink and Marcelo Bielsa as if the prospect of managing Ireland would somehow appeal to them.

All the time, however, there was another option closer to home, less glamorous perhaps, but a hell of a lot safer, much less of a punt. As he surveyed the headlines yesterday morning, a shock of confusion and anger will surely have shot across Mick McCarthy's face. Short of camping outside Abbotstown, McCarthy could not have made his intentions clearer these past few weeks.

That doesn't necessarily make him the most fitting candidate, but there are reasons why McCarthy would be a good fit. He has excelled most when dealing with players of less than superstar quality, making teams far greater than the sum of their parts, and his uncomplicated, open style of management would even seem like a breath of fresh air after the confusing Trapattoni years

But McCarthy's desire should count for something too. There is a sense of unfinished business lingering from his first stint and who can forget the story from his playing days of how he missed his brother's wedding to answer the call to play in a friendly in China? For all that life has changed in the meantime, perhaps a reminder of that old-fashioned sense of pride in the jersey is needed more than ever.

It seems we're going a different road, though. McCarthy's problem is that his candidacy, while virtuous, seems just that little bit dull, although that should, if anything, make it all the more worthy. We've seen him before. We know what he can do and, helplessly, we are drawn to the unknown, and all the glories we can summon through it. The short-term gain will be considerable. Seats filled in Lansdowne Road and sponsors giving thanks.

So nothing to do but sit back and brace ourselves. It could be quite a ride.

Sunday Independent

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