Sunday 18 February 2018

David Kelly: A match made in heaven or a marriage made in hell?

Partnership with O'Neill tantalising prospect but hard to envisage Keane playing second fiddle

Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have worked as a double-act as part of ITV’s Champions League coverage and may do so again in the Ireland senior set-up
Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have worked as a double-act as part of ITV’s Champions League coverage and may do so again in the Ireland senior set-up

When, as it was rumoured amongst the saloons of Dublin's city centre this week, an FAI suit pitched up with Martin O'Neill in Shanahan's restaurant a while back, one wonders did they really know what else they may have been buying when they picked up the tab?

One can only imagine the conversation as FAI CEO John Delaney swivelled around in his office chair in Abbotstown to greet his emissary.

"Any smoke?"

"Yes, boss."

"And ... "

"He's interested but ... "

But what?"

"Well, he has a couple of ideas."

"Shouldn't be a problem."

"Well, you see, he's rather interested in hooking up with ... "

You can almost picture a derrière sliding from the chair as it hit home what was wafting via the Derry air.

Sometimes one has to be careful what one wishes for. On the other hand, maybe what one is looking for has been under one's nose all along.

If this latest lurch in the quest for an Irish manager is destined to have more substance than the usual bookmaking palaver, football agent spoofery and the wiles of internet conspiracy theorists, then it will reveal an acute irony to the FAI.


For, if they began their quest with a yearning to see Martin O'Neill in the job, while ensuring that Roy Keane remained megaphone distance away from the gig, it will be quite incongruous to see both men sitting beside each other in an Irish dugout in a fortnight's time.

But here's the rub.

Lansdowne Road will be a sell-out for the mighty Latvia. It would be an addictive apprehension. And one, hopefully not deemed merely to be a quick fix, a hustle to shift tickets while a long-term cancer exists within the Irish game.

Nevertheless, one senses that it may be time for the FAI to call in headhunters Ruud Dokter and Ray Houghton from whichever suburban English Travelodge they are currently residing.

The FAI may be on the verge of doing something that embraces both the bold and brave. For sure, a move that may engender as much nervous apprehension as enthusiastic apprehension.

However, only a month on from the risible Punch & Judy show that immersed the thankless long-term FAI staffer Noel King, the prospect of witnessing the acute football brains and searing hunger of messrs O'Neill and Keane presiding over the international team would be quite something.

It may be a different form of three-ring circus. But, if one can peer beyond the rabid outpourings of the mob for whom satisfaction is always beyond reach, this managerial gambit has an alluring whiff of substance about it.

O'Neill's candidacy has always been of a consistently eminent quality within Abbotstown, ever since the first flirting reportedly began while the previous incumbent, Giovanni Trapattoni, was enduring his dog days as Irish boss.

His unemployment screamed availability, his Irishness proclaimed suitability and his experience, notwithstanding the rumblestrips of what O'Neill will reflect was an overtly emotional pull to Sunderland, commanded respect.

Keane's name was only allowed to be unofficially endorsed in its suitability because to overtly do otherwise would have been politically unconscionable.

Despite their initial success in appointing Trapattoni, the FAI still do not possess an untrammelled authority amongst its public for aptitude in selecting international managers.

Hence, despite initial favourable contact with the outstanding candidate, O'Neill, an elaborate charade which dispatched the deadly duo – Dokter and Houghton – upon a lavish quest to headhunt the new boss was launched.

Just as happened the last time this unseemly process was deployed, its redundancy was established the minute they passed Dublin Airport customs for the first time.

O'Neill was the main target – first and last. The only trouble was O'Neill is eager to ensconce himself within the Premier League circuit once again.

All the while Mick McCarthy is made to look like a patsy, waiting for a call that will never come.

The FAI know that O'Neill will take their job once he doesn't take anyone else's. McCarthy knows that he will only get a call if O'Neill turns the FAI down. Is it any wonder McCarthy is angry?

Enter Keane. As O'Neill dithers and dallies in characteristic fashion – the name of Keane continues to be heard in dispatches.

With a wonderful irony, the process glacially progresses as all the while Alex Ferguson renders a few more punishment beatings to his erstwhile general's battered reputation as a manager.

That seals the deal for a variety of pundits – mea culpa! – who decry on the airwaves that any faint hope of Keane and the FAI hooking up has been undone by Ferguson, a man to whom the FAI have bent the knee more than once. And yet one should accord Delaney – although he will insist on any decision being that of a full board – much credit.

His refusal to ridicule Keane, albeit if we assume for one moment merely for political reasons, has allowed the path to be cleared for him to enter this venture with the FAI's principal managerial target.

Therein lies the attraction – and the inherent danger. Whither Keane the restrained, deferring assistant? Is it not a role to which his whole professional life seems utterly indisposed?

That, it would seem, is the greatest risk in this intoxicating and alluring partnership. The quality that thrives amongst the sum of the parts is obvious to all; whether one part can be subservient to the other is debatable.

His uneven managerial career – initial success then implosion at Sunderland, arguably only implosion at Ipswich – served notice that the calling was not for this driven son of Mayfield.

Can he now subsume himself to the managerial whim of another? That can be only answered in the unswerving, unyielding spirit of the man to whom he will now answer.

O'Neill is perhaps one of the few footballing personalities who are possessed of the stern, ascetic qualities required to rein in the volcanic and demanding characteristics housed within Keane.

Robbie Keane last month demanded a manager with balls. Well, if one can forgive the necessary crudity employed by Ireland's captain, he has now got two pairs for the price of one.

If Robbie and his under-performing players are as serious about the future of the international team as O'Neill and Keane most determinedly will be, then it is they who should be ensuring they respond to the manager's whims, and not the other way around.

Keane's willingness to accept a subservient role should be viewed on its merits – as a humble acceptance that all he can now offer of himself can only be prompted from within a framework few, even he, had ever thought possible.

The pairing of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane could be a match made in heaven. Or a marriage made in hell.

A gut instinct hints the former is the likeliest scenario – once an atmosphere of innate honesty attaches itself to every brave step from all involved. Either way, it will be fascinating to behold. It could be the best meal the FAI ever bought.

Irish Independent

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