Monday 23 October 2017

Keane's next war cry has huge implications

Republic of Ireland players during squad training at Stade de Lyon in Lyon. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland players during squad training at Stade de Lyon in Lyon. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Miguel Delany

Roy Keane wants to get one thing straight ahead of today's match at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon, and it is not Ireland's history with France given what might have been in 2009. It is whether he actually cried on Wednesday after the wondrous 1-0 victory over Italy.

"No, I don't know where all this soppy talk is coming from," Keane laughs, although with an unmistaken insistence. "We've actually been enjoying it! I didn't know that was allowed. Yeah. Enjoyed it. It was great. I've enjoyed results before - but certainly not soppy. No, it's called . . ."

There's then a pause for effect from the Irish assistant manager.

". . . happiness".

Some squad members have privately joked that there might well have been a tear. No-one will say so in public, as Darren Randolph made clear. "I'm not going to be the one to tell if he was or not!"

Whatever the reality, Keane was speaking the truth about the camp's mood. It really is one of happiness, but also satisfaction and, crucially, readiness. Readiness to do even more, to cause the ultimate upset, to completely over-perform.

That is obviously a very healthy place to be ahead of one of the biggest games in the country's history, but this is after a Euro 2016 campaign that has so far involved almost every football emotion imaginable. It started with frustration at the failure to beat Sweden, which gave way to pride at the level of the performance, before the shame and despondency about the nature of the defeat to Belgium. That evisceration could have caused a collapse similar to four years ago, but, encouragingly, it was replaced by resolve. That then led to the most fulfilling football emotions of all: release, deliverance, vindication and satisfaction.

The dismal nature of the Belgian defeat had the potential to definitively transform Irish football's international reputation, and sense of itself. Up until Euro 2012, there had been justifiable pride that Ireland had always put in hugely respectable performances in tournaments they'd qualified for, that they had always been so hard to beat. They weren't one of those sides that got there just to get well beaten, and provide the easy platform for better teams to build legacies on. Even when their best player left in 2002 in the kind of controversy that was typical of other countries, they still didn't cave. They still did something so creditably typical of Ireland and dug in, putting in some of the most spirited performances during that entire World Cup.

Had the Belgian defeat been followed by another flat display - to follow on from the embarrassment of Euro 2012 - it would have properly consigned that pride to history. It would have meant Ireland becoming just another tournament team.

Instead, we got another great moment, another great win; another sign that there really is something special about the teams this country produces, even if it is not producing special players. That spirit could yet be so influential in Lyon today.

It also means the campaign is a success, because Martin O'Neill's team wasn't one of the eight to be eliminated last week. Just like in qualifying, the squad followed the success of Northern Ireland and Wales - almost going one better and claiming a bigger win when all seemed lost.

That does not mean they are sated. That is never going to happen with Keane there, but this time the players don't need him to reinforce that. Shane Duffy, the break-out star of the campaign, emphasised that.

"It's here now," the 24-year-old centre-half said. "You've got to try and make history. You try not to think about it like that but the rewards of actually going and beating France are huge."

It was put to Keane on Friday that a win would make this Ireland's best ever tournament: "Well, let's see if we're having that conversation next week. If we're not doing the media next week, that means we're all back, in sunny Manchester. If we are, then we can say 'listen, let's talk about it'. You can compare teams [then] . . . but it's a dangerous conversation to have when you're approaching a game."

Still, there appears to be a real sense in the squad that they have nothing to lose. That they can just go out and play and express themselves today.

"Like tonight," Jeff Hendrick said while eating a pizza in the Lille mixed zone on Wednesday, "we go out and enjoy the game and hopefully the performance will look after itself. All the pressure is on France."

It is unquestionably the biggest game Ireland have been involved in since the 1990 World Cup quarter-final against Italy. The team might have played in other last-16 matches since then, but not against the famous hosts, with so much attention on this game above all others in the round.

That attention is given an extra edge by the infamous recent history between these sides, and the Thierry Henry handball. The line from the camp has been that it has no bearing. Keane tried to draw a line under any discussion on Friday by saying that "revenge doesn't come into it". In private, it's understood to be different.

There is almost a sense of trying to put it back on France. One figure close to the squad said that the memory has been used as motivation. Every player in the squad also has their own memory of it, and it can't but fire something. "I was with Everton at the time, watching it with some mates," Duffy says. "It was a heartbreaking night." In the immediate aftermath of an uplifting night, Wes Hoolahan temporarily broke from the script and said, "we owe France one".

Potentially more relevant to this game than any sense of revenge, however, is what O'Neill did to reset the mood after the Belgian game. That was a big challenge. Even if it has been completely written out of the narrative that Italy were poor and barely interested - to the point one famous former Italian international-turned-pundit was angrily banging his media desk at every bad move they made - Ireland still had to do their part. That should not be taken for granted, given how poor they'd been against Belgium. Italy's performance is only really relevant in the context of grading it against great wins in the past. Ireland still had to go and put in a great effort.

O'Neill did sense a real willingness to set the Belgian result right, though, something that could be tapped into. That is why, as Randolph insists, there was no "doom and gloom". There was only resilience and a deep desire to give supporters something.

"We were frustrated and disappointed after the Belgium game," Hendrick says. "We know we didn't play as well as we could. We wanted to go out there for 90 minutes, and we said we've got to put it right, and just leave everything out on the pitch."

The changed team O'Neill put out also helped reinvigorate the side. The question now is, can they generate that kind of intensity of application again so soon?

Keane admitted "you can be flat after the occasion" but that is also where mood-management comes in.

Those around the squad say it is different to just before the Belgium game. There is release rather than resolve. Thursday was "a day of recovery" and the atmosphere was one of satisfied relaxation rather than complete celebration. Shane Long has even found himself singing one of the chants of the tournament - 'Shane Long's on fire' - and admitted at having to consciously stop himself, as getting caught doing it "wouldn't look very good!"

Many have been comparing the Italy game to the Germany one in October - with the redeemed James McCarthy insisting Wednesday was better - but they are all well aware that this could be so much bigger than anything before. It would be on a scale beyond anything Ireland has ever achieved, and maybe all the more impressive because it comes from one of the most moderate squads to have qualified.

France have one of the best squads in the tournament, but there is still little fear among the Irish panel. There isn't the same trepidation as there was with Belgium, and there is a greater confidence that they can combat Didier Deschamps' side in the way they couldn't Marc Wilmots'. There is also the knowledge that the hosts have yet to find their best XI or form.

It would, of course, put a very different spin on the campaign if France followed the Belgians in just using Ireland as a testing ground for their best team, but the similarities between those two squads are only superficial. France do have one player who is already firing: the exceptional Dimitri Payet. He is the biggest danger, although Keane also made a point of praising Paul Pogba as a "really top player".

"I think we'd like him in our group, I think I said that about Hazard last week," the assistant joked. "I don't want to say that about too many players, otherwise you'd be getting rid of all our lads."

Despite some talk around the French camp that Deschamps would be making his own changes, those close to that squad expect the manager to play the same team as in the opening game against Romania. That should offer Ireland plenty of encouragement given how a weaker Romanian side put it up to France in that game but it still ended with a winner that many are starting to see as inevitable: a Payet screamer to seal the victory.

Randolph is at least prepared for that kind of effort, having faced the playmaker so often in training at West Ham, but admits there is just not much you can do about it. "If that was the case, you'd be able to look at videos against everybody every week and know what they're going to do but that's not the case. He's very good at free-kicks. He's a dead-ball specialist. That's what he is. He's just had an unbelievable season, more and more confident, game by game. You can see by the free-kicks and goals he's scored, he's taking long shots and everything's going in."

So, Ireland are going to have to again give everything to stop Payet even getting to that point. The make-up of O'Neill's midfield will be crucial, although it would be a surprise if he went with the exact same team. One thing that cannot change, though, is the intensity.

"I think it's really important to get that energy level back to what it was the other night," Keane says. "If it's not, we're in trouble. If we can get up and get at them . . . as I said, put 'em under pressure. I keep saying that but, yeah, put 'em under pressure."

His use of that particular phrase feels far too deliberate to be coincidental, as if the man with no time for past glories was trying to invoke the past.

This is what the day builds up to. They're some stakes, this is quite a stage.

Sunday Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport