Friday 6 December 2019

'Crunch time' has arrived for Irish assistant

Keane relieved to see back of friendly games as Georgia clash ends 10-month wait for first proper date of new managerial regime

Roy Keane finds himself the centre of attention at the media briefing. Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Roy Keane finds himself the centre of attention at the media briefing. Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Ireland skipper Robbie Keane at full stretch during squad training in Malahide yesterday ahead of Sunday's Euro 2016 qualifier in Georgia. Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

"I'm glad the foreplay is over," says Roy Keane, breaking into a smile.

The end of the long wait for competitive action has come as a relief to a new Irish regime which has had just about enough of friendly business.

On a sunny morning in Malahide, innuendo took over as minds turned to Sunday's trip to Georgia, an eagerly anticipated date in the calendar.

"Hopefully it's not an anti-climax," grinned Keane, amid talk of the proper action getting under way, skipping the small talk and other cliches that could easily be tied in with that narrative.

The window for larking about was limited. Later, the Ireland number two was asked if there was any significance to his new variation on a Viking-style beard.

"No, none whatsoever," he responded, curtly.

The 43-year-old was in good form as he looked ahead to the Euro 2016 kick-off, striking the balance between sounding a rallying cry and urging everyone to relax and not obsess about the stormy reception that is expected in Tbilisi.

"Everyone seems frightened to death in the media," he elaborated.

"You keep going on about a hostile atmosphere. A lot of negativity. Brilliant. Bring it on."

His inquisitor responded that he wasn't actually worried.

"You look worried," Keane replies, without hesitation.

In a previous life, it was Keane the pundit that might have raised questions about the Irish mentality.

Now that he's inside the camp, however, Martin O'Neill's sidekick is confident that this group is prepared for a meaningful match after ten months and eight friendlies that were ultimately of little significance in the greater scheme of things.

"It has been fine so far," says Keane, in a tone which would suggest that 'fine' would not exactly be considered a compliment if he was filing a report card.

"There has been no cutting edge to the games. There has been no real pressure. We try and win every game of football but we know, it's crunch time now. That's why we're here.

"You are never going to be judged at the end of your career what you do in friendly matches. Never.

It's the same at club level or pre-season, it's what you do at crunch time.

"And I have always been comfortable with that. That does not mean that it is going to be easy.

Stopover

"It's literally about getting on with it now. We can talk all we want but it's about when the referee blows the whistle. That's why I used to enjoy playing and hopefully the players will be the same."

He is asked if he thinks there will be a different vibe around the camp once they land in Georgia late tonight, a long journey that will be broken by a stopover for fuel.

"I am pretty sure that there will be a different atmosphere in the camp from everybody," he says. "I'm guessing that will happen, particularly when we start naming teams, when we go through certain things. That's what we are in the game for.

"Today, what I am looking for from my point of view is that we make sure we are set up properly, that we are not frightened of them and that we are ready for it."

The week has been built around Georgia, with the Oman game clearly used as an exercise to bring along players in need of a game.

"There were pluses to Wednesday night," suggests Keane. "But that's not really going to define what's going to happen over the next year or two.

"It's nice to get a game under their belts for some of the players but let's not over-analyse it either, we're just getting on with it.

"There are no injuries and hopefully it's a stepping stone to what's going to happen over the next few months ahead."

On Monday, the group started studying video clips of the opposition. Yesterday, training was split into two parts.

In the morning, the players who were actively involved at the Aviva went for a swim while the others went through their paces in Gannon Park.

Later in the day, there was a specific session for a group analysing set-pieces and other scenarios that might arise in the heat of battle.

Keane is happy to be in the middle of it, growing into his role as a coach with both club and country. Squad members have noted his positive, encouraging attitude, a contrast from the caricature of a ranter or raver who shows no mercy.

In May, it appeared as though the relationship with the Irish group would be short-lived when other suitors came calling.

Keane insists he always knew he would be present in his FAI gear for September. Others weren't so sure.

"I always felt I'd be here for the qualifiers and I'm glad I am," he said. "I've no regrets, I'm looking forward to it. I looked at every situation that came up, whether it be Celtic or Villa and there were one or two other opportunities.

"That's why I took the role with Villa. The more I work with players on the training pitch, the more I'll improve and I don't think there's any interference with the Irish set-up.

"The more hours I get working with good players, it will certainly improve me as a coach and that's what I wanted to do. That's why I got involved. I wanted to be on the grass a lot more and that hasn't been a problem."

"I feel lucky as a coach that I will benefit working at Premier League. Hopefully, whatever I'm learning at Villa I can bring to Ireland and vice versa.

"There's nothing drastic I've brought to the group. There might be little sessions. Small little stuff, nothing major."

His presence at Villa has played a role in Shay Given's return, although Keane did try to play that down.

"I had a chat with Shay and a chat with the staff and Shay wanted to get involved," he says, "I don't think it's a big issue."

One theory about the veteran netminder's recall was that it filled a leadership void left by Richard Dunne's retirement.

Struggling

"I don't think it was necessarily Richard," he counters. "Richard has been struggling the last one or two years with injuries and nobody was shocked that Richard was going to retire from international football. That's a separate issue.

"But, put it this way. You go into these qualifying matches. There's no problem with going with young players are doing well but you can't beat experienced players even if they're not in the starting XI, and just in amongst the group and on the training pitch."

Keane, of course, could technically fit into that category even though he's no longer available for selection.

O'Neill is renowned for his match-day intensity, but he also reckoned that his high-profile back-up could bring something to proceedings when the heat is on.

As Sunday draws closer, the game face is on.

"This is what it all boils down to," he declares, warming to the theme. "If we thought these games were going to be easy, it would be pretty boring.

"Yes, it's a tough game, particularly away from home, but from the angle I'm looking at we've got to make sure we get our own act together, get it right tactically, pick the right team, and if we're at it then we can give them a tough game

"Hopefully, the players are looking forward to it. I know I am."

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