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Dion Fanning: Finally we can get down to the real business


'There was once a school of thought that Keane's mood could be gauged by the length of his beard. If it were true right now he would be harbouring murderous ideas.' Picture credit: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE

'There was once a school of thought that Keane's mood could be gauged by the length of his beard. If it were true right now he would be harbouring murderous ideas.' Picture credit: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE


'There was once a school of thought that Keane's mood could be gauged by the length of his beard. If it were true right now he would be harbouring murderous ideas.' Picture credit: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE

This evening the epic prologue comes to an end. For Martin O'Neill there has been an endless introduction. Ireland have played eight games since last November. Eight games, two victories and nothing but footnotes and outlines, digressions and clarifications. The substance, whatever it will be, begins tonight.

As we entered winter in 2013, there was the coup of capturing O'Neill and Keane, the excitement at the daring appointment and then repeat to fade. As we leave the summer of 2014, things will change. O'Neill and Keane have been like Cameron's father's car in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. They exist, they are prized, but for the past year their strengths have been an exhibit observed through glass. Tonight O'Neill's management takes to the open road.

"I've seen these players more often from the stand than I've had with them and that's unusual for me for the last 20 years," he said on Wednesday night. "It's me getting used to that as much as anything else. There's part of me really that wouldn't have minded taking over here and being thrust immediately into competitive football, there's part of me, because that's the nature . . ." At this point O'Neill trailed off. His sentences often fade out as if he fears he has said too much or just grown weary of his answer and, by implication, the question. When he continued, it was a slightly different point. "It is what it is and you just want to be ready."

Are Ireland ready? O'Neill pointed to Manchester United's pre-season as an example of the limitations of friendlies when it comes to understanding a team. He was asked if he was somebody who believed that you only learned about players in competitive games.

"Without question, absolutely, if you want to give an example, Manchester United won every pre-season game going there this summer. Then they stepped in at a competitive level and look at the start to their season and it has been a bit of a struggle."

O'Neill says he has known this for a long time, recalling that Brian Clough saw pre-season friendlies as a fitness exercise and little more.

There has been some purpose to the past eight games but not much, and now it is different. All his managerial life Martin O'Neill has been judged on these moments. He has always rejected the idea that he was a manager who was defined only by the day of the match but those who have worked with him have always prized his motivational powers on these occasions.

Tonight we may have a better understanding of the working relationship between O'Neill and Keane, a subject which has been exhausted over the past year.

On Thursday afternoon in Malahide, Roy Keane walked slowly - very, very slowly - across to meet the media. The sun is shining. At least it is for now. There was once a school of thought that Keane's mood could be gauged by the length of his beard. If it were true right now he would be harbouring murderous ideas but maybe we don't care about Roy's mood anymore.

It is now a quiet time in the ongoing story of Roy Keane and Ireland. The quietness rarely lasts but after the fascination of his recruitment by Martin O'Neill, the reconciliation with John Delaney and the pursuit by Celtic, Keane has taken a low-profile. That's the way he likes it. He might do one media gig a week while he's with the Ireland team but after that he stays in the background, a useful member of the staff but part of the chorus while O'Neill takes the lead. Next month Keane's book will be launched just before Ireland's games with Gibraltar and Germany. Then we will be back with the Rolling Thunder Revue.

On Thursday Keane had a role, or it may be more precise to say, his role assumed a sharper focus. There has been a lot of talk about the atmosphere in Tbilisi. Keane calls it negativity and makes a joke about how the journalists who are negative will be hoping for a jolly up when Ireland qualify. Somebody mentions the hostility in Georgia. "Bring it on," he says and there is the sound bite. Keane provides the words that might grab the country's attention today and make them feel curious about this Irish team of which they know little playing in a land about which they know marginally less.

He remains in this mode for most of his time talking to TV and radio. His face says 'Keep Out' and his answers all underline that mild hostility. He finishes with that interview and moves across to the print section. He mentions that the "foreplay" is over which naturally raises a laugh. With that, Keane relaxes a little bit. It would be wrong to say he turns into Chris Kamara, but he softens while holding to the same theme. "You will never be judged at the end of your career by what you do in friendly matches."

Keane talks about the game to come and sounds relieved. Ireland are now at the end of the beginning. He uses the word 'smalltalk' a few times, a concept he has tackled before. As you can imagine, he isn't a fan. This weekend Keane will have provided an example for a team which would love his authority on the field. A tough away game is the occasion he thrived on. He can offer an example to the Irish players without the pressure of management when he seemed consumed by the thought of disappointment, real and anticipated. Keane's governing principle in football has been that somebody always lets you down. If Ireland fail, they might have let Keane down but it is the manager they answer to and the manager who must provide the solutions.

O'Neill and Keane may have to calm their players if the atmosphere is as volatile as it was when Ireland played in Tbilisi in 2003. The Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena may not be a sell-out and the general secretary of the Georgian FA Revaz Arveladze dismisses talk of hostility. "The Georgian people are very welcoming, maybe the game will be difficult but nothing else."

The Arveladze family have been at the centre of Georgian football for many years. His brother Shota is their record goalscorer, scoring 26 times in 61 games before retiring in 2007 while Archil also played internationally.

There have been many encounters with Ireland and some disappointing memories. Revaz Arveladze refused to be drawn on the decision to move the game in 2008 during the conflict with Russia over South Ossetia. "That time was not really quiet in our country," Arveladze says.

The Georgians are more eager today. The expanded European Championships has given them hope of reaching a play-off and the opening game is when they are most optimistic.

The World Cup qualification campaign was a preparation for this competition where they managed a home draw with France and only lost 1-0 to Spain.

Georgian footballers have found it hard to establish themselves in Europe thanks to difficulties obtaining work permits but they have a talented young squad which is led for one more campaign by the former Newcastle United player Temuri Ketsbaia.

Their under 21 side beat Holland's last week and Ketsbaia sees the group as tight between the teams below Germany. "There is no game that is a must-win but every game is a must-not-lose."

Jano Ananidze of Spartak Moscow is seen as their most talented player, but a game in which Ireland struggle to keep the ball against technically superior opponents can be expected.

Ireland will hope for a more expansive style than under Giovanni Trapattoni but it would be too much to expect O'Neill to overcome the weaknesses that predated Trap and will, unless there is radical change in Irish football, endure even after O'Neill and Keane leave.

This weekend there is again a sense of hope. Most of the players have avoided any criticism of Trapattoni, even if the change in emphasis is obvious. Robbie Brady talked about a "different culture" but the players acknowledged also what he achieved.

Robbie Keane credited him with allowing Ireland to prosper away from home where they didn't lose a competitive game under Trapattoni until the final night in Vienna. "He put a bit of steel into us in that regard," Keane said "and getting away results will be vital in this group."

Keane was certain of his place under Trap but nothing is certain now. When O'Neill talked about playing three at the back last week, he made the point that it was a system that allowed a coach to play two upfront and three in midfield.

Notionally Keane can play behind another forward but it is only a notion. When he is selected, he is selected because no Irish footballer in history has scored goals as Robbie Keane has scored goals. A manager must make a choice with Keane: lose something in general play or lose Keane's goals. Trapattoni never thought much of general play, certainly not when the men doing the play were Irish and he always thought highly of Robbie Keane's goals.

O'Neill may see things differently. Wes Hoolahan has prospered and Shane Long offers everything a centre-forward could, except goals.

"The manager has shown faith in me over all the friendlies we have played and started me more often than not," Long said. "It's a headache for any manager when you have six players going for those two positions, maybe one position depending on what formation he is going to play. Hopefully he has seen me enough at club level and international level to know what my qualities are and, if that suits the game he wants to play, then I am ready to go."

After the Oman game, many observers continued to believe that Shay Given would start in Tbilisi. If he is selected on the basis of that game then O'Neill places a lot of emphasis on a goalkeeper shepherding the ball wide from a misdirected shot. Given had very little to do but he did demonstrate one area of clear superiority over David Forde with his well-directed kicking. If Given is selected, it will be O'Neill's first gamble and maybe he doesn't want to gamble just yet.

Given does offer experience in a venue where it will be necessary. It might not be enough for him but for that reason, as well as some others, Keane could be selected alongside Hoolahan. "It will be a tough game for us but some of these players have played a reasonable amount of big games in their career," he says. O'Neill won't want to experiment. That time has also passed.

"There is really no hiding place," O'Neill says of tonight. The past 10 months have been prologue. Martin O'Neill has spent that time getting to know the players but at the end of 90 minutes he may feel that everything he knew was wrong.

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