Tuesday 20 February 2018

David Kelly: 'His record is irrelevant. Now is all that counts and the evidence of recent weeks and months is not good for Keane or Ireland'

Robbie Keane
Robbie Keane
David Kelly

David Kelly

Bravery and liberty are the qualities that now need to guide this Irish team in what will either be an unlikely qualification quest or, at best, a sympathetic search to avoid further embarrassment.

During a lengthy morning stroll, marooned in thought and recollection after a dreadfully dismal night for the Irish international football team, it was disconcerting to be presented with a stunning architectural image that neatly encapsulated the mood.

Just a short walk from Poznan's main square there stands a monument dedicated to a remarkable collection of brave men, women and children who became the first to take up the cudgels against totalitarianism.

It was at once a symbol of freedom from authoritarian dictatorship and a reminder of how bravery is required to achieve it.

In the relatively trivial pursuit of a pig's bladder on a green sward, Ireland's football team are in dire need of such resourceful virtues right now.

In the small hours of June 28, 1956, thousands of workers from Poznan factories took to the streets to plead for 'freedom, justice and bread' -- their demands were met with tanks and bloodshed.

It would take the formation of Solidarno, and the inspiration of Lech Walesa, to finally realise these dreams, beginning in 1981, when the construction of the monument marked a nine-year countdown to democratic freedom.

To the side of the two large marching crosses wrapped in chains, a statuesque eagle acutely observes the scene; this bird of prey is a symbol of bravery.

Where eagles dare and all that.

Last week, Walesa drew on personal history to speak about how leadership could inspire the underdogs in this tournament in their tilt at the behemoths of world football.

We must presume he wasn't referring to Robbie Keane.

Unless leadership requires one worrying about how precisely the captain's armband is affixed to one's arm, or how many times one can assail the officials in the aftermath of a crippling defeat beyond the reach of any refereeing inconsistencies.

Captaincy and leadership require courage and conviction in the firing line of the battle; Ireland's most decorated goalscorer in history utterly abrogated himself from that responsibility on Sunday night.

And, as we travel this wonderfully friendly country where autocratic tyranny held sway, it is ironic to think that Keane is the only subject under which Irish football's great dictator demonstrates any benevolence.

Such indulgence caused the manager to replace his most committed and honest striker, Kevin Doyle, first, when it was clear to everyone in the Poznan stadium and beyond that Keane was performing miserably.

His record is irrelevant; what is happening now is all that counts and the evidence of recent weeks and months is not encouraging for Keane or Ireland.

For all his record goals tally, the evidence of recent months indicates a striker in decline not just for country -- but for the giants of LA Galaxy in a Mickey Mouse USA League.

It is ironic that it would be his LA Galaxy manager, and not Trapattoni, who would become the first man to express the growing concerns about Keane's form and sharpness.

repugnant

Trapattoni, whose man-management skills are sometimes called into question in what can be a cruel, lonely professional exercise, has been over-archingly loyal to a captain now producing diminished returns.

And, lest the cheerleaders rise up in sickly sweet parochial high dudgeon; this is a reflection of contemporary fact. It is not personal. It should be -- and is -- about business.

Ireland's illusory recent run has been exposed as wafer-thin -- they qualified despite not beating a higher-ranked team and, ultimately, via what was effectively a three-way play-off against those giants of world football, Armenia and Estonia.

And what of the player 11th in the Premier League all-time goalscoring charts, worth over €100m in transfer fees, with 53 international goals and seven of them in the last qualification campaign?

He has chosen the least propitious moment to go missing on the biggest stage of them all, a decade after he thrilled the nation with that unforgettable intervention against Germany in Ibaraki.

That was a sign of things to come. These championships may be a final symbol of things in the distant past. Trapattoni's bizarre substitutions reflected the manager's unswerving indulgence in his misfiring captain and demonstrated quite clearly that his judgment is now hopelessly compromised.

Ironically, while the Irish team are ensnared in chains, straitjacketed by a crude football philosophy and a lack of trust in key game-changers, their manager is also now imprisoned within his own cocoon of fear and conservatism.

Those of us who were decried for pointing out the deficiencies of an outdated approach to this beautiful game, or the manager's lack of empathy for the grassroots game in Ireland, do not find solace in Sunday's result.

Neither will the players, despite the usual public guff being tossed around a mixed zone containing enough hot air to fill 10,000 inflatable plastic hammers. What happens next is the important thing.

Two years after Ireland's Paris uprising, later quelled with ruthless determination by a peremptory statement from the manager reaffirming that only he is in charge of tactics, Ireland must rebel once more.

Keane, who requires to abandon the narcissism that dogged him on Sunday night, must be in the vanguard of that rebellion.

If not, the manager must radically alter his perception and ditch his consiglieri.

It's either one or the other.

His bizarre admission that he will not change a player "because he played badly" indicates the blinkers will remain firmly in place. Despite alternatives -- Ireland have more strikers here than England -- Trapattoni seems blinded by past glories.

But then, that has been his management style entering what for him seems like a personal crusade to eradicate perceived sleights when his Italians competed -- and failed -- at major tournaments under his watch.

If the manager and captain are basking in past glories, how can they hope to lead this team forward in the two gargantuan tasks to come?

Clearly, as Sunday's evidence yet again demonstrated, even with such an unusual cast and with players -- John O'Shea, Shay Given -- clearly unfit and others -- Aiden McGeady, Stephen Ward -- palpably exposed, Ireland are nonetheless better when on the front foot.

As in Paris, the need to react to the adversity wrought in the first leg produced the best from an Irish team that has proved they can play football -- if and when they are allowed to.

Similarly on Sunday night, the early concession paradoxically settled them and they enjoyed their best period; when they next replicated that, the result was already beyond them.

The Czech Republic in 1996 and, last time out, a trio of Turkey, Russia and Italy demonstrated that it is possible to come from a two-goal opening game defeat and still emerge in the knockout stages. None had Spain and Italy to follow though.

damning

No, Sunday's defeat was more redolent of Cyprus under Steve Staunton, a damning indictment of the team's supposed defensive solidity and the manager's dictatorial imposition of order.

Regrettably, just as the manager had surreally predicted the Russian's destruction of Ireland in Dublin -- and thus revealed himself utterly impotent in response -- Slaven Bilic's supreme confidence in victory on Sunday suggested that Ireland's football dictatorship is now nothing but a crumbling wreck.

Can Robbie Keane demonstrate the force of personality and find within his reservoir of outstanding talent the material to restore Ireland's pride?

Having stridently demonstrated player power last week in ensuring his squad got a day off, can he now provide a similar sense of player power where it matters most, on the field of play?

A fine career does not deserve to end in a whimper, but Sunday's feeble efforts hinted that it may do just that.

This may indeed be the beginning of the end for Keane's international career. However, he can still have an inordinately significant influence when exactly that conclusion may occur. If, indeed, he survives to do so on his own terms.

For, if Keane cannot prove himself to be as brave as the eagle that remains proudly positioned in Poznan square, then his manager must be. Something has got to give.

Irish Independent

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