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Roy back in his natural habitat for showdown of substance


Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane talking to the media at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin yesterday

Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane talking to the media at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin yesterday


Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane talking to the media at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin yesterday

There is a shine in Roy Keane's eyes that takes us back to the younger man, to energies coiled so tight he would have gone to war in leg-chains.

The game looming at the end of this week was always his favourite kind of workplace. "Put it this way, it's one of those I wish I could play in," he tells us flatly. We have been talking about Poland's size, their physicality, their pace. And Roy has that underwhelmed expression of someone who still can't figure out why we spend so much time wrapping our lives in worry.

He talks about the importance of being on the front foot, making tackles, putting bodies on the line. And it's impossible to listen without thinking that, somewhere in an Amsterdam suburb, a chap by the name of Overmars probably still closes his eyes at night to the flutter of bat-wings. It's 14 years now since Keane's chilling first-minute tackle established the tempo for, probably, the last great Irish football victory in Dublin.

He is asked can he set that kind of tone again in his role as assistant manager now. "No, well obviously I can't tackle anybody can I?" he says, as if the questioner, a male, has pitched up to this gig in pigtails and a cotton dress.

There is an odd dynamic to Keane's press briefings. His last one, after the November defeat to Scotland, left him almost apoplectic with the line of questioning. Yet, here he is again, back on the media rota when you have to believe that, if he wanted to be excused, Martin O'Neill wouldn't come over all contrary.

Marco Tardelli often filled in during the Trapattoni era, but before that? Ian Evans? Maurice Setters? Assistant managers back then were about as visible as dew.

As it happens, Roy is interesting this time without being either volatile or indulgent. He has no interest in a nostalgic canter back to his competitive debut almost a quarter of a century ago simply because the opposition happened to be Poland. That's just the kind of contrived editorial slant he considers puerile.

Ask him something (he considers) stupid, and he still has that glare that could undo your shoelaces.

Sunday, you can tell, will be his kind of war. "I think it'll be quite an intense game, fast-paced," he stresses. "I don't think it's in either team's make-up to keep it at the back too long. I think it'll be a physical challenge and the Poles will be bringing lots of supporters.

"Put it this way, come Friday and Saturday, I think everyone in the country will know there's a big game coming."

For someone so famously unforgiving of himself, he is softer in his view of those now wearing the Irish shirt. Yet, the odd serrated edge remains. When someone expresses concern at the sight of Wes Hoolahan leaving the training session with one boot removed, the response is quintessential Keane.


"When you have places up for grabs, people are going to get knocks in training," he shrugs dismissively. "It's not chess we're playing!"

Listening, it is obvious that the expectation for Sunday is a game in which stomach lining may carry more traction than creativity. If Keane were playing, that would be tailored perfectly to our taste. But this Irish team has a different DNA. In Glasgow last November, they maybe lacked the devilment required to win an unromantic battle and are now, to a point, playing catch-up.

"It's about being on the front foot, whether that be making tackles, creating chances, putting bodies on the line," he says of Sunday night's game. "The players are good characters. As I said, creating a good tempo in the game can come from anything. Some days it's a tackle, on Sunday, please God, it'll be some goals. Players creating chances, good movement, it can come from anything.

"Tackling is part of the game so we'll have to remind people about the physical side. We've got one or two big lads ourselves and we've got I think pace in the right areas as well so, hopefully, we can cause them one or two problems."

It is mentioned that the Aviva can, on occasion, become infected with a faintly anaemic feel. That, maybe, the gaunt old ghost of Lansdowne, as vulnerable to the elements as a rig in the North Sea, instilled more fear into opponents.

Keane smiles wistfully. "It used to scare the home team" he says. "I'm guessing a lot of teams have come here and probably enjoyed the Aviva. It's up to us to be on the front foot, obviously get the fans behind us, I'm sure they will be. The atmosphere I've no doubt will be brilliant.

"But that can't just come from the supporters, it's got to come from the players.

"Obviously the old Lansdowne was brilliant, always a great atmosphere there. But in terms of the atmosphere for Sunday, that's the least of our worries.

"That'll take care of itself. I think it'll be electric."

Keane, the player, never suffered the vitamin deficiency of fear and it is clear that that side of his personality hasn't gone. He admits there are "one or two" areas of potential weakness in the Poles that Ireland might wisely target now.

"You can get at most teams but we'll have to be at our best to do it on Sunday. We need to leave nothing behind."

A game to be settled by a set-piece perhaps?

"Set-pieces do decide an awful lot of big games," he agrees. "We know that Poland are very physical but, also, very aggressive with it. And our lads have to be the same.

"So if we get enough corner-kicks and free-kicks, we've got to make sure we're getting the ball into the right areas. Hopefully, we'll have lads on the day who'll be aggressive and determined.

"You talk about movement but it's also about lads who want to head the ball. You know you've got to be brave."

Someone suggests that it's a game Ireland "should" be winning and Keane's eyebrows arch with theatrical surprise.

"Well, it's easier said than done" he says. "It's a tough game. A win would be nice obviously after the disappointment in Scotland.

"We want to get a foothold back in the group. We don't want the slip-up in Scotland to cost us too much. Every game we play, we go out with the attitude of trying to win it and this will be no different.

"But it's still early in the week. When I was a player myself, the intensity usually rose one or two days before the game. If the players are peaking on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, you're in trouble. You've got to just peak at the right time and that's obviously up to us."

The shine in his eyes suggests that, whatever obstacles might have to be overcome, complacency won't be one of them.

Irish Independent