Roy Keane: 'I don't see doom and gloom where we are going and what we are trying to do'
While many of us cling to Keane caricature, Ireland's assistant boss looks to the positives for future
Roy Keane emits a look as ominous as the soft creak of timber in the dead of night. He has a reputation to uphold and the media's questions have come to resemble the cranking of a catapult.
Always, somehow, he seems to get tugged back to the distant days of civil war. A story in the morning papers swings on the hinge of a weekend interview by Mick McCarthy and the assertion that Roy apologised.
In these parts, a Keane apology carries the potential global impact of a Putin climbdown. So the world, inevitably, clears its throat. In the interests of veracity, Roy?
"I have no interest, what do you want me to do?" he grumbles in the pale Malahide sunlight.
But is it an accurate reflection in your view?
"You want me to talk about certain things, make a few comments? I'm not going to bother, nothing, another day."
He is asked then if, maybe, he rolled his eyes on seeing the story back in print?
"Well, I roll my eyes most mornings," he shrugs (smiling). "It doesn't surprise me. I have no problem."
Keane stands with one hand in tracksuit pocket, the other holding an upturned water bottle. His jaw is dark with stubble. Behind him, in the field overlooking Gannon Park, a woman mysteriously wheels a pram across the hill. It could be a scene borrowed from Craggy Island.
He fields the questions with a mix of mirth and irritation. In the hierarchy of his day's priorities, this – you suspect – is an irksome box to be ticked, yet there is a sense too that – in our dealings with him – we are the ones who cling to caricature. We expect Roy to be someone (something) he has no great wish to be.
Maybe the least interesting thing about him in this exchange is his role as assistant manager of Ireland. So, when he talks about tomorrow's game against Serbia, we hear little. Too many subplots rattling through our brains, too many headlines. The game exists as a sidebar.
He is invited to skim a stone across the great lake of commentary about Alan Pardew's meltdown against David Meyler at the weekend and, again, quietly declines. "Do you know what... nah, no comment on it," he sighs. "No real interest, it's none of my business!"
When it comes to strict football matters, he is courteous, engaged, at times even self-deprecating.
On the absence of Champions League players from Ireland's squad, he notes a broad tone of morbidity and confronts it. On Saturday, he watched Stoke beat Arsenal at the Britannia, describing the performances of Marc Wilson, Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters as "outstanding".
"Generally speaking, my personality is probably doom and gloom but not with the question you asked me," he reflects. "I don't see doom and gloom where we are going and what we are trying to do.
"Sometimes at international level we've had players at the top clubs but you're going back a few years now – whether it be lads like Denis Irwin, Ronnie Whelan, Steve (Staunton), Niall (Quinn) – all at top, top clubs. Now we've got three or four playing at Hull, playing week in, week out in the Premiership.
"Don't be too... emmm," (the questioner interjects, accepting that it is hard to get into Champions League starting 11s and stressing that it is not his intention to be negative). "It IS hard," agrees Keane.
"It's hard for a lot of international players. Tell me how many Scottish players, the Welsh boys... even a lot of England players, they're complaining that there aren't enough playing for the big boys because of a lot of foreigners coming on board.
"Our problems are not unusual to the other countries and we're not going to discover players in the next few weeks. So I'm not too bad. I'm okay with it. When we turn up on a Sunday night, I'm not gonna waste my time and energy worrying about that. The games I've watched... we're all quick to knock our own... eeeh I've been good at that, don't get me wrong ... but no, no, there have been the positives."
He sounds like a social worker looking to pull a gloomy community into the brightness. Roy Keane telling a copse of misbegotten scribes to pull their chins from their boots.
Still, you can tell that he likes being back in a football environment, that he enjoys the uncomplicated energies sustaining a sense of team.
"It's brilliant, a focus in my life," agrees Keane. "Getting back with Ireland, obviously there's a few changes, working with a few players that I didn't know previously. In saying that it's nice to come across the lads I've worked with like Murph (Daryl Murphy), Jon Walters, Meyler and all these lads.
"There's a nice mix to the job. I know people talk about the frustration of international football and not seeing the players, but I kind of like that. I like the role I have at the moment, it suits me down to the ground.
"My role is very, very straightforward. There's nothing complicated about it, going to watch players, recommending players, working with them this morning, making sure we're not doing too much, focusing for Wednesday. Even back at the hotel that's my focus, there's nothing else distracting me."
He is asked what has impressed him most about the changes in Ireland's set-up since his days as a player.
"It's probably a little bit more organised," he says with a deadpan look.
Would he like to elaborate?
"(Smiling) Where do you want me to start? Just a bit of everything. There are obviously a lot more staff on board, it's a lot more organised, there's more of a timetable.
"It's just small, little details that I think are a bit better and sharper. Obviously, Martin and myself, there's still stuff we'd like to tidy up, so there's been a vast improvement, as you would hope, within the organisation and our job is to keep improving because all these details will make life a lot easier for the players when they do turn up."
Is it, perhaps, a big work in progress?
"What do you mean by 'big'? It's a work in progress. Whether we want to use the words 'big', 'massive', 'small' – it's a work in progress."
He has always seen the media scrum as some kind of rest home for the bewildered. Keane is asked about a recent story linking him to a job at Sheffield Wednesday and scoffs "as the bus driver I think".
He is more comfortable assessing the form of men like Meyler "I've always liked him", the absent Andy Reid "playing as well as any player" and the very much present, James McCarthy. The Everton man is widely considered the closest thing today's Ireland has to yesterday's Roy Keane. His assessment is, thus, revealing.
John Giles recently argued that it was time for McCarthy to begin taking games by the scruff of the neck.
"It probably is," agrees Keane, "but it's a nice assessment. It's not being critical. I've seen him a number of times and that will come with age.
"I was in the same boat myself when I was at Forest and you're surrounded by senior players and then you get a move to United and you're working with Bryan Robson – and you mature into the job. That's a process that James will go through. There's nothing unusual about it for a younger player.
"It's a bit of everything, maturing on and off the pitch. I think James said it himself when he got the award on Sunday night. He's a quiet lad. We're all different. People always look to when I played, but that (leadership quality) only came later on in my career when I was a bit more mature and put more demands on people.
"But it certainly wasn't the case when I was at Nottingham Forest or when I first went to United. It's just a case of James learning his game. And I'm sure he'll mature into it.
"If he's playing week in, week out for Everton where they're challenging near the top of the league, the benefits will be there for Ireland as well. But don't be trying to make him something he's not. He might never be a ranter or a raver but sometimes it's not about that, it's about making more demands of his team around him or demanding the ball in certain situations. I've only known him two minutes, but we like the signs already.
"All that will come with age. Don't be impatient about him."
Keane looks forward to the looming Euro qualifying campaign, accepting the likelihood that Germany will finish top of Pool D, but suggesting "there won't be much between the rest". And he is enthused by the prospect of locking horns with his former Celtic boss Gordon Strachan, now manager of Scotland.
Despite suffering two hamstring tears during his short time at Parkhead, Keane reflected that "generally speaking" he enjoyed his spell under Strachan's management.
What pleasure either Keane or O'Neill take from this job will – he accepts – be decided, ultimately, by results. "People have obviously been very polite and are giving us good backing, but we're here to get results," he shrugs. "We're under no illusions about that. Martin and myself have been in the game long enough. It's well and good getting pats on the back, but we're here to win matches. And that'll be tough, but we're ready for it."
It ends almost by mutual agreement. A question about his next book and the extravagant choice of ghost.
"Who else did you want me to go with?"
That's up to you, but it (the choice of Roddy Doyle) seems unusual.
"'Yes, it is up to me, it is up to me..."
But a Man Booker Prize winner seems an unusual choice...
"Who said I picked him? Roddy picked me."
Is there an issue over the book, re Martin having a look first?
"There won't be an issue!"
In terms of content?
"In terms of everything."
"Well, there won't be an issue."
But Martin said he might be allowed to look at it first... we're just trying to clarify...
Keane interjects: "I might do (let him look at book before it is published), but there's nothing to clarify."
Is there anything in it that might be problematic for Martin and the FAI?
"When you read it, you can make your own judgment!"
With that he wheels away, a thousand secret oaths no doubt ringing in his ears.