Wednesday 17 July 2019

Analysis: How Roy Keane transformed from a national icon into a national punchline

Keane was a force of nature on the pitch who dragged Ireland and Manchester United to improbable heights. But those days have long passed. His recent bust-ups with players might be entertaining for some, but the truth is that it’s no laughing matter

Roy Keane and Polish manager Jerzy Brzêczek share a light-hearted moment during the friendly international in Wroc³aw this week. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Roy Keane and Polish manager Jerzy Brzêczek share a light-hearted moment during the friendly international in Wroc³aw this week. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

On Thursday evening, Joe Canning was on a GAA panel on Newstalk discussing the injury that he had managed through a season of hurling, when Mayo footballer Andy Moran butted in.

"What would Roy Keane say to him if he couldn't train?" said Moran, drawing laughs from the assembled audience.

A week earlier, on the eve of Ireland's UEFA Nations League defeat in Cardiff, Ryan Giggs used comic timing when asked if he was surprised by news of a row between his old Manchester United team-mate and Harry Arter.

"Nooo," said Giggs, sarcastically, to the sound of loud laughter.

Before Ireland's draw in Wroclaw on Tuesday, the pictures of the Ireland assistant attending to the injured Enda Stevens in the warm-up drew several wisecrack entries for the caption competition.

This has been the story of September for Irish football. Roy Keane is the biggest name in Irish sport, a central figure in the national sporting discussion from the moment he burst onto the scene.

Roy Keane eager to return to management, but he may be better deployed as a firebrand TV analyst. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Roy Keane eager to return to management, but he may be better deployed as a firebrand TV analyst. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

As the fifth anniversary of his shock appointment as Irish assistant approaches, a move that was supposed to help inspire and encourage our players to reach new heights, Keane has transformed from an icon to a punchline.

From the voice of reason to the definition of unreasonable.

Stephen Ward has been cast as the unintentional truthsayer, with his leaked Whatsapp destroying any of the lingering mythology about Keane's magic. The Burnley player's matter-of-fact description of Keane's summer rant in the direction of Harry Arter was damning

To the outside world, some of the information contained within was remarkable. Within the game, it came as no real surprise. Been there, heard that. You would do well to find a contemporary of Keane who was astonished by the content.

His former Irish team-mates have been to the forefront of the reaction. They have experience of being on the receiving end of a dressing down from the old Keane, an elite world player at the peak of his powers, before tensions came to a head in Saipan.

We know that it mattered to them. Niall Quinn's autobiography contains long sections which make it seem like he was almost in awe of this iconic presence in their midst who the rest of the group couldn't quite figure out.

The strength of his personality could lift those around him on the pitch. Keane drove them on to be better.

A Daily Telegraph piece earlier this week detailed how O'Neill was struck by how Alex Ferguson used Keane when they were on opposite sides at Premier League level.

The then-Leicester manager marvelled at how Ferguson goaded the Corkman into chipping away at under-performing team-mates. It was implied that O'Neill feels that is what Keane can do in his dressing room these days, but the rules of engagement are very different when he doesn't even have the authority to pick the team - a contrast from when he was patently the best player in it and therefore offering a clear value.

Gary Breen was one of the players who actually called to say goodbye to Keane before he departed the 2002 World Cup. But he spoke on 'Off The Ball' this week about how sick he was of hearing O'Neill laud Keane's United presence.

"It's not the same Roy Keane," said Breen, "That's Roy Keane the player. That reference is a complete and utter nonsense. Why doesn't he reference that this is the Roy Keane that drove Sunderland to promotion from the Championship? They are the references that need to be made."

That is not a perfect reference either, however.

Dressing rooms have changed from when Keane was a player and they have possibly even changed from when he last worked there as a manager in 2011; a big part of his Sunderland success was the recruitment of senior pros that were basically from his generation and could respond to his approach.

In his autobiography, the former Sunderland player Danny Higginbotham tells an illuminating story about the time that Keane got his players together to deliver a message.

"Lads, listen, if any of you have a problem with each other, don't hold back, just get it out," said the Sunderland boss. "I won't fine youse or nothing, if someone has something to say, that's just how it is. Say it."

Higginbotham told that story with a positive tone, but Liam Lawrence was doing the rounds throughout the week explaining how Keane's propensity to practice what he preached had implications. The future Irish international was promptly shown the door after a robust exchange of views in the office.

"The c-word must have been mentioned thirty times before I got up and walked out," said Lawrence, who promptly joined Stoke. He joked that Keane later tried to sign him while he was manager of Ipswich - which is possibly indicative of the fact that their parting left a longer lasting impression on the victim of the outburst.

Keane's sensitivity threshold might well be different.

Still, there's a one dimensional view of Keane the person, a man persistently raging against the world, which can be challenged.

A number of anecdotal tales paint a different story. The spontaneous acts of generosity to pros going through hard times. Calling up ex-League of Ireland striker Gary O'Neill when he was diagnosed with cancer; offering pep talks to young Irish lads in England laid low by injury problems; reaching out to the families of the late Ryan McBride and Mark Farren. And there are others.

Keane has never publicised these stories; they came into the public domain because the recipients were touched by it. He can be engaging and entertaining and it's clear that O'Neill enjoys his company - the cutting sense of humour that can work extremely well in the right place at the right time.

However, it's possible that Liam Brady did touch on something earlier this week when he spoke of Keane hating football and footballers.

This was part of the logic behind thinking that the rhythms of the international sphere might actually suit, with five gatherings per year a contrast from a 24/7 working environment. At Sunderland and Ipswich he grew particularly frustrated by everyday interactions with players who weren't his cup of tea; his most recent autobiography details his dislike of dealing with agents and the other hangers-on.

With Ireland, there is no buying or selling, although we now know that it is possible to lose players for free. Yet, it would seem that a form of cabin fever has set in, with lingering tensions coming to the boil.

It goes beyond the squabbles with Arter and Jonathan Walters. There have been other incidents such as a heated argument with another senior player on a tour of America which was related to his attitude in the warm-up.

When results are going reasonably well then these squabbles are irrelevant but the major rows now make the minor ones seem significant. Over time, the shock value has lost its impact. It only succeeded in driving players away and upsetting others. It's possible that the players could have handled it from the manager, but Keane lacked the authority to dish it out.

His words just don't carry the same weight any more.

O'Neill likes to joke about Keane's temper but the lines between parody and reality are now blurred and it's no laughing matter when it is raising genuine questions about the unity of a camp which generally has no problems in that department.

Back in the day when Keane was righting the wrongs of Irish football; tackling the training grounds, the cheap seats and the cheese sandwiches, there was always an assumption that the target of a Keane bollocking deserved it. If the great one was lashing out, it was because people just weren't meeting his high standards.

What are his standards now? What if he's actually wrong? It's over a decade since his last successful season in a group where he was calling the shots and it's apparent that players now doubt if the Keane way is actually the right way.

We are only a few years away from speaking to footballers who have no memory of him as a player, when it used to be a given that a young Irish pro would cite Keane as their childhood role model. He was the Conor McGregor for the generation that can just about remember an era without smart phones.

Ironically enough, it's a very modern form of media that has exposed a prevailing view that does exist within his profession. Players talk. Word spreads, although it shouldn't spread via a player's friend on Whatsapp. But the grapevine can alter perceptions.

The romantic angle of Keane's return to Ireland was probably borne out of the belief that he could spice things up. Put pampered players in their place. The presumption is that those methods will be effective when it's possible that a squad might just crave something a little more constructive; preparation by intimidation is a dated concept. "It was basically just Roy losing the head," sounded like a story that was familiar.

That weariness is a contrast from the days of Keane sitting across from Tommie Gorman with a nation hanging on his every word. To the devotees, it was gospel.

Keane does continue to captivate. In a way, the headlines and column inches generated by his involvement in this ruckus highlight as much. English media outlets have scaled back on coverage of the Irish team due to the absence of marquee names, but Keane draws them back. The FAI knew the value of that power when O'Neill floated the idea of bringing him in. They were sold as a package.

In Wroclaw, O'Neill asserted that his sidekick would speak to the media about proceedings in due course and we already know that it will be an event. A press conference room will reverentially fall silent, and ensure their phones are in sync with that, and if there are jokes everybody will laugh.

There will always be rooms that are lit up by Keane's presence, rooms where a crowd will stand to attention in the hope we will be delivered a quip and a putdown to rival the greatest hits. ITV turned Keane into their star World Cup pundit because of that box-office value. When he came into shot as England's World Cup was discussed, Irish viewers already knew it was going to be good.

But how does the Irish dressing room feel when Keane walks into sight? That is what matters here. The fear is that they have tuned out of a show that they've seen too many times before.

Irish Independent

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