Sunday 16 June 2019

Comment: Bully tactics won't wash anymore and Roy Keane's apologists need to open their eyes

‘Even if there was a pragmatic case to be made for Roy Keane’s behaviour, most people would agree that any goal which can only be accomplished through bullying and intimidation is hardly worth striving for.’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘Even if there was a pragmatic case to be made for Roy Keane’s behaviour, most people would agree that any goal which can only be accomplished through bullying and intimidation is hardly worth striving for.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

So how was your week at work? Did you tell anyone they were a fucking c**t and had been all their life? Did someone follow you down a corridor, shouting that you were a fucking prick? Thought not. You wouldn't talk to someone like that. And you wouldn't tolerate anyone speaking to you that way. That's why there's no defending Roy Keane's behaviour towards Harry Arter.

I have no interest in seeing Keane trotted out like a bold child to make some insincere apology. It would be nice to think he'd ring Arter and say sorry in private. All the speculation about mediation and intermediaries is pointless guff. The rights and wrongs of the incident are hardly complicated.

What Roy does next matters little. It's more interesting to examine reactions to the story and what they say about our attitudes towards bullying.

The bully is the lowest form of creation. And bullying, in its various aspects, is at the roots of most of the world's problems. From the big bullies like Assad, Putin and Trump to the collective bully which is the social media lynch mob, to the individual bullies at work or school and in the home, nothing spreads misery like a bully.

Roy Keane acted like a bully when dealing with Harry Arter, if Stephen Ward's testimony is correct. None of us are perfect, it's easy to lose your temper. But the Arter incident didn't take place in the heat of the moment.

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Harry Arter will play for the Republic of Ireland again after his row with Roy Keane, says his Cardiff manager Neil Warnock (Brian Lawless/PA)

Instead Keane is said to have sought out Arter when the player was getting treatment for injury and showered personal abuse on him. "Roy was just going mad, getting worse and worse," we're told. Arter declined to get involved in a row and walked back to his room. At which stage, apparently, "Roy was just shouting down the corridor, 'you're a fucking prick, you're a c**t and you have been all your life'."

This is pretty awful stuff. A cursory glance at the news pages will reveal people getting financially compensated for similar incidents at work and employers being rapped on the knuckles for allowing them to happen. It's a long time since anyone thought this was acceptable behaviour.

It seems not just unacceptable but pointless. All Keane did was drive a quality midfielder from an Irish squad which has a grave shortage of such players. Even if there was a pragmatic case to be made for his behaviour, most people would agree that any goal which can only be accomplished through bullying and intimidation is hardly worth striving for.

Those who argue that Keane's behaviour is excused by the high-pressure nature of his job might consider the fate of General George Patton. In August, 1943, Patton verbally abused and slapped two soldiers suffering from shellshock after fighting in Italy. Public outrage at the incidents was such that Patton was denied command of the US 1st Army during the D-Day campaign and spent almost a year on the sidelines.

The stakes then were somewhat higher than they are in the Nations League, yet the US Army felt it was necessary to show nobody was too important to flout the standards of basic decency towards others. So there's not much excuse for someone whose only wars are of the metaphorical variety.

There's a suspicion that the kind of unreconstructed machismo which would be laughed at elsewhere maintains a presence in the English football culture which moulded Keane. Martin O'Neill's attempts to pass the whole thing off as boys being boys certainly suggests as much. The persistence of such antediluvian attitudes probably explains the desire of major clubs to seek managers from elsewhere.

The most dispiriting thing about Keane is not so much his inability to keep the head as the way he's become a kind of patron saint of bullying. Every fresh outburst sees people rushing to defend him. Arter should 'man up', Keano is fighting against mediocrity, he despises modern footballers because they're pampered brats and so on ad nauseam.

The defences merge into one anguished lament at the passing of the traditional grim, punitive and witless idea of what it was to be a man. Keane's partisans see him as defender of the old macho verities.

Yet their attack on 'mediocrity' seems an odd one. By definition most of us are pretty close to average. And the Twitter bios and work email addresses of those who rail against the mediocre with such fury don't suggest they're exactly making a huge impact on the world. Even if Keane is right and modern footballers are all prima donnas, these are the players he has to work with. It seems unlikely a major cultural shift can be effected by insisting a Cardiff City midfielder has been a c**t all his life.

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Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill. Photo: Sportsfile

Do these apologists behave like their hero does at work or does Keano merely fulfil their repressed desires? They're presumably the audience for those witless gifs of the 'this photo of Roy Keane glaring at the linesman last night is the scariest thing you'll see all day'. Keane has become a camp icon of pantomime scariness for the kind of people who licked their lips at the recent revelation that in Saipan most of his team-mates were scared of him.

But scaring people isn't a very useful achievement unless you're a Mafia enforcer running a protection racket. There was a time when this country was run on fear, fear of the Church and the institutions to which they could consign you, of teachers and the physical brutality they were entitled to inflict on you, of authoritarian families, of unchecked Garda power and of a whole system which believed in putting manners on people by frightening them. That day is gone. Keane and the men who praise him are like relics of that benighted era. Listening to them is like going to Newgrange and seeing lads dressed in animal skins painting pictures on the wall.

The saga of Roy and Harry and Jon is an unsavoury one but it can serve a purpose by making us think about our own attitudes. The brilliant American novelist George Saunders gave a famous talk to college students where he lauded the importance of kindness because it is the kindness of other people towards us which we remember most in our lives.

He was right. Perhaps the biggest achievement any of us can manage in our lives is to become kinder. It's not as easy as it sounds. And perhaps it's particularly difficult in sport, with its winner-takes-all ethos and its military rhetoric. We've all heard the stories of the insanely competitive underage coaches who seem determined to remove any possibility of enjoyment from their teams.

In many ways they're Roy Keane writ small. I suspect those lads would have sympathised with him over the past week. They know sometimes you have to tell a player he's a c**t and a prick because you're passionate about what you do and the important thing in life is to be a winner.

Except it's not. The important thing in this life is to be kind, and if sport can't accommodate that then sport is useless. Most of us know that. Limerick are the most popular hurling champions in years not just because of their fairytale victory but because of the dignity and decency with which they greeted success. Dublin are cut from the same cloth.

The abiding images from this year's All-Ireland celebrations are not of pubs but of Liam MacCarthy and Sam Maguire being brought round to schools and to hospitals where they raise the spirits in children battling with sickness. That's the mark of a country changing for the better.

Recently sportsmen have also been to the forefront in trying to dispel the stigma of mental illness by talking about their emotions in a way which would once have been taboo. They've been instrumental in dispelling the mystique which once surrounded the 'Hard Man' in this society.

The Hard Man is on his way out. Soon he'll be as obsolete as a public pay phone. There's no room anymore for the kind of approach exemplified by what Roy Keane said to Harry Arter.

If Ireland lose to Wales and Denmark next month, chances are O'Neill will depart and everyone will agree Keane's behaviour was a disaster in terms of team morale. But if they win those games chances are someone will say, "Well Roy, you must have given them a good talking to before tonight?" and everyone will go "Ha ha ha" and all will be happy again.

But results won't make this right. Roy Keane is in the wrong because as people we should try to treat each other with a bit of respect. Every medal ever minted isn't worth a small scrap of human decency.

There are far more important things in life than football scores.

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