Sunday 20 October 2019

Comment: Hiring Roy Keane as his celebrity assistant was one of Martin O'Neill's big mistakes

12 November 2016; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, right, with assistant manager Roy Keane prior to the FIFA World Cup Group D Qualifier match between Austria and Republic of Ireland at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna, Austria. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
12 November 2016; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, right, with assistant manager Roy Keane prior to the FIFA World Cup Group D Qualifier match between Austria and Republic of Ireland at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna, Austria. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

“Getting the right assistant and backroom staff is the important signing any manager can make.”

The words of legendary Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson should have struck a chord with Martin O’Neill before he rolled the dice in by hiring Roy Keane as his assistant when he became Ireland manager in November 2013.

As the enduring post-mortem into Ireland’s World Cup thrashing at the hands of Denmark continues, one of the chief architects of the humiliation has avoided the scrutiny he is long overdue.

O’Neill has naturally come under fire for the tactics and substitutions he made in Ireland’s desperate 5-1 thrashing against Denmark, which left huge doubts over his credibility to continue in the job, yet his high profile sidekick also merits a huge slice of scrutiny.

Was Keano in agreement with the decision to take off Ireland’s two defensive midfielders at half-time against the Danes and go for broke in what was always going to be a suicide mission against an infinitely better opponent?

It can only be assumed he was as if nothing else, this firebrand character has never been afraid to speak up when he has an opinion to offer.

Indeed, Keane’s iconic personality traits are one of the primary reasons why he was never cut out for the role he has been in for the past four years.

The former Manchester United captain has long been a polarising figure in Irish society and whether you love or hate the brand he has helped to cultivate down the years, one reality has shone through over his reign as O’Neill’s mouthpiece - he is not cut out to be an assistant.

Blatantly, the combustible Keane lacks the personality traits to be a No.2 to anyone as he has proved time and again throughout his explosive career that he can only be the front man.

An assistant boss is a key cog in any successful management set-up and he fulfils a role as a buffer between the players and the manager, the go-to man who can liaise with the boss if there are concerns or dissent emerging from the dressing room, but Keane has never tried to be that man in the Ireland set-up.

O’Neill’s policy of being distant with his squad in an apparent bid to keep players on their toes means his assistant has a hugely significant role in bonding with the squad.

Yet Keane’s refusal to take on those duties have led to a chasm in communication between the top men and the squad.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of the players probably don’t particularly like me, so I would keep my distance from them,” declared Keane in typically bullish fashion back in June.

“When we work, we work, and when we’re off, we stay away from each other.”

Well, that aloof approach was never in the assistant manager’s job title and O’Neill should have reminded him of what he should have been doing long ago.

So what exactly has Keane contributed to O’Neill’s Ireland set-up, other than start fires in press conferences and scream abuse at a few match officials and players?

In the numerous interviews I have conducted with Ireland players over the last four years, I have asked them what role Keane plays at each international gathering and the responses have been intriguing.

Some players have chuckled when asked the poser, others have trotted out the old lines suggesting he is an inspiration to have around the squad, but few have given a description that suggests Keane has been fulfilling his duties of his job title at any point since his surprise appointment by O’Neill in November 2013.

Ireland players do not call Keane to chat over issues relating to the Ireland squad and he has not been in dialogue with any of them in between matches. Several have told me that they don't even have his phone number and yet building bonds with players should be part of the job of an assistant manager.

It means a somewhat distant relationship between the Ireland management and squad they put their trust in, with unity among the players themselves not enough to save the day when the going got tough against Denmark.

Off the record, senior Ireland players have suggested that the lacklustre performance in the 1-1 draw in Georgia in September was due, in part, to a lack of preparation on team shape.

Some players complained that they were unsure of their role in the team before being sent into battle in Tbilisi, while other have suggested a lack of preparatory work both defending and attacking set-pieces has affected the team’s hopes.

As Keane has taken a lead in Ireland training sessions, those criticisms were inevitably directed at the assistant who has often been the frontman for a manager who prefers a watching brief in training sessions.

In addition, several senior players have expressed annoyance over the Ireland management’s policy of naming their starting line-up an hour before big games, with players suggesting their ‘off the cuff’ tactical style is not conducive to long-term success.

O'Neill believes his methods keeps players on their toes, but my impression from many suggests this aloof approach fuels a suspicion that he is contriving ideas off the cuff, with Keane acting as sounding board in chief when he needs to make key decisions like his bizarre half-time double substitution of Harry Arter and David Meyler in the Denmark game.

It may be that Keane has learned from the mistakes he made during his spells in charge of Sunderland and Ipswich and will return to full-time management with a vision of what is required to succeed as the main man calling the shots.

His chance could come at Celtic or even as O’Neill’s successor as Ireland boss, yet the idea that this talismanic giant of the game has the qualities to buckle up his seatbelt as a backseat driver should now be banished for good.

As for O'Neill, who has been linked with managerial vacancies at West Bromwich Albion and Everton this week, he needs to consider precisely what his brand of management needs from an assistant if he takes another club job or, as still seems more likely, stays on with Ireland for the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

The Ireland manager was inevitably cast as the fall-guy in a set-up that was teetering on the edge of disaster long before Denmark exposed the flaws in his set-up, but the biggest mistake he made in his reign as Ireland boss may have been his first - picking the horribly ill-equipped Keane to be his celebrity assistant.

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