Comment: Is calling a footballer a 'c***' or a 'p***k' in any way useful in the modern game?
As illuminating as it is to get let in behind the dressing room door and hear how professional teams really talk, there were only two things actually surprising about Stephen Ward's leaked WhatsApp note regarding the Irish squad and the dispute between assistant Roy Keane and midfielder Harry Arter.
The first was after it, when Martin O'Neill so casually confirmed it was indeed Ward’s WhatsApp note in the press conference ahead of what would have otherwise been a non-event of a friendly away to Poland. “Stephen wasn't actually there,” O'Neill said. “He was just picking up on things.”
No evasion or obfuscation there, nor an appeal to the fact no one could have definitively said it was Ward. O'Neill just went out and admitted it, almost indicating he isn't too bothered by it.
The second was Keane supposedly so rounding on a player that wasn’t training – in this case, Arter – because he felt injured. It was quite an ironic historic twist. This was after all precisely the issue that provoked one of the biggest stories in Irish sporting history, and Keane’s own departure from the Irish squad in Saipan ahead of the 2002 World Cup.
The current assistant so furiously responded to being accused of “faking injury” then. Sixteen years on, here he is on the other side with a player refusing to play under him, albeit just complaining about that player not performing through injury rather than “faking” anything.
“When are you going to train you p***k?” the voice note alleges Keane saying to Arter. “You’re a p***k, you're a c***, you don't even care, you don't want to train.”
It should be noted that O’Neill stresses Keane disputes this account, as well as other abusive comments to Jon Walters – who seems to relish standing up to the assistant, and purportedly came out with one of the lines of the year in “You’re gonna be a s***house again and send me my fine in the post rather than say it to my face?” – but it is here where some genuine wider debate lies too.
A figure like Keane calling footballers “c***” and “p***k” is not news, nor any way surprising. It would be surprising if he didn’t.
The real debate is whether this kind of thing is now any way useful or productive in the modern football environment.
Maybe that is why this admittedly limited team no longer seems to be responding to the management of O’Neill and Keane, why they’re now collapsing in humiliating defeats, why players like Arter can do without the hassle?
The last few years have already seen a lot of debate about whether a manager like Jose Mourinho knows how to handle “millennials”, but this goes beyond that, way further back than that.
It has already become a joke in Ireland – one first made by the excellent Dion Fanning – about how O’Neill and Keane seem to just explain everything through their experience of getting managed by Brian Clough, a one-time genius who retired relegated and past it as long ago as 1993.
There is genuinely always a Clough anecdote, and of course there was one when O’Neill actually announced the news that Arter had not joined up with the squad due to a row with Keane.
“I did tell Harry that if he was having a fall-out with management, I was the right person to talk to,” O’Neill said. “I won two European Cups under him but lost all arguments with my Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough. Management won.”
Except it’s now difficult not to lose interest. Such anecdotes – or at least those playing up the caricature of an otherwise historic football figure – have now become so repeated and so tired that it’s difficult not to quote Muhammad Ali’s own famous line from the ‘70s: “Clough, I’ve had enough!”
There was actually a much more interesting account from Keane’s 2014 autobiography that so completely shows a man who is much more reflective and thoughtful when not in such environments.
It was when Keane spoke about the time he castigated Ruud van Nistelrooy for not playing an FA Cup semi-final because he didn’t feel right… only to realise his teammate was right, as he almost ruefully reflected how the striker went on to play until he was 39.
“Not playing when you’re injured – that was pretty sensible,” Keane wrote. “But I was conditioned to think that not playing if you weren’t 100 per cent fit was a sign of weakness, and that you should be strong and play when you were injured. But the clever lads won’t be limping around when they’re 45, and they won’t be having hip replacements. My tradition was different – ‘Don’t show you’re hurt, just get on with it.’ Don’t be weak, play when you’re injured. Brian Clough detested players who were injured. He’d have banned a lad on crutches from the ground. What we see as heroic, I think now is probably weakness. ‘Can you go for us?’ I’d take a painkiller, and play. No one put a gun to my head, but I wish I’d had the strength of character of the foreign lads.”
Such an epiphany makes the Ward account all the more amazing, the regression all the more remarkable.
O’Neill however didn’t seem too bothered by his assistant’s approach, as he then doubled down and revealed he’d had his own abrasive argument with David Meyler.
“It wouldn’t be the first conversation, the first tête-à-tête, certainly it wouldn’t be the first, if I can call it, altercation between players and staff. I’ve had one with the man sitting beside me here two days ago.”
Many have recently asked what Keane’s actual role with Ireland is if it just amounts to ostracising players, but it’s difficult not to wonder whether it’s exactly this; whether O’Neill precisely values this Clough-inspired aggression.
It’s just aggression that worked 40 years ago, revving players up, whereas now it just seems to switch them off. It's old hat, in a world where modern management is about encouragement. Pep's Guardiola's "guys" may grate, and some may laugh at Jürgen Klopp's gregarious schtick, but that approach to football relationships is now what gets results with modern top-level players.
The result of the Clough approach at Ireland's level has been Arter switched off a squad that is in desperate need of any kind of quality, as it faces a multitude of other problems.
This approach has just created another problem. It is closing doors, rather than opening them.