Wednesday 16 October 2019

Comment: Martin O'Neill needs to decide - is it Roy Keane or the group?

Echoes of United departure around Ireland set-up as assistant's status comes into focus

Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill in Cardiff last month
Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill in Cardiff last month
David Kelly

David Kelly

The first rule of crisis management is to adhere to the law of 'holes'. When you're in one, stop digging.

The embattled Ireland manager, already seemingly struggling with the basic tenets of the coaching manual, if last week's Cardiff calamity is posited as evidence, has quite spectacularly ignored this basic precept.

After all, it must be remembered Martin O'Neill was the one who decided to turn the first sod when, entirely unprompted, he decided to publicly reveal that there had been an altercation between his assistant and two squad members, Harry Arter and Jonathan Walters.

Quite why O'Neill chose to do so remains, like many of his selection and tactical approaches, bafflingly uncertain.

It seemed to be a nod towards "wiping the slate" clean, as the manager promised a "new era" after the dismal Danish implosion of the previous November. Or was he trying to prevent something else more corrosive emerging?

The quite damaging evidence unveiled by the explosive WhatsApp message - once private, now public - reveals a deep fissure within the Irish squad, one provoked entirely by one member of the management team, Roy Keane, which threatens to spread like wildfire.

It still remains unclear just why O'Neill pre-empted the disclosure of others by publicly revealing that there had been a row; was he afraid that one of the central characters might offer their version of events before he did?

If that was the case, then he has spectacularly misinterpreted the situation, as well as once more demonstrating an utter disconnection with the changed, post-Cloughian landscape in which he now operates.

The WhatsApp message reveals the disconnection between the management and certain elements of the squad - after all, why would a player who was not even present for the row report it in such lavish detail to his colleagues?

Not only that, somebody else would have had to impart the information to him, before Ward chose to pass it on with such intricate, intrinsic detail.

So this issue is not, as O'Neill declaimed last week, restricted to just two players - it has affected many, many more than that.

And perhaps, too, Declan Rice, who has yet to declare for Ireland but presumably, finds himself somewhat out of the loop.

No matter, if he hasn't heard Ward's breathless report from the war zone, he has now. And if you were Rice, would you feel entirely happy when having to report for Ireland duty, knowing you have to sit out the opening training session because your employers have said you have to.

No, didn't think so.

But there is an even deeper crack exposed, and it is that between O'Neill and his assistant.

"I am the manager," O'Neill has repeatedly declared, usually when forced to defiantly defend his wayward assistant, as he did for the umpteenth time again yesterday.

Now all Irish supporters can bear witness to the extraordinarily dysfunctional "assistance" offered by Keane to two of his squad members, both now absent from tonight's utterly redundant friendly encounter.

Long quizzical about what exactly the €500,000 salary stumped up for his presence exactly entailed in terms of services rendered, those supporters now, at least, have some verifiable influence of the purported "influence" the oft-lauded Keane has had.

How does that make O'Neill really feel?

We can't be sure, as once more he delved behind laconic deflection, declaring that why, only last week, he and David Meyler had a row.

To be reduced to such a last resort was a pitiful response from a man of his stature and reflective, still, of his seemingly unbending loyalty to a man who, instead of making his job easier, is increasingly making it more arduous.

And heaven knows it is a fiendishly difficult gig as it is. At the moment, he is not being assisted by Keane. He is being undermined by him.

O'Neill's difficulty is that Keane's erratic recidivism - the recurring template of a once world-class player unable to manage those of a lesser ilk - will cost him his job if events, and results, maintain their corrosive path downwards.

The FAI can't afford to sack both of them - just as they can't afford not to qualify for Euro 2020. And they will not remove Keane because they are lacking in such moral courage.

So it is down to the manager to, well, manage.

A divisive assistant or a united squad. It is his choice, similar to those made by Alex Ferguson and Mick McCarthy before him; neither man regretted their decision.

O'Neill's loyalty to Keane is evident but the tariff has now become much too prohibitive.

Unless Keane and Arter can quantify the exact details of what actually happened, the crisis will continue.

Even if they do speak, because we now know they will not share the same version of events as described by Ward, the crisis may continue anyway.

Once before, Irish soccer forced itself to shed Keane's toxic presence. Everyone moved on. This is history repeating.

Irish Independent

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