Thursday 14 December 2017

'We need more players playing at the top level'

ENOUGH is enough. Or, to be precise, not enough is simply not good enough any more.

It was the subject of inactive Irish players which really got Roy Keane going in Abbotstown yesterday.

The Corkman was energised by the topic, rather than agitated. Martin O'Neill's assistant seemed to be in the mood to talk.

He was extremely relaxed, untroubled by questions about his own future. O'Neill, who has faced those queries more frequently, could barely disguise his frustration when pressed again in St Petersburg over the weekend.

Keane is open-minded about what's coming down the tracks in the autumn, conscious that results will shape the debate and the attractiveness of the current management team.

It's for that reason that his mind is focused on encouraging members of the Ireland squad to ensure they are match-sharp for the Euro 2016 retrieval mission.

That's why the players that have switched location this summer in search of the highest available standard of regular football are in the good books. An update on Robbie Brady's impending switch to Norwich was music to his ears.

Ambition drove that move - Brady would have lined out every week for Hull in the Championship. But, whatever the level, Keane feels that individuals who spent last season on the periphery should be knocking on their manager's door if this term appears to be heading in the same direction.

In short, the high-profile No 2 is adamant that not enough men in the panel are in control of their club situations. Aiden McGeady, who barely featured at Everton in 2015, with injury only partially explaining his absence, sprung to his mind.

"My big hang-up about players, even at senior level, is that they are not playing enough games," said Keane, as he assessed the state of the nation.

"You look at the Irish players' stats at the end of a season and you see lads who have played five or ten games a season! It's mind-boggling. How the hell are you going to keep your match sharpness? How are you going to improve as a player if you are not playing regularly?

"Subconsciously you are looking at players and you are saying 'he's played only one or two games in the last two or three months'. You have to play regularly, it's very hard to improve on the training pitch."

A smile broke out when he was asked if these players are to blame for their plight considering that modern managers have a penchant for bigger squads.

"Well it's not my fault!" he responded, in a flash. "They have to do more. They have to get in the team and stay in the bloody team!

"We're on about looking at players' stats and, when we turn up for an international match, you do look at stats for certain players. You look at them and go 'my goodness' whether it be Aiden McGeady or. . . some lads get injured which is fair enough, but you look at lads just not getting enough regular games."

Of course, it was McGeady who admitted that he was surprised to be picked for the March qualifier with Poland when he'd been on the sidelines since January. Fitness prevented him from figuring against Scotland in another 1-1 draw in June.

O'Neill is a huge admirer of the Glaswegian and it's therefore safe to assume that he will always be on the premises when the Derry man is in charge.

Still, with a nod to the future, and the necessity of rebuilding, the heavily bearded sidekick said that it's inevitable that other players will be left behind. The desire to inject new blood will always require casualties.

"That's why I go back to my original point," continued Keane, present to throw his support behind the new national U-17 league that struck a chord given his late-developing background at home.

"If you have young players in England progressing or going out on loan and doing well (a nod, perhaps, to Manchester City's Dutch-bound Jack Byrne) they will automatically put themselves in the shop window for the Irish senior team because there are players coming towards the end of their careers.

"We love having the experienced lads around but the dynamic is no doubt going to change in the next year or two. When you work with lads for one or two years, I'm guessing, hopefully, players will fall by the wayside.

"When you've given them two years you're going 'no. . . how many chances are you going to get?'

"But we also know there aren't 100 players waiting to get in the international team so it's a balancing act. We have to be shrewd with it.

"I'm not talking about ten players in and ten players out, of course not, I'm talking about two or three players coming from nowhere, which has happened in the last year or two.

"As much as I'm probably looking at it and maybe going 'Where are these players are going to come from?', players have snuck under the radar and you've thought 'oh right, he's surprised us and done well.'

"Guys have come on board like a Harry Arter, and I think next year playing in the Premier League 'well, that's a challenge for you now.'

"It's certainly not doom and gloom from my point. If we stay on for the next couple of years and Martin wants me to stay on, I'll be enthusiastic about it.

"But I've said from day one, and I keep repeating myself: we need more players playing regularly at the top level. If not Premier League then Championship, but playing. You have to play. Jesus Christ. Football is about playing, it's not about training."

He doesn't use the word desire, yet it's effectively the theme of his sermon.

The popular refrain now is that it's harder for Irish kids going across the water because of the competition they face from around the world.

Much as the 43-year-old accepts that premise, he is reluctant to accept that it explains everything.

"I know people are talking about clubs looking more abroad now and there's all this," he shrugged., "But I still think a player will have to find a way to get through one way or other.


"Whether it's more difficult or not, well, I don't think for one minute that even before my time, the Dave O'Learys, Kevin Morans, the Bradys and Ronnie Whelans. . . I'm sure people weren't giving them a helping hand when they went over.

"So I think we've got to be careful going 'Aw, it's a lot more difficult now . . .' Maybe that's just in the mindset. Maybe it's not as difficult."

Just like the senior squad member sitting in the stand, his bottom line is that the cubs should have the character to stand on their own two feet and make good things happen.

"If you want to make it as a top footballer, well, we've got one or two good young players now at Liverpool and Manchester City. They have to find their way, one way or the other.

"The League of Ireland suited me. If lads are going off to England at 16 or 17, they have to go there believing they will make it there.

"I know the stats will tell you differently but they have to think 'I am the one that goes against the grain and makes it.'

"I don't think we should fall into the trap and think that years ago it was a lot easier for them.

"You are still moving away from home and to a different environment. You are still coming up against really good players. Obviously that's part of the challenge.

"Do I think it's tougher for players now?" he mused. "I don't know."

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