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James Lawton: Ferocious competitor Keane can now strengthen status as huge force in Irish regime

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'In both O'Neill and Keane, the young Irish players surely have a degree of leadership - and natural-born passion - likely to make the challenge seem more like an adventure than another wearisome chore.' Photo; REUTERS/Toby Melville

'In both O'Neill and Keane, the young Irish players surely have a degree of leadership - and natural-born passion - likely to make the challenge seem more like an adventure than another wearisome chore.' Photo; REUTERS/Toby Melville

'In both O'Neill and Keane, the young Irish players surely have a degree of leadership - and natural-born passion - likely to make the challenge seem more like an adventure than another wearisome chore.' Photo; REUTERS/Toby Melville

Now, maybe, Roy Keane will able to get on with the rest of his life in the way that some men do when they finally grasp who they are and what they do best.

It is still probably a little early to talk of the epiphany of a 42-year-old former hell-rouser, but in his decision to stay with Ireland's national team Keane may indeed have arrived not just at such a point of conviction but also a much enhanced peace of mind.

If the temptations of a move to Celtic were strong for a man who felt in need of some restoration of a once formidable reputation, so, surely, were the inherent dangers.

His nemesis, since the days of glory at Old Trafford, has always been a gut-wrenching anger at the perceived complacency at the modern footballer and after years of Celtic's mastery of the one-horse race which is Scottish football, he was guaranteed to encounter a fair amount of that at Parkhead.

By comparison, as Martin O'Neill's No 2, he is required to stiffen the fighting instincts of young Irish international players cast into a new and extremely demanding world.

On the evidence of the their outing against an Italian side filled with players making their case for World Cup consideration, Keane's impact is beginning to register with some growing form.

When the news of the Celtic overture broke, the general word from the Irish dressing room was one of impending loss and in the wake of the impressive showing against the Azzurri there was a much sharper indication of his developing role beside O'Neill.

It came from the young Derby County contender Jeff Hendrick, the pick of an Irish midfield which also saw promising performances from Anthony Pilkington, David Meyler, and Wes Hoolahan.

Hendrick spoke of Keane's incisive words at half-time, when he stressed the need to tackle the disruptive interventions of Giuseppe Rossi. The brief was delivered and assuredly exercised. O'Neill, who handled the Celtic situation with statesmanlike calm, plainly appreciated the tactical cohesion, pronouncing himself delighted with a "magnificent" Irish performance.

Of course, O'Neill will be delighted to retain the services of Keane.

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A less secure man would not have so cheerfully embraced the presence of such a big football beast at his shoulder and, if he is to build the kind of fierce competitive team culture shaped by Jack Charlton all those years ago, it is hard to imagine a fiercer ramrod.

Ireland fly off to America for friendly matches in which the sense of new possibilities engendered beside the banks of the Thames in London last weekend plainly has a good chance of being enhanced.

In both O'Neill and Keane, the young Irish players surely have a degree of leadership – and natural-born passion – likely to make the challenge seem more like an adventure than another wearisome chore.

Interestingly, John O'Shea was at pains to stress the value of O'Neill's experience and personal touch when it seemed increasingly likely that Keane would move to Glasgow.

Keane's departure would be a matter for adjustment rather than crisis management, he suggested.

But then he added: "As the manager has already said, we would be very disappointed because we know what a fantastic character he is to have on our side going into matches."

Also intriguing is the possibility that in these last few days of facing a pivotal career decision Keane has begun to display something resembling a sense of humour.

A man of considerable wealth, he quipped: "One thing is certain, I'm not going to take a pay cut for anyone." His performances as ITV's leading Champions League analyst had also become decidedly more rounded. The rants had been curbed, the disdainful scowl softened.

Most impressive of all, the dawning sense of a man increasingly drawing on a vast well of past achievement, one filled most strikingly by a quite ruthless demand for supreme commitment.

If you call yourself a pro, and you're facing a tough job, do it, he proclaimed; if not, expect to receive at least a measure of scorn from somebody who had never wilted in the face of such a demand.

That, you believe, is still the aura he carries into the Irish dressing room, if somewhat tempered by a better understanding of the art of developing the possible.

Hendrick certainly spoke not of some emotion-charged exhortation by Keane, but a set of specific and achieveable instructions.

It is, when sufficiently refined and controlled, the gift of a superb competitive pedigree.

When Manchester United's former manager Alex Ferguson cut with Keane, after years of happily employing him as a ferociously driving alter ego, the overwhelming impression was that the Irishman had slipped into an irretrievable bitterness.

The encroachment of the years, the sense that he was surrounded by professional players too easily pleased by their limited progress in the game and the astonishing increase in their financial rewards, suggested a perhaps terminal regression into his own world.

It was a verdict hardly challenged by events at Sunderland and Ipswich, when Keane increasingly displayed a killing impatience with the shortcomings of his players.

There were no Hendrick-style bulletins from the Stadium of Light or Portman Road about the restorative qualities of a Keane pep talk, only the seeping impression that here was a man who may have gone beyond his time.

This week's decision to hold on to what he has achieved in a time of reflection and readjustment, and the possibility that he has found for himself some new and more fertile ground, certainly challenges that gloomily pessimistic view of his future.

It also cuts off at the pass the likelihood of freshly hysterical claims that, by saying yes to Celtic, Keane would have committed a second act of betrayal to the cause of his nation's football.

That was always going to be an absurdly simplistic verdict on the efforts of a man of great achievement to remake his place in football. For the moment, at least, there is one inviting assessment. It is that yesterday, whichever way you looked at it, was a good day for Irish football.


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