Monday 18 December 2017

James Lawton: Keane has passion and aura to work miracles as he rekindles spirit of Turin

Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane during a press conference ahead of their Three International Friendly match against Latvia on Friday. Republic of Ireland Press Conference, Grand Hotel, Malahide, Co. Dublin. Picture: David Maher/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane during a press conference ahead of their Three International Friendly match against Latvia on Friday. Republic of Ireland Press Conference, Grand Hotel, Malahide, Co. Dublin. Picture: David Maher/Sportsfile
James Lawton

James Lawton

If you ever thought that Roy Keane was as much a force of nature, wild at times to the point of disturbance, as a superbly accomplished footballer, there was no reason to doubt that assessment this week.

Nor to quell an inevitably optimistic suspicion that with the call from Martin O'Neill he may, at the age of 42, just have resurrected some of the best of himself.

Whatever happens against Latvia at the Aviva Stadium tonight is unlikely to dispel all of the scepticism that has greeted his appointment as Ireland's assistant manager and O'Neill's ramrod No 2. But then with 10 months before the team is tested again in the real world of top flight football, there is at the very least the prospect of a fascinating journey.

If Ireland have to re-establish themselves as serious combatants on the international field, Keane has to prove that as a football man he can remake himself so many years after his playing furies were spent.

Already he has earned some rave reviews for his style and demeanour when he presented himself at the Malahide training ground an hour and a half early, not so much as an eager new employee but a man with new purpose and, who knows, perhaps even a fresh perspective.

Time will investigate this possibility vigorously enough but in the meantime it is not so easy to lightly dismiss Keane's efforts as merely his best public relations performance since he near single-handedly guided Manchester United into the 1999 Champions League final with the defeat of Juventus.

If there was any need for a definitive performance from Keane it came that night in Turin and those of us who believed that he was destined to make a similarly decisive impact off the field, possibly at United, would always use it as a point of reference.

It survived, because of its sheer weight and passion and consummate self-belief, and this was so even when he left Sunderland a techy, frustrated and uncommunicative figure and then made a miserable exit from Ipswich.

A career in ruins, some speculated, but the Keane of Turin – and Ireland's qualifying victory over the Netherlands that led to the convulsion in Saipan – could never be quite extinguished in the minds of anyone who marvelled at the depths of competitive power he had displayed.

This week we got another peek of such a man. His humour was sharp, his humility never in danger of threatening his – or our sense – of what he was and in some ways will always be, and there was the clearest invitation to the players of Ireland to respond to the need for a new urgency – and a new understanding of the need to push back the limits of performance.

If they saw the press conference, or cared to review it, they would surely have had no doubt that their manager had picked a man to work among them who was not ready to accept excuses for even a hint of something less than total commitment.

They would see, from a position of still slender achievement, the kind of man who this week someone as august as Bobby Charlton would have recognised again as the possessor of a quite exceptional aura.

This is one of the greatest players in the history of the game on the meaning of Roy Keane: "He was strong on the field in a way I could not have been, not even with all the passionate urgings of a great teacher or coach.

"He played through injury and the controversy which so frequently surrounded his aggressive style. Undoubtedly there were times when he went too far – no-one could approve of his notoriously cynical tackle on Alf Inge Haaland, whatever the background, and nor was it uplifting to see him leading the hounding of a referee – but then there was always that extraordinary competitor and arguably the most influential player in the history of the Premier League.

"This man was not just a strength in the team, he was the team.

"The essence of Roy Keane was never more visible, never more inspiring, than when he carried United into the Champions League final after they conceded those two early goals against Juventus. This, unquestionably, was the ultimate performance of a great player and a great warrior.

"Unashamedly, but perhaps not in line with the most correct behaviour of the directors' box, I spent much of the match on my feet, deeply moved by the strength of Keane's performance. When he scored the header which put us back into the game, it was as though he was saying, 'Now let's get back to work – let's get this thing won.'

"It is the tackles that I will always remember most vividly. I used to dream of making the tackles Roy Keane performed so routinely – and I never made one. Sometimes watching him I would think, 'Oh, to go in to win like that, to make the challenges that win the game."

He has another challenge now but when you listen again to a man who duelled with Pele and Franz Beckenbauer and watched in awe the match-winning power of Alfredo di Stefano, and hear him put Roy Keane into his place in football, you are bound to look once more into the future of a natural-born competitor.

You are also obliged to consider the potential effect of his presence on a young player of some talent and aspiration like James McCarthy.

This week we could only speculate on the effect he had on McCarthy, but it was reasonable to believe that it was an impressive one. Keane was smart and amusing and he didn't make a false step. That was remarkable enough, given, all his hot-blooded antecedents, but there was something else, something than ran deeper.

It was maybe the idea that Roy Keane had indeed pushed away the bad days, that he had buried much of the old anger and all that turbulent regret. Perhaps he had remembered who he used to be.

Irish Independent

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