‘The League of Ireland was a great education’
Ireland assistant boss Keane advises aspiring professionals to finish their schooling – on and off the pitch – before chasing Premier League dream
THE caricature of Roy Keane lends itself to the assumption that sitting at a ‘prawn-sandwich’ style event listening to a raft of speeches would represent his version of hell. It's a simplistic conclusion.
Keane looked genuinely interested on the stage in UCC on Wednesday night as he sat through the formalities of Cork City's Patron Scheme launch, where the narrative focused on the benefits of mixing football with education.
The speeches from representatives of the League of Ireland club and the college itself were entertaining, drawing a few laughs from the special guest.
Yet he also concentrated on the serious message conveyed and enhanced the debate with his own thoughts on current football affairs and entertaining reflections on his youth and the pitfalls of his profession.
The grandiose surroundings of the Aula Maxima room, with its stained glass depictions of Greek philosopher Aristotle and mathematician Euclid, wouldn't have interested a young Keane. Academia was miles down the list behind football and drinking.
“It's one of my regrets,” he confessed. “Getting an education and playing football is allowed.”
A recent invitation to address the Ireland U-17 squad brought home to him the challenges faced by youngsters who are so focused on being a success in football that they fail to work on a fallback option.
Keane did stay at home a bit longer, leaving Cobh Ramblers for Nottingham Forest at 19, although he learned about life in arenas other than the classroom. Still, it gave him a grounding that he recalls fondly and he encourages teenagers to start their journey in the Airtricity League and only emigrate when their studies are complete.
But he acknowledges the temptation
that English clubs offer. “It's a difficult question,” he concedes. “I spoke to the U-17s and you forget how young they are. I don't think it would have suited me going over to England at 16. But I can understand why it's hard for young players to turn it down when they have the chance.
“Going over at 19 suited me, I had the year with Cobh, the year on a Fás course and I was physically fine, I was ready for full-time training. My heart goes out to the young players, particularly Irish players, who go over at 16. Some might end up in London at a big club, they get injured... it's hard. These young lads must get homesick. It's a shock to the system – sure it's hard enough moving when you're 19, 20 or 21. It's a big ask.”
Brian Clough sensed that Keane missed life on Leeside and would permit trips home, although the Irish assistant manager said that the Forest boss might have changed that policy if he knew what the jaunts entailed. Sidetrax nightclub was a popular haunt, until he was eventually barred from that establishment. “It wasn't my fault,” he protested, with a smile. “Self defence!”
“Brian was very good, he looked after me. He'd let me go back once a month for three or four nights. He never realised when I went back and played the following Saturday I didn't play too well because I'd been out four nights in a row!
“But they were all experiences and he knew, mentally, that I would go back and it would be nice to see the family. Forest were the right club for me. I got a break.”
Fate had a big say in his career trajectory. Given it was a Cork City event, Keane had to explain why he gained his League of Ireland stripes with their First Division neighbours Cobh Ramblers. Keane actually did sign for City after a meeting with officials upstairs in Le Chateau, a well known hostelry on Patrick Street. “I wasn't drinking,” he clarified, again with a chuckle. But he never played a game for the Turner's Cross side, having also signed for Ramblers as he mulled over his options.
“I was leaving to go on the FáS course, which two players from each League of Ireland club were allowed to go on,” he explained. “And I'm not sure Cork could have guaranteed it. Cobh could. I signed for Cobh two days later and they sent off the forms. But, the FAI charged me (for dual registration), which was maybe the start of things to come. Rightly so, I'd signed for two clubs. They fined me and Cork went looking for money from a tribunal.”
Once that turbulence was sorted, he settled down to enjoy a character-building experience in an unforgiving environment. “It gets heavily criticised, but the League of Ireland was a great education for me,” he asserted. “I met some good lads in a tough league and it was great for me when I went to Forest.”
Keane is conscious of the broader picture which entails scouring the local game and unearthing possible jewels in the rough. “I think it's important Martin and myself look at the League of Ireland players and I think it's important we go and watch the games,” he said.
His predecessors would be accused of paying lip-service to the LOI and there are cynics who would probably interpret this week's comments in similar terms. That underestimates the stock he places in his upbringing.
He won't give up on lads that face a lengthy trip to fame and fortune because he knows exactly what it's like to be that person.
That's one lesson he will never forget.