Sunday 18 February 2018

'I always felt something like this would happen – I didn't think it would happen so fast'

O'Neill not surprised at interest in Keane as 'tiresome' saga threatens to overshadow US tour

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, right, speaks with assistant manager Roy Keane during training at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, right, speaks with assistant manager Roy Keane during training at the Aviva Stadium

Martin O'Neill is braced for further Roy Keane 'will he go, will he stay?' sagas but has welcomed the end of the Celtic involvement for the Republic of Ireland assistant manager.

O'Neill, speaking yesterday for the first time since Keane turned down the opportunity to join Celtic as manager, opted to avoid comment on the possibility of the Corkman joining Aston Villa as No 2 to Paul Lambert.

He did, however, accept that other clubs will come calling for the services of Keane.

"I wasn't exactly sure what might happen with him and Celtic, but I was always hoping that he might stay with us but was never sure. But I'm delighted that it happened," said O'Neill.

The Irish boss was speaking after squad training at Malahide prior to their departure at 4.0 for the USA, where they will play Costa Rica in Philadelphia tomorrow and Portugal in New Jersey next Tuesday.

O'Neill's engaging manner and dry wit came to the fore in his chat with media personnel, but there was a hint of impatience in his remarks as the Keane questions kept coming.

Saturday's draw with Italy and the prospects against Costa Rica and Portugal receded into the background.

In fairness, they are friendly games, and one wonders how tedious might the build-up have been if the last week wasn't dominated by the Keane story.

It all kicked off in earnest after O'Neill confirmed last Thursday that his assistant had been approached by Celtic's leading shareholder Dermot Desmond.

Now it's a Keane 'no' to Celtic, 'no' to his ITV gig as a World Cup panellist, and 'no comment' so far about the Villa situation.

Perhaps it would have helped O'Neill if Keane had taken the pitchside update yesterday, but the assistant boss contented himself with working on the training ground with the players.

The first question put to O'Neill was about his reaction to Keane staying with the Republic.

"I'm naturally very pleased. I'm delighted that he has done so. Maybe we might just get on with things now. It's obviously good news for us, for everyone concerned, I think. The players in particular are delighted and so are the rest of us," said O'Neill.

Can you give us any insight into what turned his decision?

"Well, as I said to you before, he has enjoyed it here immensely. That obviously plays a part in his thinking. I'm quite sure there were quite a number of factors, but that was pretty important too, at this minute. He is enjoying it. He has just got started and hopefully that might continue."

Were you surprised Roy was able to turn down Celtic?

"Well, Celtic is a great club, it's a fantastic club. These opportunities, again, I've said this, it's just a matter of reiteration almost ad nauseam now that, in the future, he will have loads of offers as he's had in the past, and in the immediate past.

"Things like this will crop up here again with a bit of luck. I'm not saying Celtic will – but that type of job."

You got a call from Dermot Desmond last week, have you had a call from Aston Villa yet this week?

"I think, you know lads, I don't know what you really expect of me here. I answered the questions about Celtic, something else crops up again.

"I think you think I'm a soothsayer, that I can just predict the future. Actually, I wish I could predict the future, I might be in better shape than I am. Everything now at this minute, is on the back burner in terms of speculation, all that type of stuff. I don't really want to continue on about this until we get back from the United States."

Has all the speculation become a little bit tiresome?

"Yes, you're dead right."

Is it frustrating that every time a job comes up, Roy will be linked with it?

"Well, you know, if you think there's something in it then by all means ask me. If you don't think there is anything in it then please refrain from asking me the question."

Is there anything in the Villa link?

"Again, I'm just going to put things on the back burner if you don't mind, lads. I've dealt with it okay? Honestly it isn't really a problem.

"I said there a few days ago when you asked me about this sort of thing that it will happen again, there is no doubt about that, and I'll deal with it accordingly at that time, or Roy will deal with it. But actually it's not as tiresome as I suggested, I promise you."

When you started working with him at ITV did you feel that he was kind of a wasted talent to be simply doing TV?

"No, I never thought of it like that, because he was taking some time out obviously after Ipswich. I think he once said that he wasn't that bothered ever about doing punditry – and then he does it. But it wasn't really that. I always thought that he would get back into the game at one stage or another.

"I'd never say that he ever had a low profile – that doesn't go hand in hand with Roy Keane – but at the end of it all, I think that with him coming here, (to Ireland), it renewed that interest that people might have had.

"I always felt that somewhere along the way, in the two year period that we'd be hoping to be working together, that something like this would happen. I probably just didn't expect it to happen as quickly."

On a more practical level, the Irish travelling party consisted of 20 players, with Robbie Keane due to join them Stateside.

John O'Shea, Damien Delaney and Seamus Coleman have been excused from the trip.

Ciaran Clark is out due to a minor knee injury he suffered in the warm-up before the Italy match last Saturday. Jon Walters is recovering from a virus and may travel in the next couple of days. Stephen Ward has been given some time off and he could be available for the Portugal match if required.

"We want to try and do our best," O'Neill continued. "Numbers are somewhat depleted since we started off, but we felt that was always going to be the case anyway, and we'll deal with it accordingly.

"What we'll do, considering that these lads have been mostly here from the start, they will take that opportunity now at this moment.

"If, for instance, after Costa Rica there are a number of injuries, then I would seriously think about bringing some people in."

The excitement about Keane has overshadowed the serious business of O'Neill getting to know his troops and looking for options, in terms of players and tactics, as we get closer to the Euro 2016 qualifying series.

Defeats to Serbia and Turkey were followed by that draw with Italy and O'Neill takes the positives from those matches.

"We were beaten in the games but there was lots in those two matches that we were beaten in, I think, to take some confidence from," he said. "We had clear-cut chances against Serbia, a game that we could have won. Turkey was exactly the same, so I think the performances have been pretty good.

"The game against Italy was particularly good. There was a great atmosphere, the crowd really made the game, as well.

"You would never have considered that to have been a friendly game, and the only disappointment was the young Italian player who lost his chance to play in the World Cup, because of a broken leg."

Irish Independent

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