Sport Soccer

Saturday 21 September 2019

Stephen Hunt: 'Robbie Keane handed blame-free chance to learn the managerial ropes'

Robbie Keane. Photo: PA
Robbie Keane. Photo: PA

Stephen Hunt

A former Ireland striker announced his retirement last week to concentrate on his new role as a coach and an assistant manager. But enough about my brother Noel, Robbie Keane has retired too.

Everywhere I look now, former team-mates are retiring and making tough decisions about their futures. Robbie is just the latest to join the ranks of coaches from the Ireland teams of the last decade and his route is very different to Noel's and others.

Kevin Doyle and Damien Duff are taking it slowly and doing the coaching equivalent of getting their hands dirty by working with under 15 and under 17 teams with Ireland and Shamrock Rovers. Duff has been talking to Celtic about moving on to the next level in his coaching development.

My former Wolves team-mate Kevin Foley is also taking the longer route through youth coaching and he has joined the academy at Molineux to work on player development with 13- and 14-year-olds.

Sometimes it is better to find a new ladder to climb, rather than wait to fall off the one you're on, and some of my ex-team-mates are still playing, trying to suck the last bit of life out of being a player. Some have retired sooner than I expected, some not by choice.

Robbie will be in the middle of the action in his role as Ireland's assistant coach. It is a brilliant opportunity for him. He can take a lot of information and learning on board, not just through Mick McCarthy and Terry Connor, but by going to different countries and seeing how other coaches handle international football.

But it will not be straightforward to make the transition to coach because he was so recently a player in the Ireland dressing room.

He is starting afresh in the new job where he can look and learn and have an input in an international dressing room, and more importantly know when to have an input. His natural instinct will tell him when to speak up and when to keep his mouth shut and let the players play and learn from their own mistakes.

He knows Mick well but he will see how Mick has evolved and how he handles things differently now. Is Mick a better manager now? Definitely. And he will still make mistakes.

Noel and Robbie will both have a fantastic opportunity to learn the ropes and decide what their future roles will be under Richard Wellens, who is charge at Swindon, and Mick McCarthy respectively. And one of the biggest lessons is that the assistant will always remain loyal to the manager.

In all my years in the game, I have never met a more loyal assistant than Terry Connor. One of the assistant's major duties is dealing with unhappy players, but they can never go against the manager and Terry has always been brilliant in that role.

A new managerial set-up with Ireland was always going to offer a player like Robbie Keane an opportunity; it was just a case of when, and how. It fits in with his family and lifestyle at the moment and means he does not have to move to England for work yet. And he won't be the one who gets the stick if things do go wrong, just as no one blamed Steve Walford, Steve Guppy or Seamus McDonagh under the previous regime.

The biggest task will be to get through the next two years without any major blips or controversies.

Mick will undoubtedly get a good reaction as he tries to lift the squad. We can anticipate a feel-good factor coming back into the squad and Robbie will be an integral part of that.

Anyone who finishes football realises that, if you want to stay in the game and still earn a living from it, you have to learn new skills, and listen to everyone for advice and guidance.

If you missed Noel's announcement on the same day as Robbie's, then you are not alone. I had no idea either but then I am already used to Noel's new title as assistant manager at Swindon Town, where fellow former Irish player Alan McLoughlin is the academy manager. After his success at Waterford, he could have played on for another year, but Noel feels he is ready for a go at coaching and working as an assistant as he chooses his new pathway and looks to stay in the game.

Every player is different when it comes to choosing their new path. Working in League Two, Noel will come across players in different stages of their careers and will have a major role to play in their futures. Some of the older lads will fall out of the game naturally and will be looking for jobs elsewhere. Others are only starting out will want to fulfil their potential.

Noel knows he could have two or three years of coaching and discovering whether he sees his future as an assistant and/or a coach, or whether he likes what he sees in Richie Wellens and will have the urge to become a manager himself. Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Kevin Doyle and Kevin Foley have all taken different routes, but eventually they will have to make these decisions too.

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