Sport Soccer

Friday 23 February 2018

That Was The Week: It could be a revolution or the greatest few weeks of our lives

Dion Fanning

In all that followed, the significance of one moment at Dublin Airport in May 2002 is often overlooked. Roy Keane was approached by two men dressed as leprechauns who were promoting a newspaper among the players and officials waiting for their flight to a Pacific Island.

"I've got two bloody leprechauns telling me to 'Cheer up Keano'," he would recall later. "I thought, 'I'll f**king knock you out, you stupid c***'."

At this moment, as in so many moments in his career, Keane set himself in opposition to the forces of eejitry. He has held this line at the expense of what we could loosely refer to as his serenity on many occasions.

Indeed he has held many lines and advanced several causes. He has been right about many things. He was right about Rock Of Gibraltar. He was right about Ellis Short and right about John Delaney. He was right about the Bourne Ultimatum. He was right about Roy 'Chubby' Brown and right about leprechauns. He was right about Emile Heskey and right about Teddy Sheringham. He was right about drink. He was right about Maurice Setters and right about Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. He was right about cheese sandwiches and right about smalltalk. Despite this cavalcade of righteousness, happiness has never automatically followed.

He has wrestled with the notion of Irishness and what it means. He has rarely shared in the collective sense of hysteria even if the collective sense of hysteria last week focused on his return to Irish international football.

"I'm very excited," he said on ITV when asked about his appointment as Martin O'Neill's assistant. "I know I don't look it."

Keane, like Joyce and Beckett, is an exile who has tended towards a despairing view of Irishness and a despairing view of the human condition, especially when it is defending set-pieces. Beckett went to Lord's one day to watch England play Australia. As his group of friends sat in the sunshine among the MCC members drinking beer, one of Beckett's companions announced that it was a day that "makes you glad to be alive". "I wouldn't go quite that far," Beckett replied.

Keane is an exile who has taken the ambivalent path whereas other emigrants often end up being lachrymose and sentimental as they haunt Irish bars and recall the lost land.

In Poland, Keane's words after the Spain defeat last year seem mild now even if at the time they caused outrage. "The players and even the supporters, they all have to change their mentality . . . the supporters want to see the team doing a lot better . . . I'm not too happy with all that nonsense . . . listen, let's change that attitude towards Irish supporters, they want to see the team winning, let's not kid ourselves. We're a small country and we're up against it but let's not go along for the singsong now and again."

Keane, with this attitude, will never be a challenger for the hotly-contested King of the Eejits crown.

When he questioned the Irish and FAI reaction after Thierry Henry's handball, he sounded like a man at war with the aspects of Irishness which are seen by others as commendable, while he takes pride in the things others might see as perverse. There are no studies in this area but the people who hold the view that Keane "walked out on his country" at the World Cup may also be those most happy to wear leprechaun hats.

The idea of Keane in Saipan as an unsympathetic deserter requires portraying him as someone who simply decided he had better things to be doing, as if he had accepted an offer to appear on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here rather than play against Cameroon. His absence from the World Cup was an act of self-destruction – even if he had been provoked as he continues to insist – which damaged him more than anyone else. "You can laugh, that was the World Cup," as he said on one of those days when he spoke freely on Ireland and Irishness.

In John Delaney, we have a leader more accepting of human frailty. Any man who can joke about a threesome with Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill on the Late, Late Show can be said to be comfortable in his own skin. He is at peace with Roy Keane, with himself and with all he has achieved. This has been his greatest triumph.

Keane's opinions can often be the mundane which would be put forward by any manager working at an ordinary level in the British Isles. He is at his most riveting when the subject is himself. As his life has centred around certain values as well as Manchester United and Ireland, he can be fascinating on many subjects.

Ireland is his great theme, encompassing many more of his great themes like self-pity and failure and himself. He can be frustrated and obsessed with Ireland, as he is with many things in his life. Keane has often appeared to be embracing Paul Auster's idea that 'I will always be happy in the place where I am not'. Or, at least, Keane will always be happy in the place where Jonathan Walters or Paul McShane are not.

He takes on these battles again this week. Beckett said it was suicide to be abroad but "what is to be at home? A lingering dissolution."

Last week, two of the great traditions in the island were reconciled. It could end quickly. It could be the greatest three-and-a-half weeks of all our lives or it could be the beginning of a permanent revolution. There was a sense of anti-climax when it was announced that Keane would not be in Dublin yesterday. It made sense for him to attend matches in England rather than show up at the great unveiling but when has this been about merely making sense?

Keane has always been tempted by the drama, understanding Raymond Smith's idea that adrenaline was great stuff if you can get your hands on it. There would have been simpler challenges and it would have been a simpler life with no challenges at all. He is home but a lingering dissolution is unlikely.

Sunday Independent

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