Saturday 24 March 2018

Warrior Keane has earned right to say yes to Celtic

Going to Glasgow would not be another Saipan-style walkout

James Lawton

James Lawton

FOR some the issue facing Roy Keane could not be more basic. He has to weigh the meaning and consequences of saying yes to Celtic – and turning his back on the Irish national team for a second time. They say there could be no coming back.

They are wrong, of course. They are the kind of people who write their judgment in stone – and then nourish their outrage down the years.

It is 12 years now since Keane stormed out of Ireland's World Cup training centre in Saipan and that's a long time to weigh the rights and wrongs of a day of wild and hugely damaging insubordination.

When he agreed last year to become Martin O'Neill's number two he made it clear enough that he had spent quite a bit of his life reflecting on the wisdom of behaviour which made him a pariah among many of his compatriots.

He didn't exactly don the sackcloth and ashes, he didn't make a barefooted pilgrimage to the Aviva Stadium, but then he has never been that kind of character.

For him, contrition was always something akin to ducking a tackle, which was one reason why he became arguably the most consistently competitive performer in the history of the Premier League – and why he was able to carry Ireland, virtually, on one leg to those World Cup finals in the Far East.

What he did do was suggest persuasively that his heart was, in its own maverick and brooding way, still attached to the cause of the Irish game.

O'Neill welcomed him aboard enthusiastically enough and it is no surprise that he has shown more understanding than most over Keane's current dilemma. This is because O'Neill, a notable over-achiever in his own distinguished career as a player and a manager, is both highly intelligent and a man of the world.

Nobody needs to tell him that Irish international football isn't so rich in contemporary strength and recent tradition that it can afford to toss away the presence of a man of genuinely iconic status.

It is true, of course, that Keane has a genius for creating ambivalence wherever he goes. His failures as a manager at Sunderland and Ipswich dismayed all those who believed that inevitable success on the touchline would be a natural extension of a superb playing career. But his patience ran short when dealing with players lacking his own natural-born competitive arrogance. He couldn't transmit to others that towering self-confidence which persuaded him he could tackle any odds – and on one unforgettable occasion even challenged deeply his most obdurate foe, Arsenal's Patrick Vieira.

There is no doubt, of course, that when Keane walked away from first Sunderland, then Ipswich, he was a man both deeply disappointed with himself – and filled with a formidable number of demons.

Now those who claim to understand a little of his psyche, say that he has created for himself a little distance from those disasters.

His performances as the lead analyst for ITV's Champions' League coverage has been consistently strong and, at least some like to think, increasingly balanced.

So who but those who like to nurse old wounds and prejudice would benefit from any ultimatum that Keane now has to choose, once and for all, between the big job in Scottish football and, say, the possibility of succeeding O'Neill in charge of the national team somewhere along the line? Certainly not the national team.

The word from the Irish dressing room is that reaction to Keane is overwhelmingly favourable. Divorced from the pressure, and the frustrations, of day-by-day club management, Keane has been in a much better position to concentrate on the fundamentals of the game, the need for certain consistent attitudes.

From what better source, after all, could they receive them? Keane, heaven knows, has made his mistakes on and off the field but if we want a body of work which speaks of an over-riding drive for success there are surely few more compelling examples.

Another football icon, England's World Cup-winning Bobby Charlton, still speaks in awe of the Keane performance which carried Manchester United into the 1999 final of the Champions' League. Keane almost single-handedly took on Juventus in their own stadium to brush away a two-goal deficit and Charlton confesses to an almost match-long abandonment of director box etiquette by standing in admiration of the Irishman's performance.

There was a similar quality to Keane's contribution to the group game victory over a formidable Holland which, ironically, carried Ireland to the Saipan stand-off.

For all the mis-steps and the agonising, this is still the aura Keane carries into any football gathering. Who knows, it might just be that he needs the Celtic experience as he seeks to expel the last of those demons. Maybe he will see a re-immersion in club management as the last vital stage of a necessary rehabilitation at the heart of the action and the decisions rather than anything he, or Ireland in the long-run, might gain from today's secondary role.

Keane, let's face it, is not a secondary person. For the longest time he had the demeanour of a warrior leader, someone who lived according to his own rules. Now that time has maybe brought some vital modification, he is surely worth another look. Celtic believe so. Ireland, you have to say, would be foolish not to agree.

Sport 74, 75 & 76

Irish Independent

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