Roy Keane’s second act of his football life can help a new generation
He can concentrate on translating the talent he had as a player for inspiring those around him into doing the same as a coach and assistant manager
It wasn’t long after kick-off last night before it began to dawn on everyone that after the trumpets and smiles and a week of feeling brilliant about everything, Ireland were still playing Latvia on a cold Dublin night in November in a match in which absolutely nothing was at stake.
Elsewhere in Europe, international games of great magnitude were taking place; games to decide the last few countries who will take part in next year’s carnival in Brazil. So despite the goodwill and electrifying greeting for Martin O’Neill and the gratifying sight of seeing Roy Keane back at Lansdowne Road, there was no mistaking this Irish football team is at the beginning of a long journey.
The energy and enthusiasm generated by this week’s presentation of O’Neill and Keane brought with it a general impatience to take on the world. Instead, Irish fans have to content themselves with the twilight world of friendly games for the next few months before the real business begins next September.
So for now, the real fascination lies in trying to figure out how, precisely, Roy Keane will assist O’Neill in the years ahead. This week’s press conference were terrific theatre – in particular for the assembled Irish soccer press corps who found themselves broken and frustrated after five years of trying to decipher the Esperanto through which Giovanni Trapattoni mused upon the world.
Everyone knew that Trap meant what he said. But they rarely knew what he meant when he said it. No Italian, in fact, has been more difficult to understand since the days when Marlon Brando headed up the Corleone family. The Trap translations were the product of inspiration and desperation, with those assembled to report on them agreeing on what he must have meant before dutifully sending their interpretations off. So the performances by O’Neill and Keane, their message crystal clear and tinted with the black humour which both men have a knack for, were indicative of just how thoroughly everything has changed.
But trying to figure out how this partnership will work has bamboozled some observers. The reason that some people find it hard to imagine Keane as a second in command is that he spent most of his life striving to be answerable only to his own conscience. In his best days at Manchester United, he was quickly and inevitably identified by Alex Ferguson as the leader.
“Never hold a grudge,” Ferguson told Charlie Rose, during a recent hour long interview. Keane, regrettably, did not come up in a wide ranging conversation.
But you can’t help but think that Ferguson abandoned his own rule when it came to the Irish man. Ferguson has described the meeting which led to Keane’s hasty exit from Manchester United as “horrendous” and admitted that he if he didn’t act, then the other players would have viewed him differently.
All of the qualities that Ferguson treasured in Keane – the relentless competitiveness, the bravery, the flinty independent streak – became gravely threatening when they were turned in his direction for the first time. But the inference is clear: Keane wouldn’t back down from Ferguson. He has never backed down. He never knew how.
In his sometimes spiky and sometimes amusing debut press conference this week, Keane did a good job of suggesting that the popular portrayal of him as an awkward or antagonistic character is less than the whole truth. And, of course, it is. Part of the general fascination with Keane is that although he has been at the centre of Irish sport for 20 years, he has remained an incredibly elusive figure; utterly honest and provocative on subjects he wishes to discuss and completely guarded on the elements of his life he wishes to stay private.
In his appearance on Wednesday he resisted the temptation to set the record straight about what Alex Ferguson said, rightly declaring that it wasn’t the time to do so. He hinted that the months in which he has found himself frozen out of management, considered too volatile for the tastes of the establishment clubs of England, have been difficult.
Keane was fine as a television pundit – although it would have been fascinating to see him freed from the chirpiness which characterises ITV coverage and sitting on an RTÉ panel – but always seemed a bit restless and impatient with the pre-match banter. There was a time when he shared Ferguson’s disdain for “criticism” and it was obvious that he had committed to television work just to keep himself in the public eye.
Keane walked into management at the top echelon rather than learning the nuances of the trade in the lower divisions. When he left Ipswich, he found that his stock market value was plummeting in the months afterwards. Nobody was willing to invest in him again.
It was surely a stupid situation that there was no room in the game for perhaps the most influential footballer in the Premier League to date. But that is how it was shaping up. Perhaps in those months when Keane was attending matches just to keep his knowledge sharp, he had time to consider elements of his personality that he needs to adjust in order to become successful in management.
There were broad hints this week that he has already absorbed the main point about management: he is not playing the game anymore. He can’t shout, can’t make tackles for the team, can’t stick up for team-mates in the tunnel, can’t scare others into being better through his own force of personality and will. All good managers are like hypnotists: they somehow convince a crowd of wildly differing individuals into their way of thinking, of playing, of living.
Assisting Martin O’Neill – and studying the wily Derry man as he plots and navigates his way towards Euro 2016 – could be the beginning of Keane’s second act in football. Maybe he will make it a great manager in the years after his involvement with the Irish team. Maybe he won’t.
But the main point is that for the next two years at least, the Irish players have one of the most decorated players in the game on the training ground in Malahide and at their service. Keane can concentrate on translating the talent he had as a player for inspiring those around him into doing the same as a coach and assistant manager.
If he can tap into how best to advise and encourage the next generation of Irish footballers on how to get the very best out of the talent that they have, it will be worth as much as his most imperious appearances in the green shirt.
Mind you, every time we see him on the sideline it is going to be impossible not to wish he could still be out there.