So how exactly is this partnership between O’Neill and Keane going to work out ?
No matter what happens with the two of them, there won’t be a dull moment
The news that Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane are to take over the running of the Irish team is the most exciting thing to happen in Irish football since . . . well, since the golden interlude between the moment we heard that Giovanni Trapattoni would take the job, and the moment we realised that Don Givens had perhaps exaggerated slightly when he said Trapattoni could speak fluent English.
The partnership promises intelligence, articulacy, harsh truths and the possibility of spectacular bust-ups.
Whatever eventually causes it to careen off the rails, the Ireland of O’Neill and Keane will be more exciting to follow than the increasingly forlorn team that spent the last few years being patronised by Trapattoni.
The fascination begins with the question of how, exactly, the partnership is meant to work. One traditional model of the manager/assistant dynamic is that the manager oversees the big picture while the assistant looks after the details of coaching. But neither O’Neill nor Keane have the reputation of being hands-on, “coaching managers” who take training every day.
Another model is that the assistant is the Good Cop. The manager thrashes the players, and then the assistant manager builds them back up: “He only says that because he knows you can do better . . . get your head down and work hard – you can show him!”
Who can see Keane in that arm-around-the-shoulder role? His approach has usually been to confront his players (or his team-mates, or even his managers) with forthright criticism, without any effort to sweeten the pill – the apparent rationale being that if they couldn’t take it, then they shouldn’t be there.
Keane told Tom Humphries in 2009 that he suspected things had gone awry at Sunderland when Niall Quinn started talking to him about the need for players to be coming to work with smiles on their faces: “Players had been taking the piss out of the club for years,” Keane said. “If they wanted them smiling all the time they should have employed Roy Chubby Brown.”
O’Neill may instead have envisaged an innovative Bad Cop/Bad Cop/Good Cop structure with the role of Good Cop earmarked for coach Steve Walford, whose role in O’Neill’s Celtic regime was described by Alan Stubbs in his book, How Football Saved My Life.
“Wally was so laid back he was lucky he didn’t fall over more often,” Stubbs writes. “The contrast with the intensity that Martin brought couldn’t have been greater. Wally would take the training during the week, and he’d bring with him this relaxed, carefree style. He’d keep things simple and was great at coaching. I don’t know how many times we trained on a Tuesday (Wednesday would be our day off) and Wally would say, ‘Right, today we are going to f*****g train for an hour and a half and then I am going to f**k off. I’m going down to London to see my friends and get pissed.’
“We’d all be laughing away at this, and if anyone asked if they could train longer he’d shake his head. ‘One hour thirty minutes and that is f*****g it. I’m f*****g going in now, and you can f**k off.’
If this manager/assistant dynamic poses some fascinating questions, more fascinating still is the question of the assistant/chief executive dynamic.
The relationship between Keane and John Delaney has been characterised by mutual hostility. In 2009, Keane mocked the FAI’s complaints about Thierry Henry’s handball: “John Delaney? He’s on about honesty and integrity? I wouldn’t take any notice of that man.” Delaney retorted: “I thought the images shown around the world on Friday were sad. It’s sad to see a great former player reflected in that manner. It’s time to forget about Saipan and move on, because everyone else has.”
In May 2012, Keane attended an Irish Guide Dogs press event that coincided with the 10-year anniversary of Saipan. Again, he did not have many kind words for Delaney, who responded: “Roy should just let it go. Roy has a lot to say a lot of the time, he was a great man to tell us to get over things a while ago. I think for his own sake he should get over himself.”
‘There for the craic’
During Euro 2012, Keane wrote in his column for the Irish Sun. “Is it any wonder that people think we’re just there for the craic when the chief executive of the FAI is pictured dancing on tables or is videoed effing and blinding to Irish fans late at night to supporters who are the worse for wear.
“What other chief executive would carry on like that? We’re all entitled to a night out but do it discreetly. How can he be expected to be taken seriously? And how, as a nation, can we be expected to be taken seriously when we’re happy to go along with that image?”
After all that, it looked unlikely that Keane would work for an organisation in which Delaney was calling the shots. Instead, O’Neill’s regard for Keane has given Delaney the chance to show that he too can move on, let it go, get over it. It must be a happy day for the FAI’s chief executive, and Irish fans will follow the story of Delaney and Keane almost as avidly as they follow what happens out on the pitch.