Three passionate football men inspired by the same dream
Martin O’Neill, Roy Keane and John Delaney have the interests of Irish football close to their hearts
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane at the Champions League Group A match between Real Sociedad and Manchester United at Estadio Anoeta in San Sebastian, Spain. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty
So what do John Delaney, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have in common? Besides, of course, that dusty cassette album of the Best of Roxy Music, languishing in the glove compartment of their respective luxury automobiles?
On the face of it, the three most important men in Irish football are very different. But after another trippy week in Irish football, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that all three lads are, in their own way, as tough as nails. And all three are dreamers.
In the heat generated by the most eagerly awaited pairing since Robert De Niro and Al Pacino finally got to share some screen time together, Delaney’s role in facilitating the O’Neill-Keane ticket should not be overlooked. The Waterford man’s ability to “make light” of past tensions with Keane shows he has the ability to do what all true administrators must do: he took one for the company. Not that there was much of a relationship between the men anyway. Keane has, when asked on a few occasions, reserved a few of his most withering one-liners for the FAI chief.
This week, Delaney was cheerfully indifferent about the frosty regard in which Keane has held the FAI while retaining his old treasurer’s exactness in noting that it took the pair of them 37 seconds to resolve their differences. Delaney’s ability to absorb and shrug off personal criticism is his greatest asset as a chief executive.
If you ask any dozen people in the crowd bound for the Aviva next Friday night for their opinion on Delaney, you will find ardent fans and sworn enemies. His salary, his socialising, his tetchy relationship with the press corps and the FAI’s financial obligations to the spanking new stadium at Lansdowne have all come under scrutiny. But Delaney has sailed blithely on.
Delaney’s emergence through the notoriously tricky corridors at Merrion Square was, in a peculiar way, linked to Roy Keane. During the Saipan meltdown, Delaney, then treasurer, emerged as the mellow voice of authority when more senior FAI figures seemed hypnotised by the scale and intensity of the debate.
In the following years, he assumed the position of chief executive and has been there since. Those of us who witnessed his slow walk down the middle of the pitch to the Irish fans on the terrace in Tallinn on the night when Ireland beat Estonia 4-0 to qualify for Europe won’t forget it. Call it chutzpah, call it milking the moment, call it lunacy; it certainly wasn’t dull. This week marked his finest hour, not only because the FAI had the foresight to go with Martin O’Neill but because Delaney’s attitude to Roy Keane has set a bright and optimistic tone.
Judging by the comments that were read on RTÉ radio last weekend, there are still a lot of Irish people who can’t quite forgive Keane for what “he did” in Saipan.
But the most important fact in that entire fiasco is this: he was sent home. He was told to leave the camp. What started as a stormy, internal team meeting quickly escalated into one of the most sensational sporting stories in football history.
The bones of the story were wrongly interpreted as a metaphor for winning at all costs; the embodiment of the new Ireland. Keane was always driven to win, for sure, but the athletic fury with which he played football in an Irish shirt was always fuelled by a romantic and almost innocent belief that the Irish could take on anyone. Keane was always of old Ireland.