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
Anyone lucky enough to be in Lansdowne Road in 2001 when Ireland played the Netherlands will remember the feeling. It wasn’t just Keane’s ferocious tackle on Marc Overmars and the look on the Dutch man’s face – hauteur giving way to indignation giving way to intimidation. It was the way he made the Dutch sense of entitlement evaporate.
Keane was a complex and thorny figure during his playing days but his frustration in Saipan wasn’t down to the fact that he didn’t care about the Irish football team or his country. It was down to the fact that he cared too much. Ray Houghton spoke on Prime Time during the week about a two-hour discussion he had with Keane in which he was astonished by the depth of the latter’s knowledge of the Irish set-up.
Even when Keane feigned indifference towards the Irish teams – and it should be recalled that he did play again for Brian Kerr’s Ireland – you can bet that he always kept a close interest on what was happening. You can bet that he burned for them to win. Keane is fiercely proud of being Irish and he is obsessed with football: how could he not care?
Martin O’Neill’s decision to select Keane as his second-in-command is a revelation in its own right. O’Neill clearly has the self-confidence to believe he will be more than able for Keane’s passions, his impatience and his strong opinions.
For O’Neill, the decision made sense: Keane is not just a young ex-manager eager to get back on the sideline, he also ranks as probably the greatest footballer the Republic of Ireland has produced. Alex Ferguson’s recent cold assassination of Keane’s managerial worth was damaging but it was slanted and mean-spirited.
Keane’s three years in management showed flashes of the right stuff– and the stunning early surge with Sunderland has been too quickly overlooked. It probably wasn’t his failure to gain promotion with Ipswich which made prospective employers shy away from Keane so much as his acerbic wit and the general fearlessness of authority.
When O’Neill and Keane appeared together on ITV’s Champions League with Adrian Chiles, there was a sense that they are very comfortable with each other: that O’Neill has come to know the private side of Keane and that Keane trusts O’Neill. Two ex-Nottingham Forest lads from the extreme north and south of Ireland: they can’t have ever have been stuck for chat. And now it has come full circle.
Today is Martin O’Neill’s day. It is a brilliant day for Irish football. The significance of today’s unveiling in Dublin won’t be lost on O’Neill: a 1950s Derry kid taking over one of the most high-profile roles in Irish public life; Northern Ireland’s former captain and now the Republic of Ireland’s man on the sidelines.
O’Neill is such a passionate football man that he was able to fall deeply for the sedate English boroughs of Leicester and Norwich. Can you imagine what his heart will be like on the anthem nights in Dublin when Ireland are playing big games?
The same is true of Keane. And the same, in a different way, is true of Delaney. If they have anything in common, you can be sure they share big, bold dreams for Irish football. Those dreams may prove unreachable but they deserve a chance. Tread softly, now.