Lansdowne to welcome the return of the Keane edge

 

A YEAR since his last appearance in Dublin, and with another haircut behind him, the joke goes that when Roy Keane arrived at the Republic of Ireland's base last Monday morning even former team-mates passed him by without recognising him. He even tells the story himself.

The statistics are well documented now. Keane played in just three of the Republic's 11 European Championship qualifying games. His ratio of appearances for Manchester United never seemed quite so low. The decision to undergo a hernia operation 24 hours before the game in Lisbon didn't go down too well. United, and in particular, Alex Ferguson's role in all of this in the last 12 months, was questioned. So too, though, Keane's commitment to his native country was called into question, publicly as well as privately.

He doesn't laugh about that. Quite the opposite. Keane is not one of those footballers who says "yippee, it's interview time". But while normally relaxed if deadpan in his delivery, without giving much away, the words flowed yesterday as he visibly bridled at the suggestion that he was not committed to his country.

"I think I've received a lot of unfair criticism in certain sections of the press. It didn't matter what I said, it was already written. At the end of the day I was injured and I wasn't fit enough to play for my country. I wouldn't have done myself any favours and I wouldn't have done the team any favours."

Asked was he very unhappy about this, he said: "Of course I was. Some reporter said I didn't really want to play for my country. He didn't say that when I was in under-15, under-16 and youths squads travelling around the world without getting my game.

"I think a certain headline was KKO - Kick Keane Out. which is very unfair. I was annoyed. At the end of the day I wasn't fit. needed two hernia operations over the last two years. I wasn't fit enough to play. It's a simple as that.

Despite having played on the Saturday before the Lisbon game. Keane recalls. "People didn't see me on the Sunday morning. I couldn't walk, literally."

At least he appears to be in rude good health nowadays. "Fitness wise, I think can't get any fitter. Playing-wise, things are going nicely. There's a lot to improve, but every player will say that."

Ferguson is raving about him, even more than ever. The United manager says he's the best, and that he wouldn't swap him for anybody. This brings Keane back to shrugging-the-shoulder mode. "Some players probably need a lot of confidence but I'm probably a fairly simple player. Goalscorers play off a lot of confidence but I don't really play off that much confidence, if you know what I mean. It's always nice when the manager says something nice about you, but I don't really take that much notice to be honest.

The same applies when other players suggest the Irish team could be built around the 24-year-old veteran of 29 caps, or that he will assume more responsibility at international level as he has done at club level. "Eventually I suppose I'll have to take on more responsibility than what I have done over the last two years. The older you get the more experience you get, and there's more expected of you. But that's only natural."

Likewise, talk of new systems. If the cap fits, so be it. "I think I've basically got the same job as when I played for Jack. A lot of players have different jobs but I don't think mine has changed that much.

The powerhouse running from box to box, the biting tackles, the midfield driving force. The modern-day player, as Mick McCarthy has described him this week. McCarthy, understandably, was delighted when he showed up and it shouldn't take too long for Lansdowne Road to recognise the Keane edge.