Only one certainty: we're the poorer without Roy

 

LOCKER ROOM/Tom Humphries: It is beautiful here, tranquil in a way which you don't expect of Japan, serene in a manner which seemed unlikely to those who lived in the shadow of the volcano last week. Izumo is a rural town, veined by narrow aquaducts which serve the plentiful paddy fields, those flooded rectangles which creep up even to the downtown street corners. Land is so valued in these parts that scarcely a napkins worth is wasted.

We could learn from such overriding pragmatism. The Irish squad are holed up in a plain and unattractive hotel in the centre of town. There are guards on the door and at the gate. Some say they are there to keep the fans and media out. Others say they are there to keep the players in. Who knows? No matter how bad things had gotten, when the squad's best player and driving force leaves some of those left behind have to be wondering about the short-term future.

The team played together on Saturday a dreary, stroll of a game against Sanfrecce Hiroshima and we sat in the sun, half interested wondering what it would be like with Keane here, barking and hectoring. Everyone was moving at half pace. Keane doesn't have that gear. Keane burns with rage in a casual five a side.

The panel are making a jolly show of their unity post-Roy and in a genuine way they seem to feel it. His presence makes a difference in all sorts of ways. On the pitch he scorches the earth with his tongue so that nobody dares to stand still lest they be burned. Off the pitch his darker moods can cast a pall over the squad's day and his happier hours can provide everyone with a sense of relief and lightness. Whichever, he dominates the landscape like a mountain. Now they are out of his shadow.

The rights and the wrongs of what went on last week will be debated for a long time to come. Maybe it was foolish to have confronted Roy Keane in front of the rest of the players and staff who are here but it was a tactic which the manager was entitled to avail of. Perhaps it might have been better if the players had met alone and explained to Roy that he was correct about every issue from training pitch to the long flights, but his disquiet over these issues was causing more trouble than it was worth. Maybe Roy's mood should have been ignored in the hope that the buzz and comparative efficiency of life in Izumo would soothe him. Maybe, maybe, maybe. There'll be an eternity of maybes and only one certainty. We are the poorer without him.

One certainty? Maybe two. Once Roy Keane raised the issue of Irishness within the squad there was no turning back, there was no quick band-aid that would fit neatly over the wound. He opened up a fissure, that should never have been explored.

Dean Kiely, Alan Kelly, Gary Breen, Clinton Morrison, David Connolly, Jason McAteer, Steven Reid, Matt Holland, Lee Carsley, Steve Finnan and Kevin Kilbane all speak with English accents. Were they to spend the rest of the tournament wondering if they really belonged here? Wondering if anyone else shared Keane's expressed view.

Keane had prised open a subject which is never spoken about within the squad, never alluded to. Brian Kerr's youth teams often play practice games whereby the culchies play the Dubs and those with English accents play on the side their parents come from. It's a nice way of dividing the players for a little fun and it integrates everyone. You could live in London all your life and not know that deep down you are a culchie. NO Irish youth or senior team though would ever divide itself up along the lines of English accents and Irish accents. Too sensitive. To wrong.

Keane knows where the pressure points are in any argument, though. He has a feral instinct for what will work, for what will niggle, for what will wound. That's part of his make up and part of what he is. Over the years the odd mercenary has worn the Irish shirt, the sort of person who bought in out of convenience and who never pays a thought to the country once the boots are packed away forever but the vast majority of those players who opt to play for us feel passionately about Ireland and feel that passion in a different, more conscious way than those who were born and raised in the country.

(In a broader sense, perhaps, Keane has done us a favour by raising the issue. Isn't it time, in this era of crabbed racism and at the end of decades of sectarian violence, we actively sought a more generous, more diverse definition of Irishness?) Anyone who has ever sat with Mick McCarthy and heard him discuss his dad or his early visits to Waterford when he was a young man, would know the wound which would be caused by questioning his Irishness. That's the point, though: Keane was just reaching for the sharpest weapon.

It is unlikely in the extreme the "English" business is something he feels passionately about. Roy's wife Teresa is English of Irish parents. His four beloved children are precisely as Irish as Mick McCarthy is. When Roy travels with his good friend Paul McGrath to watch Paul's son Chris play with Liverpool's youth team does he advise that the kid can only play for England? Of course not. Keane was lashing out the other night, nothing more. Mick McCarthy will get over it. The rest of us? When we all move on, when we get some perspective on the events of the last week it will cease to be a matter of blame and become just a business of haunting regret. For many of us the excitement and anticipation went out of the World Cup when Roy Keane walked out of that room in the Hyatt Hotel in Saipan. Everything we do in this World Cup will have an asterisk attached in our minds. We are not the only team ever to have lost our best player but it is hard to think of another side who relied so hugely on their star. Difficult to come up with another squad who attempted to play a World Cup with that star fit and healthy but watching on the TV somewhere across the planet.

Mick McCarthy and the team will do their best here and it will be fine while it lasts but we will always know that it wasn't the best we could have done as a nation, it wasn't everything that we could have squeezed out of ourselves.

We'll forget about the rights and wrongs quickly enough and we'll return to cherishing the immense contributions to Irish sport of both Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy but for now the long journey which started with Keane's clarion call for excellence in Amsterdam two years ago and ended without him in Tehran last November, well it all seems wasted.