Martin O’Neill in chipper form as he lays down a few ground-rules

Robbie Keane captain for first two games as new manager sees no reason to change it

Martin O’Neill keeps a close eye on Republic of Ireland training at Malahide on Tuesday afternoon. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Martin O’Neill keeps a close eye on Republic of Ireland training at Malahide on Tuesday afternoon. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho


Day One. Early. Like, 9.30am early with training to start at 11. Yet Roy Keane is at the pitch in Malahide already. Setting up, readying the session. Conspicuously failing to fail to prepare.

Day One. Afternoon. Manager’s briefing. Martin O’Neill is asked about Keane’s early start. “Well yeah,” he deadpans, “I sent him there early.”

See? This is going to be fun. The new Republic of Ireland manager seldom sees a hurdle that a wisecrack won’t help him jump. If it means he has to come back around and add in a but-seriously-folks a little later, so be it.

The grey truth was that the goalkeeping coaches were going early because Séamus McDonagh goes everywhere early. Since that’s a habit that fits good and snug with the way the assistant manager sees the world, he went early as well.

Chipper form
O’Neill was in pleasingly chipper form yesterday. His first encounters with the players had gone well on Monday night as they arrived in spits and spots. They had dinner, they had a quick meeting and then he let them away for the night.

“They kept curfew as well,” he said. “I let them off at 7.30 and nobody left the hotel. Mind you, curfew was 7.45.”

Still feeling his way into the role, he conceded that he’d be picking his first team for Friday night pretty much on instinct. Robbie Keane will be captain for the first two games at least because O’Neill sees no reason to change it in the short term, which is not to say it won’t change in time.

As to how they’ll set up, he doesn’t necessarily agree with Joachim Löw’s assessment of Ireland that says one style of play is in our DNA. He doesn’t necessarily disagree either.

‘Utterly incapable’
“There are a number of different ways of playing. I don’t want to promise you something here and then find out that we’re totally and utterly incapable of playing it.

“Please don’t make me make any promises here. Eventually, we have certain players to play with, we can’t go and buy six or seven in by the time next September comes.

“I would hope to implement some sort of philosophy that runs through the heart of it but in that you’ve got to have a certain amount of flexibility. That’s a long-winded way of saying that I don’t want to be absolutely inflexible about what we do and then find that we’re incapable of doing it.”

Since we’re all just starting out here, the discussion veered into the area of ground-rules. For all his mickey-taking badinage, O’Neill is a pragmatist. When in doubt, treat players like adults and see what happens.

He has no hard and fast rules about players socialising other than it being irrelevant until they go and win a game or two. We asked him about Twitter and while he admitted that it was something they were going to have a policy on, he didn’t want to be coming on like an absolutist about it.

‘Bit of fun’
“I used to think it was a bit of fun. I felt like a bit of a schoolteacher coming in and telling six- or seven-year-olds how to behave. But actually it’s become quite serious now, it really has. So we’ll have a line on it, yeah. Sometimes when you’re out of it, you forget about it. But we’ve had a couple of players get in trouble with it.

“I know James [MCCLEAN]got in trouble away back at Sunderland. And I remember just saying, ‘Ah James, just come away from it for a while, just at this moment. Not everybody in the North-East knows who the Wolfe Tones are. Not everybody’s been to their concerts.’”

Even the dread subject of Stephen Ireland and how (or if) he can be talked back into the fold was brushed off with a smile.

“If Roy can come back, surely it’s open for anyone,” he said, before recounting how he’d once had to face an angry John Hartson in the tunnel after a game when the big Welsh striker had been substituted, much to his annoyance.

“And to be perfectly honest, Stephen Ireland is much smaller than John Hartson.”

His duties for the day just about done, he was asked if he was going to have a word with Keane ahead of his assistant manager’s turn with the media this afternoon. He looked at us as if we were quite, quite mad.

‘Roy Keane’s father’
“Seriously? Look, I’m going to try and clear something up here. I am not Roy Keane’s father. Honestly. He can look after himself. He can say what he wants. Seriously. There is absolutely no gagging at all. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t even need to have that conversation with him.

“I made a couple of jokes on Saturday about Saipan and said that Roy actually came back at me and told me I picked the wrong team for the Uefa Cup final. Well, he didn’t actually say that, I was just having a laugh. But as soon as it was over, I had someone come up to me and ask, ‘Which two players did he disagree with?’”

Welcome to Planet Keano, Mr O’Neill. The globe gets another spin this afternoon around 2.30pm. After all this time and all this toil, who are we to resist its gravitational pull?