Like a dog with a bone
By Kieran Shannon
The man behind the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly phenomenon Paul Howard has gone back to his roots to finally give his obsession with the force of nature that is Roy Keane a voice — through the man’s loyal sidekick Triggs.
We had walked as far as the Tesco Express on Ashley Road. He needed one or two things for the trip and he was tying my lead to the trolley bay outside.
“Overmars,” I told him, “is the player I’d be most worried about.” He fixed me with an unblinking look. I expect you know the look I mean.
“I think you and maybe one or two others should have a bit more faith in Gary Neville,” he said. “Yeah, he had maybe one or two problems earlier in the season. He had a torrid time of it, no question. But he’s still a top, top defender.”
I wasn’t going to get into an argument with him. He could take or leave my ideas as he saw fit. That went with the territory of being his friend and confidant. It was 15 minutes later, as he emerged from the supermarket, his purchases swinging in a bag by his side, that I blurted something out.
“Tell Ryan Giggs to run at the Arsenal defence.” It just came to me in a wingbeat of inspiration.
— An extract from Triggs: The Autobiography, taken from a conversation between one man and his dog on the eve of a FA Cup semi-final replay in April 1999.
ou might not have known this but before he was Ross O’Carroll-Kelly and the best satirist in the country, Paul Howard was, as a professional footballer might put it, a top, top sportswriter. And no one in all his time covering sport fascinated him more than Roy Keane.
Sonia O’Sullivan was about the next most compelling because she was the nearest to being as compelled as Roy. Over the years Howard would get to know Sonia and her partner Nic Bideau well, just as Keane himself would, and Bideau would once remark that Keane would become visibly humbled in Sonia’s presence, almost moved that here was someone, finally, who could match and empathise with his intensity. But Roy was the Muhammad Ali of Howard’s generation of sportswriters, even if hardly as accessible. Howard never actually had the privilege of a one-to-one interview with Keane but that didn’t stop him obsessing about the most obsessive of sportsmen.
“I spent so much of my career as a sportswriter second-guessing Roy Keane. From the day of the 1999 Champions League final, or the days before and after the  Holland match, or whether he was going to come back to play for Ireland under Brian Kerr, you’d be thinking, ‘Oh to be privy to the thoughts in that man’s head’.”
What added to the fascination was his visibility with a certain dog, so it stood to reason for Howard that such an extraordinary person should have not just any ordinary dog. ‘Triggs’ isn’t so much the autobiography of Roy Keane’s dog as the revelations of Keane’s inner genius; a guru with a particular penchant for the History Channel as well as Sky Sports. While Roy is continuously mystified that he shares a dressing room with grown men who are still consumed by computer games, back at home he has a talking dog that can forensically analyse the Allies’ tactics in the Second World War as well as Alex Ferguson’s in Europe.
In Howard’s latest project the secret is finally revealed: Triggs, not Fergie, was the real mastermind behind the Treble-winning campaign of 1999. It was she that identified Dave Beckham’s crosses would be the key to the Champions League quarter-final home tie against Inter Milan, that for one night only against the Arsenal Ryan Giggs should run at them.
Like everyone, Howard had never heard of Triggs until the events of May 2002. Instantly he was intrigued.
“It was just a surreal situation, covering a World Cup and suddenly seeing on the internet Ireland’s best player walking a dog down a laneway eight time zones away. And what made the dog so iconic and comical was that Triggs was such a perspective giver.
“Roy made a big demonstration of walking Triggs every time he was the centre of a public storm. It was like as if he was saying, ‘Cop yourselves on. Life goes on’.”
That was the thing about it. Life and Keane would go on. When the brilliant American swimmer Matt Biondi failed to win an Olympic gold medal, he stoically told reporters: “When I go home my dog will still lick my face.” It was the same for Keane. His World Cup was over but not his world. Triggs would still be there to go for a walk.
Even then Howard wrote passages for his own amusement rather than for publication of imaginary conversations between the pair; Roy needing to blow off some steam and Triggs giving him the look: “Okay, go get the lead, Roy.”
Eight years later when there were reports that Triggs had passed away, only for her demise to be greatly exaggerated, Howard felt the opportunity to write about Keane’s most faithful sidekick was just too good to resist. It was a chance to explore the relationship between a man and his dog — Howard and his wife Mary are the dear owners of a basset hound called Humphrey — revisit some of his theses on Keane the footballer, have some fun with Keane’s caricature and in particular how footballers talk publicly.
“One morning I started writing down all the expressions and clichés they use and an hour later I was still going. ‘It’s been well documented.’ ‘He did fantastically well.’ You never just do ‘well’. It’s ‘ever so well’ or ‘fantastically well’. Yet what person let alone footballer really talks like that in normal conversation?”
When Ireland qualified for the 1990 World Cup Howard’s colleagues in the Sunday Tribune published a classic supplement featuring extensive interviews with every player on the Irish squad. The reader felt as if they knew Andy Townsend, Kevin Moran, John Aldridge. A generation later and a shield had been lowered. Players had been coached not to reveal anything that might be of interest. Howard will never forget either an interview — if that’s what you could call it — with Clinton Morrison in Birmingham.
“We were in the canteen at the training ground and there was a television on mute, showing Goals on Monday. And for the entire duration of the interview Clinton didn’t look at me once, just the television. And every single answer he gave me was either, ‘Sweet’ or ‘Yeah, yeah, it was sweet’. After about 10 minutes I just got bored and said, ‘Oh well, thanks very much for your time’ and got up to leave. And he called me back and sort of held up his hand like for me to high-five him. So I high-fived him but his eyes still never left the TV screen. He just said, ‘Sweet’.”
In a way though Howard couldn’t blame the players for being so guarded. They were products as well as victims of the tabloid culture.
“After Ireland beat the Faroe Islands in a World Cup qualifier, we were fogbound, and Clinton Morrison, as it happened, was in the mixed zone. So I started the conversation by saying, ‘Looks like we’re going to be staying here another night’. And Clinton said, ‘Yeah, can’t believe we have another night in this shithole’. And I laughed because it was just banter.
“Then I said, ‘I saw Roy Keane bollicking you on the field’. And he said, ‘Ah, I’m not scared of Roy Keane’. And then the interview started and though his quotes were better than, ‘Yeah, sweet’, they were just quotes and the best two lines were the Faroes being a shithole and that he wasn’t scared of Roy. So I used them, well down the piece, almost in passing, yet the following week one of the tabloids had a front page, ‘Mayor in Faroes demands apology from footballer’ and then a back page, ‘Clinton: I’m not scared of Keano’.
“So I can completely understand why a Damien Duff hasn’t wanted to bring a journalist into his circle. Because while it mightn’t necessarily be you that shafts him, a throwaway line in your piece might be spun to make a front page story. The scrutiny that’s on every word they say is intense.”
A certain Corkman though, wasn’t afraid for his revelations to bookend any newspaper. When Roy Keane gave that interview to the Irish Times it triggered a national crisis but in Howard’s view it was more a breaking point than a starting point. He was already writing a book on the tension between the pair, The Two Gaffers, having written a piece on the dynamic between Ireland’s manager and captain the weekend after Ireland’s landmark 1-0 win over Holland in Lansdowne.
“Lorraine O’Sullivan’s photograph after that game showed there was a real antagonism between them. It was clear from the body language that there was a real status anxiety on Mick McCarthy’s behalf: the way he was leaning over to offer Roy his hand, his eyes lowered while Roy turned away avoiding eye contact.
“And writing about it again through Triggs, it’s funny because things are actually quite simple if you look at them from a dog’s point of view. A dog can see status anxiety. And that’s what Saipan was about: this unresolved submission and dominance issue between McCarthy and Keane.”
In Howard’s latest book Triggs doesn’t side with Roy. She clearly loved Roy but as she puts it herself, she liked Mick McCarthy. Howard was the same. He remains the same. He doesn’t side with either.
“Probably the most frustrating thing in all the coverage about Saipan was this assumption that you had to choose whether you were a Mick McCarthy man or a Roy Keane man. But I think it was perfectly okay to say that Roy Keane didn’t have to give that interview to the Irish Times and that Mick McCarthy didn’t have to confront Roy in front of the other players and that Roy didn’t need to react the way he did.
“What I will say is history is going to be kinder to Mick McCarthy than it is going to be to Roy Keane on Saipan. I remember being in Japan and it was still rumbling on and the FAI were giving us international courier delivery documents to show that the footballs arrived on a certain date and I thought to myself, ‘It has nothing to do with cones or a bouncy surface’. And the proof of that is that the circumstances in which Roy Keane left Manchester United in 2005 were identical to the way he left Ireland in 2002.
“He wasn’t impressed by a pre-season training camp. He felt the players weren’t taking it seriously enough, there was the subsequent interview in which he criticised the players, the implied criticism of management, the huge row with the manager and then the ambiguity about whether he walked out or was sent home. His modus operandi for leaving United was the exact same as his modus operandi for leaving Ireland in 2002. So you can’t look back on Saipan and divorce it from the circumstances in which he left United, or the circumstances in which he left Sunderland.”
The manner in which he left United still hurts Keane, which intrigues Howard. In recent months Ruud van Nistelrooy initiated contact with Ferguson so they could finally be reconciled. Howard could never see such an approach or outcome in the case of Keane.
“I think Roy’s too proud to do that. It was like one of the worst things you could do to Roy Keane was to accuse him of being sentimental. He made a real show of having no friends in football, yet when it was over, he acted like he couldn’t understand or at least accept that which is another reason why Roy Keane is so interesting.”
Howard consciously avoided making any reference to Keane and his family out of respect for their privacy, but in Triggs Howard could show the more compassionate and comical side to Keane.
“[The comedian] Peter Kay is an Oldham fan and in his book he talked about sitting watching them play Man United and who was next to him in the stand but Roy Keane, grinning at him. And when Kay turned to him Keane went ‘Ave it!’
“So there’s a funny skittish side to Roy. He’s not just this serious, brooding hostile character.”
Keane, of course, isn’t the first legendary sports figure that Howard has caricatured. Before Roy there was Ross, as in Mr O’Carroll-Kelly, a schools rugby player par excellence before he became such an icon of the Celtic Tiger years and an Irish publishing phenomenon. The success of Ross would mean Howard is now better known as one of the finest novelists rather than premier sportswriters of his generation but the origins of Ross were rooted in Howard’s instinct to capture an underreported reality of sport.
“I wanted to write a piece about schools rugby players beyond rugby, having covered enough of their games and seen what went on. To me it was America transplanted to Ireland: the way they were lionised among their peers, the cheerleading girls that flocked around them, the parents heaping huge pressure on them to perform; their games being covered extensively in national newspapers. But the barrister for the Tribune just laughed at me, saying there wasn’t a chance because I’d be writing about underage drinking and underage sex by kids whose parents were highly-resourced and could close the Tribune down. The way around it was to write about it through a fictional character.”
Ross would become so huge that in November 2005 Howard would finish up as the chief sportswriter of the Sunday Tribune. For those of us who worked with him at the time it was as shocking as Roy Keane departing Manchester United the same month.
“It broke my heart to leave sports journalism because I never wanted to be a novelist. From the time I was 11, watching the 1982 World Cup with a copybook on my lap, writing reports on all the matches, all I ever wanted to be was a sportswriter. But like John Lennon said, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
“This sideline [Ross] just took off and at the 2004 Olympics when I was trying to finish a Ross book in the early hours of the morning I realised it was getting harder to find the time to do both.”
Ross’s adventures have provided great comic material and so has the process of writing them. At the start of 2007’s Should Have Got Off at Sydney Parade in which Ross becomes a father, Howard wanted to use a lyric from Bruce Springsteen. Howard’s contract stipulates that if he wants to use a lyric from a song he has to seek the necessary permission himself so he duly contacted one of Springsteen’s lawyers.
“She said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s fine, just write a cheque out to Bruce personally for $150.” So I said that’s great, went to the bank and it was lunchtime and packed. So I’m in the queue and I’m saying to myself, ‘Oh no, I’m going to have say this through three inches of glass’. So I get to the top of the counter, tell the guy I want to write out a draft cheque for $150 dollars and he says to me, ‘And who do I make it payable to?’
“And I tell him, ‘Well, give it to me and I’ll fill it in.’ But he says, ‘No, no, just tell me’. So I look around and whisper, ‘Well, okay, it’s Bruce Springsteen’.
“And he says, ‘What?’ So I say it again, but he still can’t hear me. ‘Sorry, I can’t hear you?’ “’BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN!’
“So I hear people in the queue behind me going, ‘Did he just say Bruce Springsteen?’ And the guy behind the counter smiles, ‘Well obviously it’s not the Bruce Springsteen!’ ‘Well, actually….’”
Triggs will have you laughing too, although at times you’ll find it sad as well. Triggs throughout it is clearly aging, and as you probably heard from Roy himself a few months ago, she’s dead now. It’s made it a tough last few years for Keane, which prompts our last question: will Roy be fine, especially now that Triggs is no longer there to lick his face or tell him to get that lead?
“I think he will. He understands football and he’s a much smarter man than he looked in the last few months at Ipswich. People forget but he was a success at Sunderland. Not only did Roy bring Sunderland up but he kept them up which was arguably a bigger achievement again. He needs to learn subtlety and humility and realise that not all players have his ability and ambition, but he will. I think the next job he’ll get is Nottingham Forest. Because he feels something for the club and they feel something for him and the club is ready for a lifeforce like him.”
There’ll be more for Howard to write about him yet.
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