Pawns on Roy’s chess board

Keano’s superpower might have been football, but he discovered another along the way in his magnetism. And how a nation hangs on every word he utters, or is uttered about him, writes Larry Ryan.

Pawns on Roy’s chess board

I did newspaper columns for a while – for the Sun. Again, I was being told, ‘It’s easy money.’ I gave it a go, but I ran out of steam. And I hated it. Every Friday or Saturday, I’d be down the phone to a journalist, giving my verdict on everything. There has to come a point when you honestly say, ‘I’ve no opinion on that.’ But that’s not what makes newspaper columns. I said that once in an interview. I was asked about something to do with Manchester United, and I said, ‘I’ve no opinion on that.’ I think the headline was: ‘Shock: Keane Has No Opinion on Something.’

It may be the central pillar of Roy Keane’s appeal; that he absolutely knows the score.

And he knows we know he knows.

A friend walked past Keane in Amsterdam airport not too long ago. Both wore green jumpers. Our man has a vivid imagination but there is no disinclination to believe him when he says that Roy was able to organise a crystal clear dialogue, in a look and near imperceptible nod. “I see you, I see you seeing me, and I appreciate you not coming over to bother me.”

Keano is meta. He is Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson in Deadpool. A self-aware comic book hero who knows he’s a hero in a comic book and saves most of his jokes for studios who make stupid comic book movies. And everyone involved cashes in.

Keano’s superpower might have been football, but he discovered another along the way in his magnetism. And how a nation hangs on every word he utters, or is uttered about him, even if a good portion of it hates him.

This week alone, he was a hook for a Barry Ferguson interview nobody here would otherwise care about. “He’s A Celtic Man, But Roy Keane Is One Of My Favourite Midfielders Of All Time.”

He’s also a cheap target for an out-of-form golfer who doesn’t necessarily share Keane’s powers of self-awareness. “I’ve never liked Roy Keane after he snubbed me for an autograph.”

That made international headlines, as did Keano when he stepped out on what can seem like his main line of work for the FAI: Contributing to the news cycles.

Those who wonder why we never hear from other assistant managers in international week tend not to provide us with a compelling list of the superpowers on offer from Steve Holland, Jimmy Nicholl or Mark McGhee.

The morning after England qualified for the World Cup with a last-minute goal, football preoccupied itself with where the win over Slovenia ranked among England’s most boring games. So, in international weeks, you take box office magnetism wherever you can.

When Keano stepped up on Tuesday, there was plenty of considered build-up, sensible words for Kevin Doyle’s sad retirement.

But when the moment came, he almost takes a touch and steadies himself before the finish.

The eyes narrow.

“If you’re worried about the physical side of any sport, you’re wary of it…”

A slight lick of the lips.

“Then play chess.”

In the little pause to make sure it had landed, we know he knows. And he knows we know.

Everyone has what they came for. A fresh angle on a hot topic. A boost onto your high horse, if you have the stomach for it. Or at the very least, a viral video to ‘push out through your social channels’.

And Three and New Balance and Spar and Rustlers and whoever else fills the FAI coffers get a few million eyes on the logos behind him.

At these moments, when Keano effortlessly summons the world’s attention, it’s tempting to puzzle over how we should best harness this formidable force.

Could we rig himself and McGregor up to some kind of algorithm that could produce all of the world’s clickbait from an unmanned office somewhere in Crumlin’s ‘projects’ or Cork’s northside? Film the lads fighting over the location and make a billion.

Could we coax him back to the columns and lash one out twice a day, saving the newspaper industry?

Or is there some higher purpose we could devote him to? Surely there are peace deals, hostage situations and crisis talks begging for a man everyone wants to listen to.

Arguably, the miracle is that Keano doesn’t say more, hasn’t become entirely intoxicated with his own powers, has identified anything at all he doesn’t have an opinion on.

But he knows we know he knows. And we know he knows we know he knows. There’s a self-consciousness that triggers an alarm that stops him going full Bono.

In the quote above, from The Second Half, the autobiography Keane worked on with Roddy Doyle, we can see that Roy accepts his vocation as a headline generator, but isn’t entirely at ease with it.

Just as the columns ran out of steam, he doesn’t always make a compelling pundit.

Elsewhere in the book, he admits to sometimes phoning it in, explains a queasiness with the deal he’s made, to trade on the magnetism.

“At some stage, I would like a life with a bit of anonymity and I had to accept that the longer I did the TV work, the less likely that was to happen. I’d be asked, ‘what’s happening at United?’, and I’d feel another slice of me gone; I’d just sold something.”

He still does it, so the price must be right, or maybe there are enough slices of Keano to go round.

As a manager, he was cautious about his using his superpower around mortals.

“In the media, after a press conference, whatever I said, I ‘blasted’. ‘We could have done better,’ Keane blasts.”

“It was a cartoon image of me but, now and again, I used that to my advantage, but that could also backfire on me. When I’d try to be genuine with people, or if I lost my rag just a little bit, it could become exaggerated. If people felt I was angry all the time, it would lose its effect.”

Sometimes, when you know too much about yourself, and what people know about you — when it gets too meta — it can feel like you’re playing yourself in a movie about somebody playing himself.

“Sometimes, I don’t know what role I’m playing. I’m a family man, I’m a Cork man, a TV pundit; I’m a critic; I was a player with a skinhead. I felt like an actor, sometimes. Maybe we’re all like that – I don’t know.”

Whatever his role, the studios love it. The show has got another series, and why wouldn’t it?

In a line of work where he can sprinkle much-needed stardust and is ideally supposed to motivate footballers, perhaps we have found the perfect role for a compelling actor who is reading his lines just fine.

His boss, the director? His case isn’t yet as persuasive.

Heroes & villains


Joe Cooney:

The Clare GAA chairman summed up reaction to the hurling championship rejig with a neat motto we can all find a use for: “None of us like to see change.”

Andres Iniesta:

Always a step ahead. Just when we thought there was no such thing anymore, he scoops a job for life with Barca.

Jupp Heynckes:

Ever ready to oblige, I like the cut of this fella’s jib. Be gas if he knocked another treble out of it for Bayern Munich.


‘The rivalry like no other’: 

Suppose not many of the other great rivalries in world sport had just a few hundred watching a couple of decades ago.

John Hartson:

Confirmed this week on Off The Ball that he never sports underpants, and may even have cut those tricky mesh briefs out of his football shorts, in his day. All of which is his right of course, but these freedom fighters are the first lads to cry foul when a newspaper innocently prints a photo of them hanging out in all their glory. Danger here!

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