LIAM MACKEY: A quiet word about Keano

HOT SEAT: Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane in relaxed mood at a press conference ahead of the USA game. David Maher

And so it seems we have to talk about Roy – again.

Although, straight off the bat, this column accepts it will struggle to be heard above the bellowing of Joe Brolly (who referred to Keane as a “soccer-coaching Kardashian” and someone who “acts the clown” in press conferences) and Eamon Dunphy (who called Keane “a comedian” and insisted if a stop wasn’t put to his gallop, then “the Irish team is going to become a circus and a joke and it’s going to damage our results”).

Well, obviously, there can be only one solution. Altogether everybody: “Who do we want? Maurice Setters! When do we want him? Now!”

However, before we agree to think the unthinkable — that Roy Keane is best not seen and not heard — it might be a useful exercise to forensically break down the charge sheet and see precisely where and how Yer Man is supposed to have exerted such a baleful influence on the Irish team. Not as sexy as calling him names, agreed, but we can’t all be pots to Keano’s kettle.

To begin at the end, if your correspondent was obliged to maintain his traditional, dignified UN observer role when that war of words broke out between Ireland’s Assistant Manager and a member of the dreaded meeja, then it was at least in part because it was impossible to get a word in edge-ways as the back and forth escalated over the course of about four minutes at the end of an already compelling twenty-minute press conference.

Coming just a couple of days after ‘Hotelgate’, my colleague’s question about such Keane-related headlines perhaps becoming too much of a “distraction” for Martin O’Neill, was entirely legitimate, not to mention pretty damn ballsy, especially when you consider that, with unintended irony, his interviewee at one point in the ensuing verbal battle charged that the journalist would not be brave enough to ask the same question of Martin O’Neill.

Yet, it wasn’t so much the reference to the confrontation with the fan which raised Keane’s hackles – after he’d earlier declined to comment when asked about it by a television reporter – as the fact that the journalist linked that incident in his opening question to headlines which had previously been generated by Keane’s talks with Celtic, his move to Aston Villa and, of course, the publication of his second autobiography..

Here are a couple of relevant extracts from Keane’s response: “You’re on about Celtic and Aston Villa, what do you want me to do about them?..And the book. Do you think the book is a distraction to a group of professional people? Do me a favour”.

No question, this was Keane bristling — if not quite “blasting”, “slamming” or “lashing back” as the usual bellicose shorthand would have it – but the point is that he had a point, had he not?

After all, it was indeed Celtic, Aston Villa and, for that matter, Frank Gillespie who all approached Keane, not the other way around; it was not as if he was out there actively job-hunting or, for that matter, spoiling for a fight.

Publication of the book belongs to a different category, in that it was something he freely generated himself – and he was also willing to do the necessary publicity which, of course, only served to add to an already bumper crop of quotable quotes and eye-catching headlines.

In an Irish context, the specific criticism made of Keane is that, not only did it all add up to yet another distraction, but one which was particularly ill-timed given he had to spend a few hours doing interviews about the book in the run-up to the Euro qualifiers against Gibraltar and Germany.

But, again, there’s a problem with this line of attack. Because, unless evidence can be produced that the book blitz actually had a negative impact on Irish preparations for those games, then the charge simply falls apart in the face of the facts, the most salient of which were that Ireland were subsequently able to put seven goals past Gibraltar before going to Germany and confounding all expectations by coming home with a point.

The only other way to look at it is that not only did John O’Shea do brilliantly to get past Matt Hummels and make that vital connection with the ball in the game’s very last act in Gelsenkirchen – but he deserves even more credit for being able to momentarily free his mind from all those hideously distracting thoughts of the Keano-Fergie row or, for that matter, the reminder that he’d once had a bad night up against Ronaldo.

Ireland’s first bad night in the European qualifying campaign was, it’s true, preceded by ‘Hotelgate’ but, unless we’re going to start factoring chaos theory into the Irish football equation – the air displaced by the flap of a butterfly’s wing ending up as a hurricane on the other side of the world – I, for one, will take some convincing a frank exchange of views involving two other parties in a hotel lobby in Dublin can explain how and why so many Irish players failed to rise to the occasion in Celtic Park And so to the ‘controversy du jour’ or what, in the grand tradition, we might as well call ‘Toffeegate’.

This “distraction”, I would suggest, is of a different order of magnitude in the sense it could indeed have some sort of bearing, for good or ill, on Ireland’s qualification ambitions. Similarly, Keane’s off the cuff barb about Jack Grealish’s Dad was hardly, on the face of it, a helpful intervention – although, again, only time will tell if stick proves more effective than carrot.

Martin O’Neill’s press conference on the eve of the game against the USA was probably the first occasion when it seemed as if the manager and his assistant were not singing off the same hymn sheet, O’Neill studiously avoiding making anything like a provocative statement about Everton’s attitude to their Irish players, only a day after Keane had made no bones about putting his own suspicions front and centre.

But perhaps it ought not to be forgotten in all this that, after James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman had missed the game against Germany only to play for Everton a couple of days later, O’Neill – in what was surely a telling turn of phrase – said at the time that he was prepared to give the club “the benefit of the doubt unless proved otherwise”. That was a remark which one is surely entitled to interpret as meaning might be much more understanding of Keane’s reservations in private than he is prepared to admit in public where, like all his fellow international gaffers, he has to negotiate a diplomatic tightrope when it comes to these recurring club v country tensions.

Indeed, one might even be tempted to speculate that there was a bit of pincer movement at play, a reversion to the old ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine, with the aim of getting Everton to be as helpful as possible with future Irish inquiries. As I say, I’m entering the realms of speculation here but even if, on the face of it, Everton’s outraged response over the last couple of days suggests Keane’s remarks might have backfired, the truth of it is that we won’t know how all this will pan out until Poland come calling to Dublin next March. But, at the very least, the elephant that was in the room is now up on the table and trumpeting for all to hear.

With so much negative stuff about Keane in air, it’s worth noting that when Martin O’Neill and, just this week, John O’Shea, talk about how good it is to have him on board, particularly in terms of his input into player preparation, there is actually no reason to doubt their sincerity. Simply to dismiss such plaudits by declaring ‘well they would say that, wouldn’t they?’, as some already have, is – again in the absence of evidence to the contrary — all soundbite and no significance.

Finally, and on an entirely selfish note: to the idea that it might now be better for all concerned if Roy Keane simply gave up doing Irish media duties altogether, well, I think I’m on pretty safe ground in saying on behalf of all my colleagues — do me a favour.


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