A ball wasn’t even kicked but the face of Irish football underwent a dramatic makeover in the last couple of days — first jaws were dropped and then, once they’d been retrieved from the floor, the eyebrow-raising began in earnest.
The appointment of either Martin O’Neill or Roy Keane as the next manager of the Republic of Ireland would always have been the stuff of major headlines, but getting two of football’s best-known personalities in the same package has transformed the hitherto frustrating saga of the Giovanni Trapattoni succession stakes into the one of the biggest sensations in Irish sports history.
Which, again before a ball has even been kicked, has got to be welcome news for supporters who’d grown disenchanted with the Italian’s reign and, on the back of Ireland’s Brazil 2014 hopes fizzling out so disappointingly, were hoping for something, anything, to bring a bit of excitement back to the international set-up.
Well, they’ve certainly got the wow factor now — on the double — the most immediate consequence of which is that Ireland’s upcoming friendlies against Latvia and Poland are now imbued with a sense of the momentous which will go a long way to eclipsing the envy we would otherwise have been feeling about those eight European nations who will be engaged in crucial World Cup play-off games on the same two nights.
So the FAI have landed a dynamic duo, of that there can be no doubt. But what matters more now is the dynamic between the duo, the delineation of roles and responsibilities which will go a long way to dictating if two can prove better than one.
Inevitably, scepticism has already been expressed that Keane can possibly play second fiddle to anyone. Here, after all, is a man accustomed to leadership roles as skipper and manager, and someone whose forthright opinions and intense demeanour could unsettle and even threaten a domineering personality like Alex Ferguson.
What’s manifestly true is that Keane will have to adapt according to what’s required of him by Martin O’Neill. Because this is the key: Keane is only in the role because O’Neill told the FAI he wants him there.
And, even if you want to portray O’Neill as a first among equals in the Irish dug out, the buck will still have to stop with him. When he’s unveiled, I don’t expect the Derryman to echo Steve Staunton — “I’m the gaffer” — but that is exactly what he will be. And, in agreeing to the job — which he apparently did unhesitatingly when asked by O’Neill — Keane will understand that better than anyone.
It’s well known that there has long been mutual respect between the two men which has deepened during the time they’ve spent together working in television. There are also, of course, enough points of historical connection in their respective careers — from Nottingham Forest to Celtic Park to Sunderland — to suggest they’d find plenty of common ground when discussing the game’s highs as well as its lows.
Yet one suspects it will be for the differences as much as the shared traits, that O’Neill will value having Keane by his side.
In Keane, to understate it, O’Neill will not have a yes man, let alone a company man, but rather someone who knows his own mind and won’t be slow to challenge the boss’s views with some of his own — but always in the knowledge that the final word will go the Number One.
How Keane will relate to the players is another matter. Intimidating to some, inspiring to others, it’s frankly impossible to conceive of him in the traditional buffer role which is often filled by a number two in club football. But it’s at least logical to assume that with not one but two such forceful characters on the training ground and in the dressing room, all the players selected for duty will be on their toes from the off.
As Neil Lennon quipped over the weekend: “God help the players!” But the Celtic boss still reckoned this was an inspired move by the FAI.
Speaking of whom, Keane’s previously stormy relations with the association shouldn’t pose a significant problem — even if he will doubtless have to bite his tongue from time to time when things don’t go according to plan behind the scenes.
Again, it’s O’Neill as manager who will be the one dealing directly with the FAI hierarchy — and the only history he has with any of them is, one would like to think, in the making.
Of course, the return of Keane to Irish football has prompted the usual caustic comment across social media from those who can’t or won’t forget Saipan. But while the residual echoes of that uncivil war will probably never go away, the often conveniently ignored truth is that Keane effectively crossed the bridge from that unhappy past when he returned as a player under Brian Kerr. The comeback, in short, happened as long ago as 2004.
Ultimately, for all the concern that an O’Neill/Keane ticket is an accident waiting to happen, the much more prosaic likelihood is that it will stand or fall — as have all previous Irish managerial regimes — on what happens on the field of play.
And if the results do go the right way, there may even be a long-term dividend, the first time such a thing has happened in Irish football — the seamless transition from one manager to another, as the second in command steps up to fill the top job.
But, we’re really getting ahead of ourselves now. And step one is certainly momentous enough to be going on with.
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