Yesterday, the Sunderland manager launched the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind/Specsavers Shades 2008 campaign in Dublin and the first punchline was delivered within seconds of what has become his annual ‘state of the nation’ address.
Preoccupied with photographers, Labradors and school kids all morning, news of An Taoiseach’s announcement hadn’t reached him by the time he sat down to take questions, one of the first of which was who should succeed Bertie.
“John Delaney,” quipped Keane.
And with that, the festivities got underway. The thousand-yard stare that so memorably put Patrick Vieira in his place in the Highbury tunnel was, for the most part, replaced by an impudent, boyish grin.
Ahern’s announcement will have denied many a front page to Keane and his canine chums this morning but so too will his current role on Wearside which, with its weekly briefings, cushioned some of the impact of this latest visit.
Keane’s willingness to talk has been criticised by Eamon Dunphy and John Delaney, the latter claiming that his opinions on the Irish manager’s situation were a smokescreen for Sunderland’s difficulties in the Premier League.
“Of course that’s what I was trying to do,” remarked Keane with a heavy pinch of sarcasm. “I do a press conference once a week in England every Friday for about 45 minutes or an hour.
“Every now and again an Irish reporter will turn up… he will obviously get a cheap flight on a Thursday night (cue laughter). He will ask me one question at the end about Sunderland and he’ll use that for three weeks, twist it and turn it.
“If I am asked a question about the FAI, I will give my opinion now and again. I am far from giving a running commentary on the FAI. I said at the time that (Trapattoni) was a good appointment, like I’m saying today.
“I would have to do the press conferences naked to take away from the team (cue prolonged laughter).
“I don’t need the FAI helping me out with that, I could just look at the league table every weekend to see where we are. That’s rubbish.”
Having defeated Aston Villa on the road and West Ham at the Stadium of Light in their last two league games, that table has made a much prettier picture for Keane of late.
Sunderland now stand 14th, four places and seven points off the drop zone, although Keane admits that their run-in from now to May 11, when they finish up at home against Arsenal, promises to be a treacherous route to safety.
Scrapping with the likes of Fulham and Bolton to keep their heads above the relegation zone is all well and good for now but Keane has the Blackburns and Aston Villas of this world in his sights next season.
He accepts such ambition doesn’t come cheap but the former Manchester United captain sells the impression of a man who won’t take long in clearing out his office if his wishes aren’t granted by Niall Quinn and the Drumaville consortium.
“We know we need more (players) in the summer and that’s what I’ll be asking for. We probably need another, well … I’d only be looking for another £40-£50million.” he said.
Keane delivered the figure with an impish grin and, though the audience’s reaction was one of laughing disbelief, he was deadly serious.
“I don’t know what everyone is laughing about. That is the least we need if we want to compete and go to the next level. For us to compete, I would be looking at buying five or six players for that £40m or £50m. I spent about £35-£40 last year but that was on about 14 of 15 players.”
ASKED whether such funds would be forthcoming, Keane couldn’t help but let slip another wry smile before adding “we’ll wait and see” but, given his plans, it is hardly surprising that Sunderland are keen to tie him to a new contract now.
The man himself has no interest in signing anything until the summer. A contract, he says, isn’t required for him to know he is happy doing a job at a club which, in many respects, has taken him aback.
“The size of the club has surprised me. We had 45,000 last weekend and that’s a struggling team. Imagine if we were doing well, we’d have 49,000 every week. That’s the challenge we face.”
The signs are positive for the weeks ahead and room an Irish perspective, things are looking quite peachy too. Andy Reid, Daryl Murphy and Roy O’Donovan all came in for rich praise from their boss yesterday, the former in particular after his crucial goal against West Ham at the weekend.
Even Liam Miller and Ian Harte, transfer listed in January, were spared an encouraging word but it is Keane’s statements on the wider world of football that continue to garner most of the column inches.
He wrapped up yesterday’s briefing with more thoughts on the lack of respect he believes managers are displaying towards referees, but not before a reminder of his own infamous vein-popping rant at Andy D’Urso back in January 2000.
“I said at the same press conference that people will probably find it difficult to listen to me,” he admitted. “I made loads of mistakes as a player but that doesn’t mean I can’t make a comment as a manager now. I was 100% out of order. I was told that the next day and I knew I was, although I still think that vein was superimposed on my head.”
With that, the audience cracked up one last time. Clearly a man of many talents.
“Has he resigned? Good luck to him. I hope he enjoys his
retirement. All good things come to an end.”
“I haven’t got a clue what he is going to add. I haven’t got a clue.”
“His CV is there for everyone to see. I think international management suits an older manager. Please God, he will do well. He has got a great track record and hopefully that will continue but only time will tell.”
“They haven’t any. Tell me one. Robbie (Keane) is a very, very talented player. I think world class players are lads who do it on the biggest stage and, unfortunately for Robbie, Tottenham haven’t been on the biggest stage, which is Champions League football.”
You have to remember Duffer is coming back from a long-term injury but him and Robbie (Keane) are probably our two most naturally talented players and if anyone can play at (Champions League) level on a regular basis it is them two.
“The lads from the League of Ireland should always believe that they will be spotted.”
“All that stuff can wait until the summer. I have got plenty of money. I don’t need to be signing a contract. I have another year left. What do contracts mean anyway? If I lose the next five or six games I will probably be sacked anyway.”
“Very good. I think they’ll beat Barcelona in the semi-finals. I think Chelsea will get through. I’d say a Chelsea v United final which would be good.”