“If you’d asked me if I was playing with anybody, whether I was at Forest, Rockmount, Cobh Ramblers, and they were constantly talking - if it was true - they wanted to leave and they had a poor attitude to training, then I would kick them in training, yes,” said Keane yesterday, before dryly adding,”but I have kind of done that with most players, I suppose, even lads who didn’t want to leave.”
That was the studs up angle again spotlighted by the TV cameras at the press conference room at Ireland’s training centre in Versailles but, later, in the company of a handful of print journalists, Keane adopted a more understanding tone when asked about Hazard’s precipitous decline in form at Stamford Bridge over the course of much of the season just ended.
“It can happen,” said the Assistant Manager. “You’ve got to be careful because I don’t know what’s going on at club level with the guy but it does happen, players have dips in form. But he’s still an absolutely dangerous player and he showed a bit of better form before the end of the season for Chelsea.
“We’ll have to keep an eye on him. If he’s getting it off their goalkeeper then we’re probably not too worried. But if Hazard’s getting it 30/40 yards from goal…......
“The Italians defended pretty well the other day and we’ll have to defend as well. He’s a quality player, whatever the criticism the guy’s had. He’d have a chance of getting in our team. He’s a talented boy.”
Was Ireland’s shackling of Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the Stade de France a useful reference point for dealing with Hazard in Bordeaux tomorrow?
“No, he’s a different type of player. I think Hazard is probably more capable of going by people easily, particularly in wide positions, coming in off the wing. He’s a different animal. Could we man-mark him? I think those days are over. People don’t even seem to man-mark Ronaldo.
“Like I said, if Hazard’s going back and getting it off his goalkeeper, you maybe relax a little bit. But like any good player with football intelligence, if you see Hazard getting the ball 30/40 yards from your goal then you’d better get to him.”
It always seems to be the case when Ireland go into a big game, we in the media tend to devote a lot of column inches to worrying about some superstar or other in the opposition ranks. But, after the 1-1 draw with Sweden, it was a refreshing change to have other European correspondents coming to us out here, all keen to know more about Ireland’s own little wizard, Wes Hoolahan.
Would Keane agree this was the belated arrival on the world stage of a class Irish act? “If you look at Wes’s career, and I wouldn’t say he’s a late developer as such, he hasn’t played that many games at the top level, but he’s always been talented.”
When did you first become aware of him?
“His goal the other day (laughter). No, probably the last few years at Norwich when he had a bit of success and Paul Lambert was his manager. They had a couple of promotions on the spin. His name might have been mentioned to me before then but it was really under Paul at Norwich (that he grew). He’s 34 and it’s brilliant he’s coming into a tournament and having a big impact.”
And, yet, even at club level, his managers have not always seemed to regard him as an automatic starter, perhaps concerned about his physical input or stamina levels?
“That might always be something with Wes. When you’re looking at teams during the season, Wes wasn’t always in the starting XI at Norwich and managers know what players they want for a system. They might have some big strong boys, and set-pieces come into it too. But I don’t think there’s an issue with a player like Wes over whether he’s doing enough when he’s on the ball. You can talk all day about what he does off the ball.
“If Wes is giving you that bit of trickery, a bit of composure and obviously his goal was fantastic then, trust me, you don’t talk about the other stuff.”
In terms of Ireland’s overall energy levels, Keane insists that far from there being signs of battle fatigue in the ranks following the game against Sweden, he expects the experience of that group opener to stand to the players against Belgium.
“There were a lot of things going into the (Sweden) game - massive build up, you could say six months of build up, and lads who haven’t played for a while. It’s the same for all the countries, don’t get me wrong, but particularly for us. We’d a lot of lads who hadn’t played for a long time and we were coming off the back of a few injuries. So I think the game will do us the world of good. Ask any player: even at club level if they haven’t played for five, six weeks, it’s nice to get that proper, competitive match under your belt. And I think we’ll be better for it.”
Keane accepts the Belgians will be feeling under pressure to bounce back after losing to Italy.
“What we’ve said before: if you don’t get anything from your first match, the pressure follows on. But we can’t be worrying about the Belgian camp. We’ve got to look after ourselves.
“Try and get the lads recovered enough. Obviously there will be a change because of Jon Walters is injured. So we’ve enough on our plate without worrying about what Belgium are doing or getting bogged down about how the Italians played.”
But does he consider it a positive that, whatever happens in Bordeaux tomorrow, the enlarged format of Euro 2016 means that, in contrast to four years ago in Poland, Ireland’s final group game against Italy won’t be a dead rubber.
“Possibly so, but even if it wasn’t the case we’d like to think we’d be in there fighting anyway. You’re not looking for an easy way out, but the way it’s panned out, it’s great to think you’ve got a chance, that you’re in there fighting. It’s not writing the games off. I think that’s great for the supporters as well and the media and the TV.”
But he’s quick to add this doesn’t detract from the importance of trying to get a result against Belgium. “No, it’s a league table and you want to get your points on board,” he said, adding, “and there won’t be any fear factor.
“It’s our job to make sure there’s not.”