But he argued that poor retention of the football is an Irish problem which predates the current era by at least three decades.
His comments came as he addressed the topical issue of what constitutes Irish football’s DNA, the debate ranging from former international Richard Dunne’s observation that the Belgrade result typified “the Irish way” and that to try and play a more expansive game might mean sacrificing qualification for a tournament or two, to Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny passionately disassociating himself from what he has termed “the narrative that the direct style suits our psyche, our level of skill, or, rather, our supposed lack of it”.
“You want both,” said Keane yesterday when asked about the demands for a performance as well as a result.
“You want a good performance and obviously the right result from a selfish point of view. It was a difficult night for us, but I also understand the criticism. People obviously want us to retain the ball better. But I would like to think Irish teams could have been retaining the ball better for the last 30 years, not just the last three months. It is a big problem in the game for us.
“You can talk about the things we don’t do well but when you think about the things we do well — the honesty of the players, the desire, bits of quality, two goals away from home — whatever way you look at it, that is never easy. Against Serbia, who are no mugs, that was good. If we went away to a lesser team and got battered, then that would be different.
“Look, the criticism you take with a pinch of salt just as you take the plaudits with a pinch of salt because it is a game of opinions. If people want to say we could have done better in possession then I probably wouldn’t disagree with them.”
There’s a widely held view that it was Jack Charlton, with the introduction of his rigid gameplan for taking on the world when he became Ireland manager in the late ’80s, who did most to change the senior team’s approach. Keane’s not so sure.
“I don’t know about Jack changing it. I don’t really know how Ireland played before that. I don’t think it’s one person’s fault. Sometimes it’s about the quality of the players, maybe. Having said that, I played with some really good players for Ireland and I don’t remember us ever keeping the ball that great.
“I could be wrong, and someone might remind me, but I don’t ever remember having 60% or 70% possession away from home and absolutely hammering a team. From my experience with Jack and Mick (McCarthy) and Brian Kerr, I don’t think we kept the ball really well.”
Asked if the Irish teams he played in were encouraged to get the ball down and pass it, Keane replied: “Not by Jack and Mick, no, I don’t think so. But, to be fair, we were getting results so it was a case of ‘we’ll worry about that later on’.
“And I think that’s a fair assessment. If you look back over the years and you’re talking about the time with Jack or Mick, people still have the good memories of qualifying for tournaments.
“I don’t get pulled up in the street by people saying: ‘You didn’t keep the ball well enough against Holland.’
“Ultimately everyone still loves watching Barcelona and Brazil and we have this dream that we could all do that. It would be great if we could just keep the ball and everyone was comfortable in possession and wear teams down and pick holes in them and get balls down the sides of people and have that bit of magic.
“But, as I said, as long as I’ve been with Ireland — and it’s not just the senior teams, I’m going back to when I was involved in the underage teams — we have always found it difficult to look after the ball.
“Sometimes it’s a lack of quality or when you do have the quality — whether you have the Ronnie Whelans, the Bradys, the Townsends, and the McGraths — they’re playing under managers like Jack who said, ‘Listen, we have to play a certain way to get results.’ And that has to be respected as well. Of course it does. Because Irish fans want to see winning teams as well.”
That said, Keane suggested the current side’s possession of the ball is something that Martin O’Neill and himself would like to see improve. “We hope so, yeah. We’re working with the players. It also depends on what they do at club level. You’ll get decent possession at Bournemouth and Derby. But we’re also there to win football matches. It’s a balancing act. That’s the key word. Can we keep the ball? I don’t think our style will ever be 60 passes between our two centre-halves. We also have to get the ball forward, get balls it in the box and score goals.”
Meanwhile, Keane is happy to acknowledge that Kenny’s Dundalk are a side whose style of play successfully marries grit and guile, the physical and the technical.
“Yes, they would be a good example. Dundalk are enjoyable to watch, they do it well. I take my hat off to them. Very, very good. The manager has done well. Hopefully I’ll get to their next European game. They are getting all the plaudits, and well deserved. They’ve been fantastic.”