Roy Keane lit a big fire under some of the Irish players who underperformed in the game against Belarus in Cork last Tuesday and — though he later attempted to soften the blow by claiming some of his comments were “tongue in cheek” – his hard words didn’t go down well with everyone.
Former international Kevin Kilbane was quick out of the blocks to charge that Keane was “bang out of order,” that it wasn’t his place as assistant manager to voice such criticism in public and that all his intervention was likely to do was “alienate” him from the players.
But one of the players who was on the pitch that night – though he was spared being targeted in Keane’s criticism – has defended the remarks.
“I thought his comments were spot on,” says James McClean.
“Not everyone can always have a good game but the bare minimum is that a player should put 100 percent into his performance.
“You should come off the pitch, good game or bad game, saying, ‘I gave everything’.
“I can only speak for myself: I want to do everything I can to play as much as possible and not just be happy to be here.
“So I thought he was bang on with his comments.”
Of course, it’s no surprise McClean was one of those spared the assistant manager’s wrath. At Turner’s Cross, as is invariably the case when he takes to the pitch, he hit the ground running and shirked nothing in an aggressive, all-action shift. Ask the Derryman if he’s always been like that and his answer could best be summarised as follows: you can take the boy out of the Creggan but not the Creggan out of the boy.
“I think it’s got a lot to do with where I grew up, where I was raised,” he reflects.
“Like many places, we had to fight for everything but for our identity more than anything. So it comes naturally. We have that fighting mentality, we give everything.
“Not everybody’s raised the same. Everybody’s got different backgrounds, different cultures, different ways they were raised.
“It’s just the Creggan mentality where I’m from. We had to fight for everything, like our identity, which is something we fight for every day.
“I was fan growing up as well so just sitting in front of the TV watching (Ireland) games when you were a young boy and things weren’t going well, you’d be thinking ‘if I could do this or I could do that’.
“Now I am in a position where luckily enough maybe I can do something about it. So I just try and give it my all.”
But has he had to learn to curb his no-holds-barred approach for fear of incurring cards?
“No. Look, I think the way the game is now, you can’t win either way. If you’re pulling out of tackles then it’s ‘he’s not pulling his weight’, and then when you do go in hard, it’s ‘he’s a liability’.
“I think the managers understand aggression is a big part of my game.”
Recently, life has been just as full-on off the pitch for James McClean who married his girlfriend Erin in the narrow window between the end of the club season at West Brom and the start of pre-Euro preparations with Ireland. A hectic schedule?
“It was! Games finished on the 15th, I got married 20th and had to fit a stag in there somewhere in between (laughs).
“I got back a day and half before the wedding so, as you can imagine, that didn’t go down very well with the wife!
The honeymoon, naturally, has also had to be put on hold.
“Hopefully as far on as possible because we want to be in the tournament as long as we can be,” he says.
And now, with departure for France only two days away, McClean is hoping he can play a part in reviving some of the glorious memories of his youth in Derry.
“I remember getting up early in the morning to watch the Cameroon game (at the 2002 World Cup). And we got the day off school to watch the Saudi Arabia game. I was buzzing with that. If we can recreate those memories in the weeks coming up it would be special.”
Meanwhile, the Irish players will resume training at Abbotstown today, with injury concerns Jon Walters and Robbie Keane hoping to take part.
While Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane were in Stockholm last night to watch Group E opponents Sweden play Wales, the FAI declined to comment on reports yesterday that the manager had made an offensive remark during an on-stage interview he and Keane did with Today FM’s Matt Cooper in the Cork Opera House last Wednesday.
O’Neill has previously landed himself in hot water for a sexist joke about players’ wives and girlfriends and, on this occasion, his efforts at humour resulted in an even more crass moment when, on foot of seeking to clarify that it was not just him and Keane who had travelled to the States for this year’s Superbowl - they had, he said, been accompanied by other members of the Irish coaching staff as a reward for Euro qualification - he apparently added that he didn’t want people to get the impression that he and his assistant manager were “queer”.
Gay and lesbian rights activist Keiran Rose described the use of the word by O’Neill as “deeply regrettable.”
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