It’s probably inevitable that, going into these end-of-season friendlies against France and the USA, much of the media and public focus is on the new and more inexperienced players in a transitional Irish squad.
But Roy Keane was at pains yesterday to stress the weight of responsibility which falls on the more established figures, some of whom he clearly feels did not measure up to those demands in the 1-0 defeat in Antalya in March. “After the Turkey game, it’s not the new faces but the lads who’ve been around for a while — you want more from them because they are setting the tone,” said Keane.
“Lads who are new, you’ve got to give them a bit of a break. It took me 20 to 25 games to find my feet at international football. We’re talking about young lads going to Turkey from the Championship. That’s where the senior players set the tone, whether it’s in training or how they play in the games. After the Turkey game, while you’re disappointed at the loss, I was more disappointed with the senior players rather than the new lads who were finding their feet. You need a helping hand along the way.”
One new face who seemed to have no trouble finding his feet on his debut in Turkey was Declan Rice but Keane said he is not yet ready to make a call on whether the West Ham man’s best position for Ireland is in defence or midfield.
“I don’t know, you’d like players to be able to play in one or two positions,” he said. “Then again you don’t want to be a jack of all trades, you want to be a master of something. We’ve seen him playing for the under-21s in the middle of the park.
The assistant manager had positive words to say about the League of Ireland duo in Martin O’Neill’s latest squad. As manager at Ipswich when their goalkeeper Shane Supple, now at Bohemians, announced that he was packing in football, Keane said he admired the player’s determination to make such a bold decision and then withdraw from football for six years.
“We gave him different options, time off, et cetera,” recalled Keane. “He’d played a few games for me in the League Cup. But he’d obviously been thinking about it a long time and you have to admire people like that, just to walk away from the game like that. But he was determined and it’s come full circle for him now, I suppose, back with the Irish squad. It’s great, a really good story from his point of view.”
As for Graham Burke, while Keane conceded that making an impact in the Stade de France next Monday would represent “a huge challenge” for the Shamrock Rovers sensation, he liked what he saw of the Dubliner in the Scott Brown testimonial game.
“We all still live in the real world, it would be difficult, but he’s in the squad on merit, we like what we see about him,” he said.
“When he came on the other day… a good player is a good player. You know he’s playing. You didn’t come off the pitch and go ‘oh, what did he do?’ You remember he had three attempts on goal, one of them a header, but on target, and that was more than some other players.
“If he’s doing well at the level he’s playing at, you have to give credit. There is no point going, ‘well, it’s League of Ireland’. He’s playing at a level at the moment and he’s doing well at it. It would be different sitting here and going, ‘in the last three months he’s not really kicked a ball’ because that would be a big ask.”
Keane said he has been especially impressed with the physical condition of both Supple and Burke.
“Credit to the players because you have to plug in to all that and credit to their clubs. I know sports science has changed in the League of Ireland. Yeah. It’s good. They are giving themselves more of a chance when they meet up with the squad. I think they’ll be up to speed pretty quickly. That’s in training. Obviously going into a game is a different animal.”
As things stand, Burke is listed as one of just three forwards in the Irish squad, following the news that Sean Maguire will be out for three or four weeks with a hamstring injury. Scott Hogan could still be added to the panel, depending on what transpires in Aston Villa’s Championship play-off final against Fulham tomorrow.
“Yeah, but how many strikers do you need for France,” asked Keane rhetorically. “We have Jon (Walters), we have Shane Long, and James McClean has played up the middle. We are not going to be playing with five up front.”
As for the star-studded opposition, Keane said while he rates Paul Pogba as “a good player”, he suspects the player himself might feel he could have done better at Manchester United this season. But that, suggested Keane, might not just be Pogba’s fault.
His opinion on who will win the Champions League tomorrow night?
“I think Real will win it. I wouldn’t begrudge Liverpool, I think Liverpool are playing some good stuff. But in my opinion I would probably just about edge it because of Ronaldo.”
Finally, Keane was asked if he had a message for his former manager, Alex Ferguson
“What do you think it would be?” he replied. “Get well soon, of course.”
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