Another scorching day in Cork and, after watching training at Ireland’s Fota Island Resort base, a smiling Roy Keane presents a suitably sunny demeanour when he comes in to talk.
Sunny but up for serious talk too, as befitting the morning after a night before which had seen Belarus spoil the farewell party at Turner’s Cross with a number of distinctly underwhelming performance by players in the home side. Then after the final whistle, a prime example of what Keane calls “the cruelty of sport” as Martin O’Neill had to break the news to four players present that they wouldn’t be going to France.
“It’s about peaking at the right time now,” believes Keane.
“It would probably have been no good winning 4-0 the other night, everyone thinking we’re a decent team and going over there and coming unstuck. It was a good reality check for everyone: that’s what football does to you.
“So hopefully we’ll be peaking in a week or two. We’ll be going over there next Wednesday and I think that’s when the buzz will kick in, when you get to the hotel and your training camp, and the lads know this is the squad, barring any injuries, and you’re ready to go.”
Keane says he enjoyed the process of mulling over candidates for inclusion in the 23 with the rest of the Irish coaching staff.
“Just the general chit-chat about who’s done what, who’s brought what to the party, “ he explains. “People ask me what it’s like to be a coach — I’ve never actually experienced that before. That was good. Really enjoyed that.
“But telling good lads they’ve not made it — obviously the manager spoke to them — was very difficult. Particularly when they were leaving the hotel that night. It’s not as if they were going to hang around for a few days and you’re going to have another meal together, or whatever it might be. But it’s kind of like that in sport, isn’t it? It’s cruel, it really is cruel.
“But it was up to these players to make sure they were in the 23, to get games, play regularly and play well. And, again, the lads who’ve missed out — it’s not that they were bad lads or bad players — they just lacked that bit of first team action over the last, not just month or two, but probably year or two.”
Still, he understands that it must have been a particularly painful blow for David Forde to ship, since the formerly first-choice goalkeeper only learned his fate after having been given the apparent boost of a call to action in Turner’s Cross.
“Some of the decisions weren’t finalised until after the game,” Keane revealed. “So there was that one. And I think the manager has been good with lots of the players over the years. Not throwing out caps willy-nilly but looking after certain players.
“I think (Martin) was just trying to be fair with everyone, to give a balance I suppose to the hurt they were going to suffer afterwards.
“I think Fordey’s earned that right to get another cap because he’s done really well at the start of the campaign. But then you talk about the cruelty of sport: (he went from) from being delighted he got on the pitch to being left out.”
But Keane also stresses that there may yet be a recall option for those who have been cut from the squad, something he said he made a point of mentioning to the departing players on Tuesday night. Asked if they were even advised to postpone any holiday plans, Keane replies: “I think the days where lads went off to Ayia Napa and got drunk for two weeks are gone. Lads look after themselves now. And hopefully these lads will be like that in case there is an emergency in the next two weeks.
“As much as you name the 23, if Robbie broke down in next few days, or someone else, you have that back-up, that safety net.”
Of course, another existing source of reassurance for an Irish team which, for so many years, relied all too heavily on record-breaker Keane for goals, has been the belated flowering of Shane Long as a top-notch striker.
”He seems to be peaking now,” the assistant manager agrees. “I think the goals he has got for Ireland in the last few years and in the last few months have no doubt given him that confidence boost. And he’s getting games under his belt at Southampton Aiya Napa going over his club career, he was not always a regular, even going back to his West Brom days.
“I’m sure if you spoke to Shane the first thing he would say is that he is feeling very, very confident. And most strikers I speak to say that confidence is a massive part of it. Even the other night when you saw him coming on, you feel pretty sure that had he started with that much confidence, we probably might have won the game. And with Robbie coming towards an end, Shane maybe sees it as: does he want to be the main man? The signs are that I think he can be.
“He can play in a couple of different roles. He can play in two up front; he can do a good job on his own. The modern game over the last five or six years has been obsessed with possession. With Shane and the way he plays, it seems to be coming back into it where teams are a bit more direct and stretching the opposition. Shane does that. If you are a centre-half, you’d think ‘oh, it’s okay’ when people play in front of you but now the game is being stretched. He’s in good form. Confidence is the word that I would use about Shane at the moment.
“And he’s probably playing for a new contract,” he adds with a grin.
In stark contrast, confidence must be a serious issue for Daryl Murphy who went yet another game on Tuesday night without troubling his blank international account.
“He could do with a goal,” Keane understates. “Even the chance he had in the second half, we were all hoping and praying that he knocks it in. But then we appreciate all the other stuff that Murph does. He has played a big part in the other games for us. His work rate, he tires people, he’s physically a handful.
“But, again, skipping to the chase, could he do with a goal? Absolutely. And there’s only one person who can do anything about that. Whatever encouragement we give him, he could with something going in off his backside, or whatever it might be.
“But then Murph has got to make something happen. He has got to knock people over, make something happen. Maybe he should speak to Aldo — he is a good striker to talk to.
“So we just hope and pray that Murph gets that opportunity to put it in the back of the net. He’s, I wouldn’t say the opposite — because that would be disrespectful — but every time Shane gets on the pitch he’s probably going on thinking ‘I fancy my chances’. We just need Murph to get in that mindset.
“And if Murph scores a winner in one of the group matches, I don’t think any of us would be too critical of the previous chances that he missed. That’s the life of a striker. Whatever about footballers generally having a rollercoaster life, it’s even more so for strikers. Their highs must be massive and their lows, when they don’t score, must be really low.”
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