Roy Keane at Cobh Ramblers: ‘Kamikaze Man to footballer’

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In November 1989, a young Roy Keane was handed his League of Ireland competitive debut sparking the career of one of Ireland’s greatest, and divisive, football figures. With two home-based players recently included in the international squad, Cian Manning looks back to where it all began for the Republic assistant boss.

Roy Maurice Keane, born in Cork on 10th August 1971, was a sporting prodigy made in Ballinderry Park in Mayfield. A spell spent boxing was overtaken by his burgeoning soccer ability with local junior club, Rockmount AFC. His footballing fanatism was behind clubs Glasgow Celtic and Tottenham Hotspur with players such as Glenn Hoddle, Ireland’s Liam Brady and later Bryan Robson of Manchester United being admired by the young Keane. However, no offers came from English clubs during his eleven years at Rockmount Park.

In 1989, the FAI with assistance from the Irish government created a FAS (Irish Training and Employment Authority, the state agency responsible for assisting job seekers) course for young players with League of Ireland clubs to avail of, one from each of the twenty-four clubs competing in the Premier and First Division. The course would take place in Palmerstown and would see players train from ten to twelve every morning and from two till four in the afternoon. Over the course of the day, there would be warm-ups, stretches, drills for ball control with three on three and five-a-side games. In essence, it allowed the crop of young League of Ireland players to be professionals in a semi-professional league. After a week’s training in Dublin, players would line out for their respective clubs at the weekend.

Initially, approached by Cork City Keane signed up with the club, with the Turner’s Cross sending the Mayfield man’s friend Len Downey to undertake the course in Dublin. However, Keane’s registration form was purported to have not been sent to the FAI. An article in the Irish Press in 1991 outlines: ‘…two more youngsters were signing at the weekend and it seemed more economical to put all three forms in one envelope. So, for a 28p stamp, Cork lost a potential star.’

The county of Cork’s other League of Ireland team was Cobh Ramblers. Ramblers youth team coach (and carpenter by trade) Eddie O’Rourke contacted Keane over his availability to play for the side. In return for Keane’s services, he would not only be sent on the FAS course but would receive a base wage of £30 plus travel expenses each week. If he was to make the Ramblers first team this would increase to £40 with a bonus of £10 for a win and £5 for a draw. Keane became a starter for the side just two weeks after joining the club. His first start came against Kilkenny City in the Opel League Cup on the 13th August 1989, a two-nil victory for the Buckley Park team.

Cobh’s first team manager Liam McMahon gave Keane his League of Ireland First Division debut on the 5th November 1989 in a 2-1 victory over Bray Wanderers. Keane came on as a replacement for Ramblers winger, Fergus McDaid. Yet, McMahon wasn’t so sure about the abilities of the young man. In an article in the Sunday Independent in 1998, McMahon states “It seems I’m the only idiot in Cobh who couldn’t spot the future potential…Everyone in Cobh knew he was a million-pound player, but I, honest to God didn’t spot it.”

Such belief and support in Keane’s abilities was never lacking from his mother Marie. In an interview with the Irish Press, she “…always knew he would make it, he’s a great player. He’s very dedicated and he’s only happy when playing a game or training. He’s not one for being out and about and now it’s paid off,” she said upon his early years at Nottingham Forest.

In his first autobiography in 2002 with Eamon Dunphy, Keane describes the highlight of the course was competing against a number of underage Ireland teams;

“These were torrid affairs: we FAS lads had a point to prove”

Subsequently, Keane was included in the Irish Youth squad which reached the finals of the European Championship in 1990. The tournament saw the introduction of Portugal’s golden generation of players such as Luis Figo and Rui Costa. The Portuguese finished runners-up to the Soviet Union, while the Republic of Ireland achieved fifth spot.

The benefit of a seventeen-year-old competing in the League of Ireland’s second division and in the National Under-18 Cup was described by Keane as a ‘Kamikaze Man transformed into a footballer who understood the ebb and flow of the contest.’ After six months of gruelling training in Dublin, commuting from the capital to St. Colman’s Park, Cobh at the weekend, Keane developed into one of the best players on the FAS course. The experience led him to recognise that to “succeed you needed strength of body, and strength of mind” and that skill alone was not enough. Yet his toughness was never in doubt. Upon his arrival at Cobh, McMahon had been told that Keane had his nose broken in an off the ball incident in a game.

Keane came on the radar of Nottingham Forest after an FAI Youth Cup match with Belvedere. A 1-1 draw in Cobh meant a subsequent replay at Fairview Park in Dublin. A comedy of errors saw the team bus late to pick up the players for the game and, delayed by traffic, they were left with just enough time to get on to the pitch only a matter of minutes before kick-off. Perhaps this is where Keane’s mantra of ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ was born. A 4-0 defeat certainly copper-fastened this belief.

A fee around £20,000 pounds was negotiated between the clubs. The Cork side had never previously entered into talks with an English side over a player. To counter their negotiation inexperience, former Chelsea manager, John Hollins, was enlisted to take part in the talks. After just 14 months and 70 games with Cobh Ramblers, Keane became one of the youngest professional footballers in the English First Division. Other stipulations that would raise the initial transfer fee included £10,000 after ten games in the starting line-up, another £10,000 when twenty games were reached and £7,000 upon his fifth cap for the Republic of Ireland team. A tidy profit for providing Keane with the FAS course.

His Forest debut came at Anfield after a tour with the club’s third team. Brian Clough believed the remarkable progression of Keane had “been a fairy tale for us [Forest]. Even Enid Blyton couldn’t have written a better script.” Keane hadn’t even met the first team players prior to the game as they had separate dressing rooms at the club. His performance in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley against West Ham United not only saw him receive the Man of the Match award but also passage to the final. Sadly, it was a heart-breaking defeat to the club he supported as a boy, Tottenham Hotspur.

In three seasons in Nottingham, Keane made 154 appearances winning a Full Members Cup in 1992. Upon the relegation of Clough’s team in 1993, he agreed a 4-million-pound move to Blackburn Rovers under Kenny Daglish. Strikingly similar to his first foray in the League of Ireland, Rovers did not complete the paperwork necessary for the transfer to go through. This would lead to Alex Ferguson contacting Keane. Sevem Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups and one Champions League later, the rest, as they say, is history.

Image: Billy Galligan/amanwithhiscamera.com

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