He’s back. After a decade of railing against a host of Irish football’s inadequacies; the blazers, the players, even the fans; Roy Keane has jumped the fence, baby! Diarmuid O hAinle, author of It Started with a Handshake, reacts to the Corkman’s return and says Keane owes us one.
So the unthinkable has happened. Antagonistic jokes, tongue-in-cheek musings which progressed to dubious rumours before startlingly reliable rumours took their place and now it has been confirmed: he’s back. Under Martin O’Neill – oh, did we mention the new Ireland Manager is Martin O’Neill? – Roy Keane has returned to the FAI fold as the national team’s Assistant Manager.
Roy Keane, of course, owes Ireland one. Not for Saipan specifically – the complexities, comedy of errors, general ineptitudes and fatal conspiracy can take collective responsibility for that – but for the “Genesis report”. In case you’ve forgotten, are somehow uninitiated or have otherwise blanked the whole sorry affair from your memory, after the 2002 World Cup, the FAI employed the services of a Glasgow-based consultancy firm – called “Genesis” – to pick apart the bones of, what seemed at the time to be, a calamitous campaign.
Genesis found, and if I over-simplify please accept my apologies, that the leadership of the FAI was lacking in several areas, particularly in management of discipline and logistics (the training kit really should have been there two weeks ago) and “sweeping change” was recommended. With Mick McCarthy gone after a poor start to Euro 2004 qualifying, Chief Executive Brendon Menton followed him out of the door and a new era was upon us.
Roy Keane was interviewed by Genesis as they compiled their report. No doubt he would have had plenty to say. He was used to Manchester United – their structure, their logistical expertise, their resources. Ireland’s approach didn’t cut it.
Under Jack Charlton and Mick McCarthy, Ireland qualified for Euro ’88, Italia ’90, USA ’94 and Japan & South Korea in 2002. With the exception of Euro ’88, the Irish made it out of the initial group stage in each tournament, in Italy they reached the quarter-finals, in 2002 they departed with an unbeaten record. Yet Roy Keane railed – in his autobiography, in the press, in television interviews and, we assume, to Genesis – about the methodology used by the managers in that period. Genesis apparently agreed.
“And so things changed. Most pertinently, the results changed. One tournament qualified for in ten years – Euro 2012 – with three group stage losses there.”
The problem may be pragmatism. When we take a look at our own organisation, the temptation will always be to compare it with that of successful opponents – at how they prepare and how they are structured. That comparison can highlight our own failings, and failings which belie achievements, almost to a point where whatever delivered results beforehand is disregarded or neglected. The worry is, and history appears to bear this out, Irish football threw the baby out with the bathwater.
Of course players partaking in Harry Ramsden’s Challenge so close to a vital game wasn’t intelligent, and cheese sandwiches are not the ideal pre-match meal, but they occurred in the midst of a confident and easy-going culture, and a culture which delivered great results. As the organisational proficiency of supposedly more efficient regimes was seemingly studied and replicated, the mojo that had taken Ireland to such great heights was discarded. With a focus on the structure, the conclusion may have been that Ireland had lucked out when they really had no right to qualify for tournaments and progress once there.
Along came pragmatism. Along, eventually, came Trapattoni. The FAI doesn’t have the money to create systems to produce world-beating superstars, so we’ll play to our defensive strengths. Ireland is a relatively small country – it can beat those ranked lower, but not those above. Qualifying for Poland and Ukraine was a great achievement, nearly qualifying for South Africa is something to be proud of.
Ironically, Roy Keane, with Martin O’Neill, may indeed be just the man to restore the values of yore. When both were announced as contenders we assumed a mutual exclusivity, with O’Neill to win out, and I conceded that the teasing prediction included in the epilogue of my book may continue to seem fantastical. Instead, Ireland have a double-act, and one of some esteem.
Martin O’Neill does not play tiki-taka football but ask a Celtic fan whether they enjoyed his time at Parkhead – the overall matchday experience, the entertainment value – and they will be likely to answer quickly in the affirmative. He likes a big striker, he likes the ball to get up to strikers quickly, he likes long passes to be played down channels, but, most excitingly, he likes to attack. At Celtic, his team – and having Henrik Larsson certainly helps – scared the opposition, and that includes some of Europe’s best sides. So the style of football gives us hope – if we lose, we’ll lose whilst trying to win. As Póg Mo Goal put it recently on the YBIG Football Show, like Big Jack before him, O’Neill is implored to “give it a lash”.
Keane will help to instill the belief. In favour of the Genesis report, he would have hoped for progress, for Ireland’s results to improve as the side’s self-belief and seemingly natural sporting prowess was augmented by the newly improved organisational aptitude. It hasn’t worked out that way but Keane will be eager to undo the wrongs of the last decade. As a player he had no time for reputations or for odds. He would win against the odds and his name on a teamsheet would shorten them.
Ireland are a country that, as Genesis would have probably – albeit indirectly – set out, has no right to qualify for tournaments, certainly not progress from groups, certainly not beat the best the world has to offer. Ireland doesn’t have an enormous supporter base, or the financial structure to compete with a Spain or a Brazil or a Germany. But should Celtic have been beating the best of Europe under O’Neill? Narrowly being beaten by Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the Uefa Cup final, the year before the Portuguese side became champions of Europe? Should Manchester United, on the brink after a home draw with Juventus and two goals down in Turin, have made the European Cup final after being spurred on by Roy Keane? Should Nottingham Forest, a humble club from the English midlands have become champions of England, then successive European Cup winners?
As two disciples of Forest mastermind, Brian Clough, if anyone can give it a lash for Ireland, it will be Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane.
Diarmuid O hAinle is the author of ‘It Started with a Handshake’ – An alternative look at Ireland’s 2002 World Cup campaign. Mick McCarthy, Roy Keane, Saipan and what might have been.
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