This originally appeared in 8by8 in December 2013
At first, at least, Roy Keane plays up to so many perceptions.
As he strides into the function room of the Grand Hotel in Malahide for a first press conference in his new role, the just-appointed Irish assistant manager rolls his eyes at all the cameras flashing.
“I wouldn’t be a big lover of the circus,” Keane later says. Over the next 45 minutes, he certainly illustrates that, castigating one journalist for a “stupid question” and initially wearing what can only be described as a severe scowl.
Many other opening enquiries are met with furrowed brow and a look from almost out the side of his eyes. Keane undeniably retains that capacity to reduce the most assertive people to stutters and stumbles over words. That, of course, is down to his own furnace-hot assurance. He isn’t actually the tallest, but has that unmistakeable presence associated with so many such personalities, and is as lean and fit-looking as in his peak playing days. The grey beard which seemed to reflect some of his grizzlier comments as a TV pundit was gone.
By the end in Malahide, too, Keane is laughing loudly and has even referenced his reputation as a “trouble-maker” and “monster” as he sits back in his chair. The mood has changed. He’s also rather frankly fronting up about some of his flaws as a manager. The conversation, which is what his press call evolves into as it comes to the Sunday journalists, is genuinely engaging and interesting – and not because of the typical expectation that Keane will excoriate anyone or anything he doesn’t agree with.
If the former Manchester United midfielder undeniably remains intense, this is very far from the caricature that is so often portrayed.
That is the thing with Keane. For all the perceptions, his personality is far too layered to fit any stereotype. He isn’t a thug, he isn’t an oracle, but he is enthralling. Just when you think you know him, he will surprise you.
The latest swerve is the very decision to accept the job as assistant manager to Martin O’Neill, not least because it meant working for a federation he has deeply criticised in the past, let alone the fact that such a force of personality will be someone’s number two.
Of course, part of the reason he’s here, and part of the reason it looks set to be one of the more intriguing international football storylines over the next two years, is because it recently seemed that Keane didn’t quite know where he was in his career himself.
Most pointedly, it had been almost three years since he was employed as a manager, having been sacked by Ipswich Town in January 2011.
With the only job offers apparently coming from far afield, the famously devoted family man filled his time while working as a pundit and going to Wigan Athletic near his home. He also attracted much attention in Ireland and the UK for bringing ITV presenter Adrian Chiles to watch a Dublin match in the Irish national sport of hurling during the summer. It had been thought the broadcaster would always be much too jokey for a man as supposedly severe as Keane, but all who know the Irishman remark on his sense of humour. As one journalist who got on well with him chatted idly while waiting for an elevator after an interview, Keanewent to press the button. A smile spread across his face. “Straight to hell, is it?”
It did feel as if Keane himself had been in some kind of purgatory over the past two years. Hurling is not the only other sport he follows, and he has repeatedly spoken of his fascination with what makes other professionals tick, particularly those from rugby and boxing. Keane is also a voracious reader.
The difference, however, is that it used to be Keane providing the copy. It all seemed so unclear what he was going to do next.
Two things were always certain. Keane is one of Ireland’s greatest ever players, and the country’s most-discussed and fascinating sporting figure, with the reasons for both overlapping.
If the Corkman was not born with anything like the natural ability of Liam Brady or John Giles, his sheer mentality absolutely maximised the qualities he had to forge a career superior to any of them.
No other Irish sportsman has won so many trophies, and been so central to all of them. That influence is the key.
Beyond the truly transcendent talents fully applying their ability on the highest stages, such as Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup or Leo Messi in the last few seasons of the Champions, it’s genuinely difficult to think of many other players who have so completely imposed their will on individual games in the manner that Keane frequently did. He has a catalogue of such performances.
While the 3-2 win over Juventus in the 1998-99 Champions League semi-final remains the most famous, it is likely trumped by his displays against the Netherlands and Portugal in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, not least because it involved lifting a mid-tier country to a much higher level.
Although Ireland were placed in a group featuring two teams that had just reached the last four of a widely celebrated Euro 2000,Keane drove his side into the top two.
He explained the attitude that drove him at the time, and what he would now demand of the new Irish squad.
“On our day, I’d like to think we would be able to compete with all these countries, absolutely,” Keane said in that recent press conference in Dublin. “The teams when I played with Ireland, I never, ever remember once being in a dressing room with an Irish team and going out thinking we were going to lose.
“We played some big teams. Italy, Germany, the Dutch, the Portuguese. I don’t ever remember looking at players and having any sort of fear and going ‘I’d take a 2-0 defeat here today’. No, no. Let’s go for it.”
He did that. The 1-1 home draw with the Portugal in June 2001 summed up so much of his playing career at that point. With a star-studded attacking pulling the Irish defence all over the pitch, and the reigning world player of the year Luis Figo eventually piercing them with a goal, Keane illustrated he truly belonged in such company by consistently covering errors and then scoring Ireland’s only goal by essentially forcing the ball into the net. At the end of the year, undeniably influenced by Keane’s efforts in the 1-0 victory over the Netherlands, Louis van Gaal gave the Irish midfielder his only vote in that year’s Fifa award.
While club teammate David Beckham earned so much recognition at the time, it was often as if Keane was overlooked precisely because he eschewed the glamour and the “circus”.
The 2002 World Cup was supposed to be his statement tournament, when a 30-year-old in his absolute prime was set to properly announce it. It did end up defining him, but in a very different manner than anticipated.
On the eve of the tournament, Keane’s simmering acrimony with manager Mick McCarthy boiled over into a bitter dispute about what he perceived as Ireland’s poor preparations. The exact mentality that had driven the side to the World Cup in the first place now drove him home.
It remains one of the stand-out moments in Irish sporting history, and brought the country to a stand-still at the time, with the different positions even pointed as reflections of a change in Irish society. It was also to be echoed throughout his career, particularly when he eventually fell out with former mentor Alex Ferguson too.
‘Saipan’ – as the incident has been named after the Pacific island on which it took place – was inevitably mentioned in all the circus surrounding Keane’s appointment, with the coach even joking how O’Neill had questioned his conduct at the time in discussions about the role.
“Martin is entitled to be wrong,” he smiled.
Keane certainly insisted he was in the right in his autobiography, which was published just a few months after the incident. Given the amount of expectation and standards set out in the book, it was often seen as an ‘Art of War’ for managing.
One view put forward in the media at the time was that, while Keane had to make himself a great player, he was born a great manager. That initially seemed the case. His first job at Sunderland even reflected many of his most admirable traits: resilience, defiance and simply refusing to accept failure. The team became renowned for late goals, and it’s easy to forget now that his first two years represented unchecked progress, with Sunderland romping to promotion and then achieving survival in the Premier League.
It wasn’t long, however, until the other side of that will again had an effect. The all-consuming intensity became too much, exhausting both the team and his own powers of securing results. The subsequent 21 months at Ipswich Town were characterised by an apparent inability to deal with players and many of them bristling at some of his man-management.
Ferguson notoriously questioned his former captain’s managerial capabilities in his own recent autobiography.
“As his career in coaching developed, it became apparent that he needed to spend money to achieve results. He was always looking to buy players. I didn’t feel Roy had the patience to build a team.”
Keane refused to discuss Ferguson in Dublin – other than to briefly reference eventually tackling “lies” – but did acknowledge his shortcomings as a manager.
“Where do you want to start?” he said of lessons he’d learnt. “We could be here all day. Mistakes?
“What I would say with anybody is I have made mistakes and I would doubt my recruitment.”
He also admits that lack of patience.
“There are areas I need to look at, particularly now I’m the assistant, when to step back and hopefully I’ll get that right as well.
“There’s a way of getting that message across, how you put the demands on them, you have to treat people with respect and, as I said, hopefully the players from the last days will appreciate, as I said, knowing I need to step back and let Martin run the show. I’m just here to help.
“Hopefully, the players are in for a pleasant surprise, particularly the lads who’ve not worked with me.”
Again, the very fact Keane is so open about this comes as a surprise. It is also for that reason, that willingness to evolve, that the eyebrow-raising partnership with a man as intense as O’Neill could actually work – and allow him to rebuild his coaching career.
There were encouraging signs from the admittedly brief first few days surrounding the friendlies with Latvia and Poland. Keanewas very hands-on on the training ground and all action beside O’Neill on the bench. Their exact characters may mean the manner they complement each other isn’t obvious, but that is not to say it is not possible. At the minute, it looks probable.
For all the reported previous problems with some of the players, too, it is clear many of them are as in awe of him as much of Ireland. After the 3-0 victory over Latvia, Shane Long talked about how Keane had brought them to the cinema – one of his favoured group-bonding activities – to see Gravity in 3D. The image was portrayed of him sitting there with those glasses on.
An admittedly normal act, but by a hugely fascinating figure.
It doesn’t fit the perception.