Roy Keane, Ireland and the end of the affair
On Morning Ireland last September, the presenter addressed the latest controversy surrounding Roy Keane and asked what may have seemed like a straightforward question: “How did we get to this point?”
Keane was in the news because of the WhatsApp voice memo made by Stephen Ward detailing Keane’s row with Harry Arter and Jon Walters, but the answer to the question, ‘How did we get to this point?’ wouldn’t really start with an explanation of that argument.
It could conceivably start, say, in 1992 when Roy Keane was late boarding the team coach which led the captain of the side Mick McCarthy to question his professionalism with the line, ‘Call yourself a footballer?’ Keane, according to legend, owned the encounter by replying, ‘Call what you have a first touch?’
Or it could start a few years later at Old Trafford cricket ground or it could begin on the pitch at Lansdowne Road at the end of one of Irish football’s greatest days.
Maybe it would take us to a Sunday morning in a Dublin hotel with one player returning to Manchester to nurse an aching body, certain the hard work had been done, while his international team-mates get ready to fly to Tehran.
Or maybe it would start in an airport terminal where Ireland’s greatest ever player is setting his face for a month on the road with team-mates who wonder if they know him at all.
It could start a long time before then. It could take us back to the beginning of one of the most extraordinary stories in the history of Irish sport. A story about the rise of a boy from Mayfield, who made it to the top of the world and never forgot where he came from.
But never forgetting was not just a cliche, but the organising principle for his life. Never forgetting was the Alpha and Omega, the way he propelled himself forward, the way he ensured the standards he believed in became an ideology rather than simply a way of not forgetting.
This boy was fuelled by the rejections and remembered every slight. He held on to every dismissal and remembered those days when it looked as if there was no escape and that the life he wanted had been denied to him while others less talented, but more understood, flourished. Once he was on the outside and he always remembered what that felt like. He remained an outsider and he refused to forget as if forgetting was kryptonite that would rob him of his powers
Maybe the answer could begin when that boy was at the height of his powers and found himself at a BBQ on a Pacific Island. Or maybe it would start in a Hyatt Hotel bedroom where Ireland’s captain considered getting off the island before deciding that he’ll stay.
We could begin the answer in that same room when he gets a few things off his chest in a couple of interviews. Or it should start in the ballroom of the same hotel when his manager - his international manager - questions these views, before producing a fax of an interview and then being stunned when this player - his player or so he thought - replies to talk of injuries with an explosion of rage, an invective of not forgetting that altered the course of Irish football.
Maybe it would start with the return to the Ireland team two years later, an act of rebellion against his mentor which could point to trouble ahead. Or it could commence with the reconciliation between the former captain and the man he called Mother Teresa which started a management career that once looked to have great potential.
But it never came to that. That potential perished on the hardness of this ideology, the unforgiving relentlessness that made it so difficult to sustain the relationships, unnecessary as a player, but central as a manager.
The hardness informed everything and made sense of everything while he was a captain and a footballer, but became more difficult in management when nuance and empathy might matter more than he realised during the hard years of never forgetting.
And it is that which seems to remain now. A manager defined by his career as a player, a man who represented the future, now appearing to be a relic of the past.
On Wednesday morning, Roy Keane left his role as assistant manager of the Ireland team.
“On behalf of the FAI Board,” FAI president Donal Conway said, “I would like to thank Martin, Roy, and the management team for their work with the Republic of Ireland team over the last five years. Martin ensured that we enjoyed some great nights in the Aviva Stadium and on the road in Lille, Vienna, and Cardiff, which were fantastic high points for Irish football.”
It may be that now the fascination with the man who has been the dominant figure in Irish football for more than 20 years will begin to fade.
When the news emerged that Martin O’Neill was considering making Roy Keane his assistant if he got the Ireland job, it had electrified Irish football.
Keane had exiled himself from Ireland and its ways and, like many exiles before him, he used his exile as a place from where he could develop a cold and reasoned analysis of his homeland.
After Thierry Henry’s handball and when Ireland stunk out the European Championships in 2012, Keane offered himself as the voice delivering, not so much the unvarnished truth, but the truth splintered and wounding, but no less the truth because of all that.
In this, he set himself in opposition - as so many exiles had before - with the comforting, cosy version of Irishness, Irishness that loved a ‘character’ and embraced eejitry.
Keane’s appointment seemed to reconcile the two great traditions on the island, even if one had usually found little space on the island itself.
Keane was the unforgiving exile telling the players, supporters and anyone else “to get over it”. Eejitry resolved to enjoy every moment, even if they weren’t that enjoyable.
Under O’Neill and Keane, there were many moments that were worth enjoying. Keane danced onto the pitch in Gelsenkirchen after John O’Shea’s late equaliser and it seemed the man who was always relentlessly looking forward because of his awareness was now able to enjoy the moment.
“I’m very excited. I know I don’t look it,” Keane said when he was appointed and it was those first two years when the partnership offered the most. There was a long year before Ireland played a competitive game and Keane had an opportunity to become Celtic’s manager in that first summer and, perhaps, that is an opportunity he will regret not taking.
But Celtic didn’t want him enough,he said, and this was one of his many paradoxes. Keane has a sensitive side, but often it is highly attuned to his own feelings and may not be as sensitive to anybody else’s. He had, we accepted, been his own worst critic, so maybe this is why he was expected to be everyone else’s worst critic too.
There were times when this seemed necessary as O’Neill and Keane played the bad cop, bad bad cop roles well but by the end, it had become wearing. Keane had power without authority. He was a highly paid assistant, but one whose role remained baffling to many.
Keane arrived in the Ireland job with a point to prove. He had his difficulties at Sunderland with Ellis Short and if he had some problems managing upwards, some would have said he had some difficulty managing downwards too. And maybe even sidewards.
It was said that being an assistant suited his temperament, but maybe that view no longer holds either. Keane wanted to be a manager again one day and when O’Neill and Keane signed new contracts before the European Championships, O’Neill said Keane was in a good position to succeed him. Two years later and his future is full of uncertainty.
The past never left him either. In 2014, there was an incident at the team hotel with a supporter called Frank Gillespie.
Gillespie was a high profile supporter whose own book - 'Confessions from the Blackthorn: Publican Frank Gillespie's Journey from Tyrrellspass to Boston’ - had been launched by Jack Charlton. He had told a few stories in it about Keane too and when Keane was asked about the incident at a press conference one response said much about the tangled history he was now part of once again.
The exchange was telling.
Journalist: 'Roy can I just ask about one final thing? You said you wouldn’t talk about what happened with Frank the other night.'
Keane: 'Frank. Do you know him?'
Journalist: 'I do know him.'
Keane: 'Of course you do. You know him well, yeah, you know him well? You know Mick McCarthy well, don’t you?'
FAI press officer: 'Right, listen, Roy has given you his time, we’ll leave it there.'
Journalist : 'Yes, I do know him well.'
Keane: 'You know Frank well don’t you? You know Frank well. Exactly.'
Exactly. So much was confirmed in those moments, so much of the past was with him even now that it was hard to escape.
When the stories emerged about Arter and Walters, it would have been easy to point to what looked like double standards. Keane had wondered why they were getting treatment and it seemed ironic that a man who had reacted so badly to the idea of feigning injury in Saipan could now be policing the Irish squad in search of shirkers and dilettantes. But he was never one of those. As a player, he found a way to endure but his way wasn’t the way for others and that was the problem.
But his life has been full of great divides and he has been so reluctant to reveal them that it’s understandable - if wrong - that the simplistic charge of hypocrisy is put towards him.
Keane was a drinker who stopped drinking at the height of his powers. It may be that those two lives - “the life we learn with and the life we live with after that” as Bernard Malamud put it - are at the heart of everything. Keane has had to live with everything in a different way and while he has said his decision to stop drinking was because he wanted to get more from his playing career, it is hard not to speculate it could have been more fundamental than that, that it was fundamental to everything, to the experience of Saipan and all that followed from it.
But that was turned into a debate about standards – another element that could be mined for contradictions. It's possible Saipan was never about pitches or balls or training kit, but it was easier to deal with that than to see it as a story of one man trying to adapt in a world that was alien to him.
The worlds had collided on the way to Saipan and they would keep on colliding. At Dublin Airport, a man dressed as a leprechaun as part of a promotion for a tabloid told him not to be so miserable.
“I've got two bloody leprechauns telling me to 'Cheer up Keano’. I thought 'I'll fucking knock you out, you stupid cunt’.” He didn’t and if he put this down as a moment of great restraint, it wouldn’t count for much in the end.
In this moment, the two traditions met and if things had changed when he returned as part of the management team, the promise of the first three years stalled in recent times.
When O’Neill and Keane signed new contracts before the European Championships, O’Neill said Keane was in a good position to succeed him. Two years later and his future is full of uncertainty.
His contribution for the past five years might be summed up by Matt Doherty's pause reply when asked what Keane did in the set-up. “I guess he was Martin’s assistant.”
And this is the strange position Keane finds himself in. He is the same age as Pep Guardiola but acts like he comes from another era. His acts of not forgetting have seemed to curdle into a self-defeating sentimentality where the past was a different, maybe better, country. A man who was once the most vital, electrifying force in Irish football leaves reduced by the role, with people scratching their heads, pausing as they try to explain what exactly he did. There was a time when everyone knew what Roy Keane did.
Keane, who once was seen as representing everything about Ireland’s future, an Ireland which didn’t trade on its reputation, which aspired to greatness and which could meet those aspirations, can now be seen to be part of the past. Those ideas were always overblown, but nobody would even be overblowing them now.
So as Mick McCarthy gets ready for a possible return to deal with his 'unfinished business', Keane leaves with his business seemingly finished. And, as we wonder how we got here, only the most unimaginative would begin with a row in a training camp in 2018 between Ireland’s assistant manager and a couple of players. When it comes to Roy Keane and Ireland, this is not where you would start when you ask how we got to this point. But it might be where you’d end.