Opinion: Roy's Toys
Has Roy Keane created tensions within the Ireland camp before a ball has even been kicked in anger at Euro 2016?
Though the squad has completed a week of preparation in ideal weather conditions at Cork’s five-star Fota Island hotel and resort, all may not be completely rosy in the garden in emotional terms. They have now set up base in the even more opulent surrounding of Versailles outside Paris, but wily campaigner Keane seems determined not to let the players relax too much ahead of next week’s crunch opening tie against Sweden.
His words were harsh in the wake of the team’s shock defeat to Belarus at Turners Cross last week, an evening which coincided with the announcement of the final squad for the tournament.
“We wanted to kill some of them last night,” he said the next day of the players. “They should be counting their blessing that they’ve managed to get on the flight. A reality check for one or two players who thought they were good players.
You're playing international football. Control the bloody ball. Pass it to you mates and if you lose it, run back and run back like you care. They need to push themselves. That doesn’t come from the coaches. It comes from good players, good pros,” Keane continued.
Although the Belarus game and performance was never regarded by many as having a particularly strong bearing on the proper action to come in France, it was a little startling to hear the assistant manager speak of his charges, or some of them at least, in such unflattering terms.
After O’Neill and Keane were announced as the new management ticket in 2013, they were labelled as a good-cop/bad-cop package. Who was qualified to play the role of villain in this burgeoning double act was obvious, although O’Neill himself was quick to scotch the somewhat avuncular image which had seen him cast for the part of the former.
“Well if Roy’s the bad cop, I’m probably the bad-bad cop,” he quipped.
Still, there seems to be an element of truth in the good cop/bad cop idea, insofar as O’Neill could always rely on his No 2 to dish out some of the not-so-sweet medicine from time-to-time, if deemed appropriate or beneficial.
Of course we might not get unduly alarmed at any of this criticism, until you take the track record of the speaker into account. Without dissecting the episodes in Saipan or his ugly departure from Old Trafford 11 years ago (enough rainforests were culled at the time), these major controversies of his career stemmed in part at least from his own inability and/or unwillingness to contain his frustration at those around him.
In one case, his anger was directed at management, in the other it was at his own teammates. That’s not to say either eventuality was all his own fault of course. But both caused shockwaves in the sport and were seen as having inflicted lasting damage to both himself and the team in question. As a pundit during Euro 2012, he also became something of a target for fans’ ire in Poland after making remarks alluding to the jovial mood of many which accompanied the team’s abject failure in that competition.
Of course, no one is suggesting that Keane’s mild outburst last week was anything as serious as these sagas. He was likely on a calculated mission to stoke some fresh impetus and work-rate among elements of the squad, rather than lashing out or losing control of his emotions.
We all know how well Keane enjoys a jolly-up.
Perhaps Keane feels that by criticising certain players, who may be seen as starters, he is seeking to give hope to some fringe players. It has been well documented in Poland 2012 the disenchantment among those outside of the first 14/15 players, with the feeling being that playing time was not a remote possibility. A re-occurrence of this state of mind could have a toxic effect on morale within the squad. In any tournament having motivated players on the sideline who feel they have an impact to make (Shane Long v Germany somersaults to mind) can provide an extra dimension to a team.
As has been said many times, he is clearly a calmer, more mature presence nowadays.
And Keane has clearly rowed back significantly on his criticism of certain players in the days leading up to their opening game.
“I think he's apologised to the players and they've accepted it, and with reasonably good heart as well,” said O'Neill.
So the managerial duo do seem to be at least conscious of the need to manage the situation. Things could obviously grow more fragile within the squad if Keane was similarly cutting in the wake of a group-stage defeat, particularly if the players in question feel they have given their all for the cause.
It will be fascinating to observe how this dynamic unfolds over the next couple of weeks. It’s hard to imagine that the Corkman will suddenly turn into a shrinking violet – and who really wants to see him lose his intensity and edge.
But if he has indeed apologised to certain players for his remarks (and we can only take O’Neill at his word on this), then it looks like all is now well in the camp. Let’s hope things remains that way, but if the past tells us anything, it’s that nothing is for sure where Keane is concerned.
Watch this space.
By Conor Ward
Conor is an experienced sports journalist. He might have been enticed across to work as an editor for a medical publication but he hasn’t managed to shake off his unhealthy obsession with the Boys In Green.
Fantastic illustration provided by @howayaprints, available to purchase at www.howaya.ie