Monday, 4 November 2013
The Keane Edge
News of the seemingly imminent appointment of Martin O'Neill as Ireland manager would have been massive in itself over the weekend but it was the linking of Roy Keane to the management ticket that electrified every element of media from social to print with radio and television in between from when the story began to break on Friday night. From initial scepticism and disbelief, it wasn't long before a mini Saipan seemed to break out on social media as years old entrenched positions were re-dug and debate and argument broke out across the Irish fans forums and likes of The Journal.ie, where a poll on whether Keane's involvement was a good idea quickly gathered over 10,000 votes with nearly 50% of the opinion that it will end in tears, while a similar poll on the You Boys in Green website had over 60% in favour. While anyone who knows me would be able to tell you what side of the fence I was on post Saipan, I don't necessarily see this appointment in a negative light. However, there are a number of legitimate concerns that should be addressed in relation to both O'Neill and Keane along with a number of grounds for optimism.
On a previous blog, after Trapattoni had left the post, I'd looked at some of the candidates that would be in the running, including O'Neill. At that time, I expressed concern that if John Robertson, O'Neill's right hand man throughout his managerial career up until he got the Sunderland job, wasn't included in the set up that there would be the lack of a hands on coach as it's been well reported that O'Neill hasn't been a training ground manager through his career, generally only showing up at the end of the week to look over things and concentrate on the man management aspect of the role. The inclusion of Keane in the set up does nothing to allay this concern as, he again has a reputation for not really getting involved on the training ground and left that aspect of things to his previous assistant, Tony Loughlan. So, who does that leave to take the players and work with them tactically in the run up to internationals. Steve Walford has also been involved with O'Neill for his entire managerial career but has been recently called the Gene Hunt of football coaching by Colin Young, the Mail's North East correspondent who covered both O'Neill's and Keane's managerial stints in Sunderland. And he was referring to his old school coaching style rather than complimenting his taste is Crombie overcoats! I have my doubts about Walford and don't think he made the requisite step up from his previous number 3 role when Robertson decided against moving his family up to Sunderland and the managerial set up suffered there as a result with the end of O'Neill's reign at Sunderland joining his short lived reign at Norwich as a blot on what's generally a very good record elsewhere. Steve Guppy is also said to be involved whose work with James McClean at Sunderland seemed to halt his progress rather then develop it despite the fact that the wing was where Guppy played at Leicester and Celtic, so there are question marks around him too. This shouldn't be as big a deal in international football as it is in club football given the much smaller amount of time to work with players involved but I still think it would benefit from having someone with a recognised tactical mind who has experience of taking regular training sessions with players. Had Robertson been involved at the expense of Guppy I'd have been happier with the set up than with what seems to be proposed.
There are also potential issues with O'Neill's favoured style of play which is a quite rigid 4-4-2 in the main and it was Trapattoni's strict reliance on that formation which led to a huge amount of criticism in the latter part of his reign. However, I do think that O'Neill's variation of the formation allows for a higher tempo game and is generally played further up the pitch with more pressure put on the opposition when they have the ball in their own half unlike Trap who was happier to stand off the opposition until they got closer to goal. His style of play did come in for some criticism at Aston Villa but they've struggled to finish near where he had them since he left and Sunderland certainly haven't improved since he left and are now on their third manager in 7 months. And let's be honest, the bulk of Irish supporters were more than happy with Jack Charlton's style of play as long as it was getting results. Both O'Neill and Keane have come in for criticism regarding the money they spent and the players they spent it on from some fans of the clubs they've managed in recent years but that obviously is irrelevant in international football so those criticisms can be discounted.
With Keane, there are also issues that need to be explored. His dealings with players and man management skills reportedly leave a lot to be desired. From talking to players who've played under him, his modus operandi was to rule by fear and intimidation which may have worked 20 or 30 years ago but doesn't seem to gain much traction with players in this day and age. Players have spoken about being afraid to make a mistake and this stifling their natural game. Add in reports of dressing room tantrums and persistent fall outs with players and there is clearly the potential for things to implode. There's an unusual dynamic to the partnership as well in that, in a usual good cop, bad cop managerial scenario, it's generally the number 2 who acts the good cop and puts the arm around the shoulder of the player after the manager has let loose. In this situation, while O'Neill who has characteristically been the type of manager who can do both (witness the famous picture of himself and Neil Lennon in Ibrox in 2004), there wouldn't seem to be the buffer that's needed when he has a go at somebody if they don't feel they can turn to the number 2. In fact, we could be looking at a role reversal of the norm with the manager being the good cop and the assistant the bad cop. There's also the fact that, through no fault of his own, the level of media attention given to Keane in this country is phenomenal and there's a risk that a disproportionate level of attention will be given to him which could overshadow and potentially undermine the manager.
On the positive side, in accepting an assistant's role the is possibly an indication that Keane realises some of the mistakes he's made in the past and may see this as an opportunity to go through a belated apprenticeship with a manager who's far more experienced than he. I was shocked when I first heard of this possibility as I didn't think working as an assistant would be in Keane's make up. I think he may realise that his managerial reputation was very low in England after his Ipswich reign and the attack on his ability by Alex Ferguson the other week would have done further damage to his hopes of getting another managerial job over there. This may represent an ideal opportunity to begin rebuilding his managerial career alongside someone he respects and in an environment where half the support will forgive him anything and blame him for nothing. Even allowing for that, it shows a heretofore unseen degree of humility to consider working as a number 2 and it has been reported by the BBC journalist, Pat Murphy, that Keane has begun to reassess the methods that alienated many of his players at Sunderland and Ipswich which, if true, indicates a realisation that change was necessary to have any chance of getting back onto the managerial merry go round.
It must be remembered amongst all the hyperbole that Martin O'Neill is the manager. As such, it's 100% right and proper that he gets to choose his background team. So if he wants Roy Keane as part of that team and Keane wants to be part of it then it was essential that the FAI facilitated this. I have heard some reports which suggest that Keane was suggested to O'Neill but I find it hard to believe that someone as single minded as O'Neill would allow that to happen. I'm sure we'll find out more after the appointment is rubber stamped but if it was O'Neill's choice it's a great opportunity for Keane to learn if he's prepared to do so. From the FAI's perspective, the fact that Keane is undoubtedly box office is a bonus for them despite his fractious relationship with John Delaney. They can certainly expect a bump in attendances in the short term at least with an influx of many who have preferred to watch their football from the barstool rather than the stadium in recent times. I'm happy to see anything that may help turn Lansdowne into a fortress again and if this is what it takes to get fans out of the pub and into the ground then so be it. It's a boon for the media as well and there's no doubt that the press conferences should be fascinating.
There's been a lot of the usual nonsense from both sides of the Saipan divide on the phone ins with the usual few proclaiming the second (or is it the third?) coming and others saying they won't "set foot in Lansdowne as long as that traitor is involved". From my perspective, I didn't stop following my country when he returned under Kerr and won't be stopping when he's involved now. Much as I have my concerns as detailed above, nothing would make me happier than to see this appointment working, the success of the team is the most important thing rather than any individuals. And, despite those concerns, there is a large part of me that hopes and believes that it can work. Either way, I think it's safe to say that it won't be boring!