Belfast Telegraph

Martin O'Neill right to have Roy Keane on side for Republic of Ireland job

By David Kelly

Was it JFK who once said: "To hold fast to history is to be swept aside?" Or maybe it was Sam Allardyce.

As Republic of Ireland football prepares to embrace an exciting future, it is quite inconceivable that so many people are willing – quite a few in a self-flagellating, typically begrudging Irish fashion – to cling so rigidly to the past.

Roy Keane – about to become Ulsterman Martin O'Neill's No.2 with the Republic's international team – continues to divide opinion. The believers on polar opposite sides are convinced of their unyielding position of faith.

It is a belief system that cleaves as adhesively as religious or political identities. But while opinions on the latter subjects may alter in time, the people's issues with Keane remain steadfastly resolute.

Anyone who declares that history must be imprisoned in a form of rigid straitjacket will always be unwilling to embrace new ideas or, at the very least, the understanding that new realities can supplant old certainties.

So if we are forced to submit tediously to the discursive discussion of Keane's tangled history with the FAI to an interminable degree this week, can its relevance at least be placed in some form of context?

No more than the FAI, Keane has demonstrated that he can move on from historical shackles; the perception of outsiders who simply cannot – or will not – do similarly should not obscure that view.

Of course, Keane has had tumultuous dealings with the FAI in the past, one of which, as even Martians know, caused one of the most momentous ruptures in Irish society, never mind sport. But if he can move on, cannot the rest of us?

After all, it is conveniently ignored that Keane did return to duty beneath the banner of the FAI when coaxed from retirement by Brian Kerr – contrary to the wishes of Keane's then manager Alex Ferguson.

Were these the actions of someone condemned to be forever smothered by either his own history or others' coloured perceptions of it?

Football, as a reflection of life, has always been able to accommodate the enormous emotional turmoil that can chip away at even the most formidable walls. It is regularly recorded that Keane has been possessed of an almost pathological, slavish suspicion of the FAI that can swing wildly from distrust to outright disgust.

Formed at an early age by the now infamous rejection of his burgeoning talents at an U-15 international trial "up in Dublin", it could be argued that petty provincialism was more evident here.

It is laughable in the extreme to suggest that a teenager was already being cast as a pariah by FAI officialdom; or that they to him were already emerging as the cackhanded conglomerate against which he would magnificently rail.

In reality, Keane was rejected by his own city first; the moment when his young rival Len Downey trumped him to secure a coveted signature for Cork City, ensuring Keane was shunted into the arms of Cobh Ramblers.

Keane was always able to forge his own identity on his own terms, however. After all, it was he who abandoned any thoughts of adhering to his local football club in Mayfield, instead choosing to join Rockmount.

The reason was utterly simplistic and reflective of his future career. They were more successful. Why wouldn't he choose them?

When Keane is unveiled this week as an FAI employee a back-breaking compendium of stories can be trawled to illustrate Keane's animus with the FAI, dating from the mid-1990s and his ridicule of Stateside drinking sessions.

The availability of only cheese sandwiches in an Amsterdam team room and the cramped leg room on that infamous flight from Cyprus to Barcelona during qualification for World Cup 2002 all paved a path for volcanic activity in Saipan.

Keane's striving for excellence then, so ritually lampooned by all and sundry, seems almost quaint at this remove. It is easy to forget his own players applauded when he got the extra leg room.

These days, all of his so-called demands are de rigeur in the sport –even for his one-time nemeses, the FAI. Back then, for him the FAI was an institution amenably justifiable to attack; the personalities who donned the blazers were faceless to him.

It was the culture of inadequacy he derided, even as recently as two summers ago when he lamented the tanked-up complacency of so many Republic supporters who have become anaesthetised to unaccountable failure. Now he has the chance, with O'Neill, to become what Enda McNulty has termed a "cultural architect".

After years of railing from within with only moderate success – and years of railing from without with even less – is it not possible to applaud the bravery that now sees him returning to the scene of so many crimes?

Make no mistake, though. This story does not drip with soppy sentimentality; nor should it. This is not the story of the prodigal son; this is hard-nosed professional sport.

Even the fact that it combines with the prospect of an exciting, dynamic revolution in Republic football is a timely coincidence.

The FAI did not approach Keane; Keane did not approach the FAI. O'Neill wanted Keane.

The duo's concern may swerve in a different direction to many Republic supporters. That remains their loss.

Keane has always wanted to be different but at the same time he is unwavering. Instead of living in the past, he seeks to change it. The Corkman is always striving to stay on the right side of history.

A far better prospect than remaining rooted within it.

Belfast Telegraph


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