A manager in waiting
Keane steps up to the plate and delivers a stirring call to arms
Roy Keane turned on the full searchlight of his charm in Versailles yesterday and it was dazzling.
In fact, it was difficult to see this as anything other than a pitch to fill the aching vacuum left by the manager, Martin O’Neill.
We haven’t seen much of O’Neill in France outside the set-piece UEFA gigs he is required to do. We’ve only bumped into him twice at the well-appointed facilities laid on in the Stade de Montbauron.
He throws out a few platitudes on FAI TV but other than that, he has faded into the background.
But Keane has been brilliant in front of the cameras and microphones. Entertaining, forthright and upbeat, he has kept the pot boiling nicely while his boss keeps most of his thoughts to himself.
This was an another bravura performance. So much so that he could have been mistaken for the manager.
At the very least, it was an investment in the future and the moment, should it arrive, when he steps out of O’Neill’s shadow. He won’t have far to go.
There has been a rumour doing the rounds since O’Neill shook hands on a new deal the day before the squad left for France in a slapdash attempt to generate some positive noise in the wake of the Cork Opera House fiasco that the Ireland manager’s job has been promised to Keane.
Like all such speculation, it came and went like a wisp of smoke but if there is anything to the notion, this press conference did nothing but strengthen the thought that he is ready to take over.
He was reflective as well as supremely positive about the task ahead and again, the sense that he is planning long term was hard to escape.
“It has been an interesting year or two and I think we will learn a lot about our players’ character against Italy. It will be intriguing to see the players against them,” he said,
“It’s been a really good two years working with them. They have not let us down. They’ve had disappointments and had bad performances and this is where the courage comes into it - courage as a sportsman.
“We have lads who are representing Ireland in a huge game. I think the other day we were disappointing. In general, I think there is no problem losing a game in sport if you gave of your best performance.
“But we know that there is more to come from these players so there would be a real feeling of anti-climax if we did not get a result or felt that we left something behind.
“We did not leave anything behind against Sweden and not previously in the campaign so go out and give your all.
“People can talk about individual mistakes - that’s part of the game. I was watching the golf, people make mistakes. It’s sport. I am positive about what we bring to the party tomorrow.”
Keane then spoke about the job of management which must be done to lift players battered by Belgium.
“It’s in the manager and all the staff, it’s our jobs to try and help the players whatever way it might be. But you are working with experienced players. You are working with married men who have children and at some stage responsibility will come to the players,” he said.
“That’s why we’re paid to help them. Let’s not forget that we have to help them in whatever way it might be. We all work in different ways. It might have happened this morning it might be a quiet word tonight.
“It’s not a youth team we are working with - it’s a senior team and that I enjoy,” he said.
His main message of the day was about courage, resilience and the need to fight. He puts no store in the proposition that Italy, already qualified, will ease back on the throttle.
“That’s a dangerous game. You’ve seen it before in England where teams, if people say they have nothing to play for, turn up dead relaxed and keep it for fun. The way they set-up, their mentality will be for Italy to go and get a result. Let nobody think for one minute that they wont be at it, even if they talk about making changes,” he said.
“The players that come in will be like our lads.
“They will be champing at the bit, wanting to impress the manager and getting involved for the next game. It’s not the conversation that we’ll be having among the group,” he said.
Keane always lights up when Italy are mentioned but he was quick to play down his record against the Azzuri at club and international level.
“It’s very strange, any time I speak to the media people talk about my playing career. I dunno if you need reminding, I stopped playing 10 years ago,” he said.
“It’s completely different. There’s no point talking about my career or how I got on against Italian teams or Italian clubs. Great experience I’ve had, but that’s not necessarily going to help the players.
“We keep talking about how we work with the players and give them little snippets of information but players have got to do their own homework, prepare as well as they can.
“We have chit chats about my experiences but not as many as you’d think. It’s irrelevant to this game coming up.
“It’s about getting our preparations right, getting the energy levels back up, getting ready for a very, very tough game up against a very, very tough game.
“The Italians to me were always favourites to top the group. This idea that it was a surprise they won their first match against Belgium, no.
“The players they have, huge experience, a lot of trophies under their belt, a system that suits them down to the ground, they’ve got good options,” said Keane, delivering a warning which everyone will understand.