Keane will hit road
Clocking up the miles can uncover talent
WHAT DO Johnny Logan, Michael D Higgins, Ardal O'Hanlon and Irvine Welsh have in common?
Apart from the fact that they'd make up a pretty interesting team for a pub quiz, they have all been to more League of Ireland games in the last few years than Giovanni Trapattoni.
And chances are, the new Ireland team of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane will, like the quartet above, clock up more appearances at LOI grounds in a month than Trapattoni in five years.
It's also likely they will turn up at outposts like Turf Moore, Huish Park and Griffin Park on Ireland duty.
The first weekend on duty for Ireland's new management team shows there is an eagerness to go where their predecessors feared and go to games, with Keane attending the Aston Villa v Cardiff City game, catching up on the form of Ciarán Clark.
The defender was likely to play against Latvia on Friday, as more senior defenders were already missing due to injury (Richard Dunne) or loss of club form (Sean St Ledger). However, Clarke now also misses out through injury
Keane took a day off from Ireland-related scouting duties yesterday as, according to O'Neill, he wanted to watch the Manchester United v Arsenal game as it was "on his own patch".
During O'Neill's time as a player in England, that fixture would have been a feast for the eyes of managers of the two Irelands, as through the 1970s and into the '80s a Man U-Arsenal tie would have thrown up names from the North (Jennings, Rice, Nelson, Donaghy, Whiteside) and South (Brady, O'Leary, Stapleton, Devine, Moran, McGrath).
Their pay packets may vary wildly, but Martin O'Neill and Michael O'Neill both know there is little point in them attending games involving the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham.
Across the top two divisions in England and the top flight in Scotland at the weekend, only five players from the Republic scored a goal (Shane Long, Daryl Murphy, Simon Cox, JonWalters and Stephen Ireland), slightly more than the number of scorers from Northern Ireland (Steven Davis scored in the English Premier League, for Southampton, and Ivan Sproule and Niall McGinn struck in Scotland).
Two Irelands but one problem.
Grim times and slim pickings.
So it was good to hear from O'Neill – Martin – at his unveiling as Ireland manager that he plans to go where the players are, go to games – something which Trapattoni did very, very rarely and to which Marco Tardelli seemed averse, spending a bizarre amount of time watching QPR (who had no Irish players then) and Fulham (who had Damien Duff) from his London base.
"I hope to basically be everywhere," O'Neill said in a response to a query from the Herald as to whether he'd be willing to go to games in places which were untroubled by Trapattoni and Tardelli, such as League One, the SPL and the League of Ireland.
"I had that time at club level where you are depending to a great deal on a scouting system for players, but here you are limited to the number of players you have, so from that viewpoint it will be fine. I will be expecting to see players every week, midweek, and I expect to be here," he added, referring to the League of Ireland.
There's a good chance that as it pans out, O'Neill will spend much of his time watching Irish players in England's top flight and perhaps leave the rest to Keane or one of his scouts.
That role may suit Keane who, despite his status as a legend of the Premier League years, is keen to get his hands dirty and go to games.
He occasionally attended League of Ireland matches, even at a time when he was out of work and had no obvious reason to go, apart from the obvious one of being a football man who likes to watch football matches.
Only last month, he used his time while on a trip home to Cork to see Cork City play St Patrick's Athletic in a meaningless end-of-season game – Trap and Tardelli couldn't be bothered to watch Irish sides play the likes of Rubin Kazan, Juventus, Dynamo Kyiv or Red Bull Salzburg in important European matches.
Keane, even when out of work, remained a keen student of the game – he made trips to Scotland to spend time with Pat Fenlon when the Dubliner was managing Hibs – and, perhaps due to his own background, is keen to look at players no matter the stage.
Keane signed players from the League of Ireland (Roy O'Donovan, Brian Murphy, Colin Healy, David Meyler) while few other Premier League bosses would bother, and he also gave a chance to Irish lads who had talent and hunger but no CV (he gave fellow Cork lad Shane O'Connor a trial at Ipswich and then a contract).
The likelihood is that the next generation of Republic of Ireland caps are not currently learning their trade at the academies of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea.
The standard route for an Ireland international now is to come up via the SPL (like James McCarthy), the English lower leagues (Jonathan Walters was playing Conference football not so long ago) or the League of Ireland.
And there is a good chance that League One will offer Keane and O'Neill more options in the next year, as lads like Matt Doherty (Wolves), Shaun Williams and Stephen Gleeson (MK Dons) and Derrick Williams (Bristol City) could be ones to emerge if they can impress Keane and O'Neill.
Willo Flood is in fine form with Aberdeen and, despite his age (28), he could still catch the eye.
Keane started his senior career with Cobh Ramblers. While O'Neill tasted European success as a player with Nottingham Forest, the start of his managerial career was more modest.
That modesty, and the willingness to take a broad view when looking for talent, could send this Irish managerial team to places like Inverness, Milton Keynes, Watford, Aberdeen and beyond.
Whether that bears fruit is another matter, but a glance at the stats on this page – only a dozen Republic of Ireland players starting in England's top flight this weekend – means the question will be asked, and then it's up to Martin and Roy to put in the mileage claims.