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Thursday 15 November 2018

O'Neill and FAI need to talk about Keane

Poland draw produced positives for Ireland boss but spectre of Arter row - and Rice decision - still prevail

STORM: Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane is at the centre of the row which has led to Harry Arter’s request not to be called up for future squads. Pic: PA
STORM: Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane is at the centre of the row which has led to Harry Arter’s request not to be called up for future squads. Pic: PA

The last time Ireland played out a draw in a friendly away to Poland, it was anything but the start of a new era. In fact it was the death knell for a number of international careers.

Four players (Stephen Kelly, Sean St Ledger, Paul Green and Anthony Stokes) started for Ireland in Martin O'Neill's second game in charge, a 0-0 draw in Poznan in 2013, and would not play a single minute of competitive international football again while others from that 2013 side barely featured again (Marc Wilson, David Forde).

The hope is that Tuesday's 1-1 draw in Wroclaw will see players not go the same way and drift off into irrelevance but instead build an international career on what we saw in Poland.

We saw two faces of the Irish national team in the space of a week: a horrid display in Cardiff where barely anyone on the field emerged with credit.

Then we had a more impressive showing in Wroclaw, as players came in from the cold, shuffled in from the fringes and then emerged with credit.

GREEN SHOOTS: Ireland players congratulate Aiden O’Brien on his goal against Poland on Tuesday. Pic: Reuters
GREEN SHOOTS: Ireland players congratulate Aiden O’Brien on his goal against Poland on Tuesday. Pic: Reuters

Fringe

John Egan, Shaun Williams and Aiden O'Brien may not have played their way into the team for the Nations League games next month, and once the big names like Brady and McCarthy regain fitness, it's going to be a real bunfight to get into that starting XI.

But those fringe players have shown more promise than someone like Ciaran Clark and when he picks his squad and team to face the Danes in Dublin in four weeks' time, O'Neill needs to eschew the easy option of going for the tried and trusted.

Egan (25), Williams (31) and O'Brien (24) are not fresh-faced teenagers but men well into their careers. Poland away was a sign they could deliver, now they need a chance to do it again and then they need the ability to use that chance and not spurn it.

There has been so much talk about the Ireland manager, or rather the assistant manager, in the last week that it's easy to lose focus. There are issues still to deal with in the background as the Harry Arter matter has to be faced up to, and Irish football needs a proper, adult discussion about Roy Keane's role and value in the camp.

Is he so much of a distraction, such a sideshow, that anything positive he brings to the camp is beaten down by the negativity attached to him?

If Stephen Ward's account of the training camp row with Arter is correct (and O'Neill does dispute Ward's version, pointing out that Ward wasn't there when the incidents happened), can the FAI really stand over that?

O'Neill is likely to have improved options for the October double header at home to Wales and Denmark. Pic: Sportsfile
O'Neill is likely to have improved options for the October double header at home to Wales and Denmark. Pic: Sportsfile

"Roy was just shouting down the corridor saying 'you're a f****** p****, you're a c***, you have been all your life'. You don't even care, you don't want to train. It didn't come to blows but just basically Roy losing his head," is how Ward views what transpired between Keane and Arter.

O'Neill's instinct was to defend Keane, and the manager has welded his own future to that of Keane. If Keane falls, so will O'Neill.

The manager has twice in the space of 24 hours suggested that a "reconciliation" between Keane and Arter is imminent, but it's hard to see that playing out. If Arter is not in the squad next month, have Ireland lost a Premier League midfielder because the manager took one side in a row that clearly has two sides?

It's hard to see Arter being comfortable in the current set-up where the manager has backed Keane without hesitation and not one member of the squad has spoken out in favour of Arter or even asked a question in public.

Unless Arter officially walks away from international football, the issue is not going away.

Until the FAI deal with the matter, and ask real questions about whether a member of staff telling a player "you're a c***, you have been all your life" is acceptable behaviour in 2018, the Keane edge will always remain.

O'Neill is likely to have improved options for the October double header at home to Wales and Denmark. Robbie Brady, James McCarthy, James McClean and Shane Long should all be able to return, Sean Maguire could be fit again, though Seamus Coleman is likely to miss out with injury.

We could even have Declan Rice back in the fold, if he makes up his mind (though the smart money is still on him moving to the English camp).

The positives from Poland are that morale has been restored, that the three-man defence and that 3-5-2 formation worked well against a very strong opposition, that players like Williams and O'Brien now have a spring in their step and also have goals on their Ireland CVs.

They have a month to garnish that status at club level, O'Neill has a month to get key players fit and maybe work on Rice.

But until the Keane issue is faced up to, Irish football is only one rant away from another calamity.

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