Beware an unwieldy book title. Perhaps not in every instance, but certainly in this one. The words "A Fan's Story" - coming after quite a lot else - read like a disclaimer. They say: don't expect to find out too much; do expect a bit of a wallow. And so it proves in Conor O'Callaghan's account of the tumultuous Irish summer of 2002 - the summer of the World Cup in the Far East and the catastrophe that was Roy Keane's non-appearance for his country.
This wasn't just another tabloid back-page bust-up. Keane - the Republic's only world-class player but also their most volatile - was in one of his incendiary moods as the tournament loomed. Used to expecting the best when he turned out for Manchester United, he regarded the Republic set-up as amateurish, and despised the manager Mick McCarthy.
The row that erupted between them in Saipan, where the squad was based in the days leading up to their opening match, wasn't the kind to blow over. Faced with such a challenge to his authority, McCarthy took the ultimate step and sent Keane home. Disaster. Even then it could have been averted if Keane had been prepared to apologise. McCarthy could still have let him return. But Keane wouldn't, and the Irish were left to fend without their fearsome talisman.
Back home, millions of Irish people looked on appalled. How could Keane do this - to himself and to the team. From Bertie Ahern downwards, everybody, it seemed, got caught up in a saga all the more desperate for being so avoidable - among them O'Callaghan, a family man and poet who knew a good metaphor when he saw one.
So the book is really about growing up, about loss of innocence, about disillusionment. Ireland itself - the land of the Celtic Tiger - was rapidly obliterating its past. The football team - once happy-go-lucky troubadours - likewise had a new reality forced on them. And the Keane crisis made victims of O'Callaghan's own young children, Tommy and Eve, wide-eyed with World Cup anticipation but suddenly confronted with the mess that grown-ups make of things.
A writer has to be careful deploying his children in this way. The temptation was obvious, and O'Callaghan must have thought the device would work. But I found the Tommy and Eve passages almost as embarrassing as the faux-unorthodoxy of some of O'Callaghan's syntax.
Sentimentality is only one of the book's problems. It lacks shape and drive. Attempts to disguise clichés ("furore in a teacup") won't wash. Steeped in wryness, O'Callaghan fails to do justice to the high points of Ireland's World Cup campaign, of which there were still plenty. His dependence for material on TV, radio, books and newspapers weakens his grasp of what really went on in the Irish camp. And a damaging succession of mis-spellings and factual errors leave one wondering how much of a fan he really can be. Most bizarrely he compares Bertie Ahern's use of football to the "way that Tony Blair has cultivated his love of Chelsea". Tony Blair and Chelsea? The man may be guilty of many errors of judgment, but supporting Chelsea is not one of them. As with Keane himself, I fear something vital went missing when O'Callaghan sat down to write.Reuse content