Robbie Keane was yesterday presented as the new captain of the Republic of Ireland with the manager, Steve Staunton, explaining that the 25-year-old was chosen partly because he is "an icon".
Staunton has stressed that he will give youth its head and for his first game in charge, the friendly tonight against Sweden, there are debuts for the Bolton right-back Joey O'Brien, 20 last month, and Reading's 22-year-old striker Kevin Doyle. In midfield there is the new pairing of John O'Shea and Steven Reid, both just 24, with Staunton making clear it is the area of the pitch where he believes the Manchester United player's future lies. "I've always seen John in that role," he said.
As part of the new "era" for Irish football - a word often used yesterday - Staunton, who lost Steve Finnan to a slight neck injury, also named his team in advance and dismissed the notions of his predecessor, Brian Kerr, that not losing friendly matches was important. "I'm a winner," Staunton said. "But I want to see the performance. I want to see my players excite me and excite the fans. We're all very down about not qualifying for the World Cup. Results are important but they are more important for competitive games."
The appointment of Keane, "a world-class player", will also give a lift, Staunton hopes. "If you have the respect of the players, that's a big plus," he said. "Plus the fans see him [Keane] as an icon. We all know that. He responds and he gets the fans going."
The selection is, nevertheless, an interesting one, with Staunton admitting he had overlooked the "obvious" candidate in the goalkeeper Shay Given - who was named vice-captain - because "I wanted somebody out on the park".
Staunton, who captained both players at the last World Cup, said he had set Keane a "little challenge" and had been influenced by the way the striker had conducted himself at Tottenham Hotspur, where he is vice-captain.
Keane's conduct with Ireland, however, has previously come into question with allegations of late-night drinking. His place in the side was also threatened at the end of last season by a dip in form, while his relations with the media have often been, at best, tense.
Keane addressed those concerns by saying "let's look to the future now and I suggest we all do that. Not just myself but the media and everyone else involved in the team. It's a new era with some old faces back". That was in reference not just to Staunton but also to the goalkeeping coach, Alan Kelly, and other back-room staff pushed out by Kerr.
"Everyone's relaxed and most of us know Stan [Staunton] from playing with him, and his main message is to enjoy ourselves and trust ourselves," Keane said. Keane's own message was one of gratitude. "You always dream of captaining your country but I didn't think that was going to come at the age of 25," he said. "But I didn't think I was going to break the [goal-scoring] record by then either. It's been a roller-coaster ride." Ireland hope that, if that is so, they are on an upward curve after the depressing days of Kerr.
Qualification for Euro 2008 has been made harder by being fourth seeds, with matches which start with Germany away in September. Staunton is looking forward to the friendly against Sweden. "They're a good side with quick counter-attacking," he said. "It's a good test." The pitch will also be a test - Given called it "shocking".
Republic of Ireland (4-4-2): Given (Newcastle); J O'Brien (Bolton), A O'Brien (Portsmouth), Dunne (Manchester City), Harte (Levante); Elliott (Sunderland), Reid (Blackburn), O'Shea (Manchester United), Duff (Chelsea); Keane (Tottenham Hotspur), Doyle (Reading).
Sweden (probable, 4-4-2): Isaksson (Stade Rennes); Ostlund (Southampton), Mellberg (Aston Villa), Lucic (BK Hacken), Edman (Stade Rennes); Wilhelmsson (Anderlecht), Linderoth (FC Copenhagen), Svensson (If Elfsborg), Alexandersson (IFK Gothenburg); Ibrahimovic (Juventus), Larsson (Barcelona).
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