When Roy Keane walks into the Portmarnock Hotel, on Dublin's coastline, sometime later today, four words uttered the last time he was in a hotel with the Republic of Ireland's squad will hammer through the heads of some of his reacquainted team-mates. "I don't do friendlies," he spat as part of his extraordinary tirade directed at Mick McCarthy at the Saipan Hilton which ended his World Cup and fractured a nation. Actually it was five words, once the obligatory expletive is included.
Well now, and amazingly, Keane is doing friendlies again. Only twice in the past decade has he deigned to do so away from Ireland's shores but, aged 32, he will take to the field this Wednesday in a little-known town 150 miles north of the Polish capital, Warsaw. It is the kind of otherwise meaningless fixture - location, opponent, timing - that would have had him shaking with rage not so long again. But with his return much has changed.
Not least the place where the squad will gather. Gone is the grim if convenient airport hotel. Brian Kerr, McCarthy's successor, has insisted on providing some of the five-star luxury that Keane complained was so often lacking. Portmarnock, the imposing former home of the Jameson whiskey family, fits the bill. And when the team travel to Bydgoszcz tomorrow they will do so in a plane which has had seats removed to provide more leg-room. "Roy Class", they call it.
After Keane's departure two years ago the Football Association of Ireland commissioned an investigation into how the team prepared. The report vindicated Keane's complaints about the lack of organisation. Under Kerr, training, travel, medical care, nutrition, technical analysis and even entertainment has improved. To be fair to McCarthy, many of the changes were already under way, but the FAI's new chief executive, Fran Rooney, has stridently claimed credit.
Perversely, just three weeks ago several Irish players complained off the record that the preparations were too taxing. As such, Keane's return is a significant endorsement of Kerr's style. Tellingly, the malcontents all came from the rump of McCarthy's squad. Indeed there are many new faces, which partly explains the excited response to Keane's decision. Nine players who will travel to Poland were not in Saipan. Their memories of Keane are not sullied.
The response of Alan Lee, the raw young Cardiff City striker, is typical. He says: "I think only the older players had difficulties with Roy playing for Ireland, and most of them have gone. The slate should be wiped clean and I'm sure, after Roy has played a couple of matches, what happened will be forgotten. There was a problem between Roy and Mick McCarthy, but there is no problem between Roy and Brian Kerr."
Interestingly, Lee adds: "He [Keane] missed out on a World Cup and you could see that hurt him. I'm looking forward to seeing how Roy trains and it will be interesting to meet the man himself. I have never talked to Roy, although I have come across him once before, when I was with the Under-18s and he was with the senior squad. I remember watching him in the 1994 World Cup at home on TV. The players who were involved in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups are legends in Ireland."
His sentiment is shared by exciting young talents such as Liam Miller, Andy Reid and John O'Shea. At the same time - and crucially - Keane has made it plain to Kerr that he will be conciliatory. He will, for the first time in years, share a room. Unsurprisingly, it will be with O'Shea, who is in his thrall and who did so much to bring Keane back into the fold.
There will be some harsh words, no doubt, as the old and the new cultures collide again, but Keane is aware that the onus is on him to build bridges. Some, such as Damien Duff, won't give it a second thought. He is there to play football. And that's it. It will be harder for others beneath the veneer of professionalism even if, above all, footballers are pragmatists. Keane has been missed and if he helps them qualify for the next World Cup that is paramount. Kenny Cunningham, who retains the captain's armband, helped draft the statement of support in Saipan for McCarthy, and against Keane. But now he says: "We have drawn a line under it. It will be thrown up in the coming weeks but the mentality of the players is that it is water under the bridge. We are looking at the bigger picture."
He adds: "It is fair to say in certain games the team have struggled without him, and in the past he led the way. He seemed to almost carry the team on his back in tough games."
Matt Holland was also an outspoken critic at the time, in these pages, claiming Keane had horribly overstepped the mark. "It was a shame the way things turned out," he says now. "But Roy made his decision then to do what he did and has made his decision now to come back. The qualifiers start in September, and if he's around for those then it will certainly give us a massive chance."
Some players don't want to comment, treating the subject as if it were a ticking bomb. Some, including two of the biggest names, are unhappy, while Jason McAteer - no Keane fan - has kept his counsel, as have Kevin Kilbane and Gary Breen. It is going to be something that Keane - and Kerr - will have to negotiate. Both are sanguine. Keane, however, has questioned the role of Packie Bonner, the FAI's technical director and an apparent enemy.
But the other main protagonists have gone. Steve Staunton, Niall Quinn and Alan Kelly, the three players at the press conference called following Keane's departure, have retired. Gary Kelly, who made an impassioned plea to back McCarthy, has also gone, as has Dean Kiely, one of the three goalkeepers Keane stupidly complained weren't training hard enough. Kiely is one of the few prepared to voice his anger. "It was a little hollow and in quite bad taste afterwards to see all the parties giving exclusive stories and their side, and basically making lots of money in the process," he says.
In general, most have adopted an air of bland diplomacy. Quinn, for example, says simply: "I'm 100 per cent behind Roy and the team to get to the World Cup. There's no point in looking back. He's a wonderful player."
That much, at least, is not in dispute. After his acrimonious exit, the thing that bothered Keane the most was his sense that all of the good times counted for so little. For that reason alone he will do his utmost to prevent a repeat.Reuse content