Wednesday lunchtime, Dublin. At the rebooted Lansdowne Road, scene of so much Irish sporting drama and glory down the decades, Roy Keane is on guard: tracksuit, beard, early-stage quiff, occasional stare.
Sounding very much like an assistant manager rather than one of the most fascinating football characters of our time, it feels almost deliberate as Keane quietly disengages from questions about personal memories of Poland, where he made his competitive Republic of Ireland debut in Poznan in 1991. The Jackie Charlton era.
Keane is keen on the notion that tonight’s match against Poland is about creating new memories, new history at a ground which has not resounded to Irish “Ole, Ole” football chants for some time. Keane points out it is about time other players scored Robbie Keane’s goals.
His briefing is short, low-key and can scarcely have been more different from his last encounter with Irish reporters in November. Then the agenda was Keane’s book, his job at Aston Villa, a link with Celtic and a confrontation with a supporter. The accusation was that Keane, a surprise choice by Martin O’Neill to be his assistant, had become “a distraction” to O’Neill and the squad.
“Who in the hell do you think you are?” was Keane’s reply then. “I answer to the FAI and Martin. And if we don’t get the right results, I’ll be gone and you won’t lose a minute’s sleep, so don’t worry about distractions.”
With this swirling in the air, the Irish team presided over by O’Neill and Keane lost 1-0 in Scotland. That result, which left the Republic fourth in a fierce group, has become the dominant football theme.
Distractions, meanwhile, come from every angle for an Irish public that gorges on sport.
Wednesday’s Dublin Herald felt the mood was such that they could write: “People are uncertain about O’Neill and about this Ireland team,” while adding: “People like Paul O’Connell and his mates, plus the Ireland women’s rugby team, Katie Taylor and the cricketers have shouldered O’Neill and his players out of the way.”
This is the sporting context. There is a conspicuous sense in Ireland that soccer, as it is known, is lurking in the shadows, waiting to emerge from behind the broad backs of Six Nations-winning rugby players – men and women.
It is not a divisive issue, but it is there and it is mentioned. It has been put to O’Neill a couple of times over the past seven days and one of his replies was: “With the rugby team, the women’s rugby team and the cricket team, who were desperately unlucky not to qualify for the World Cup quarter-finals, there’s a lot to live up to.”
He could have added Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh to the list, and others have. This week’s retirement of Henry Shefflin, the pre-eminent hurler of his generation, was front and back-page news and a reminder of the power of Gaelic games in Ireland.
Soon Rory McIlroy’s pursuit of a green jacket will be on the screens, while up in Belfast, Northern Ireland will take a significant step towards France should they beat Finland.
For such reasons, O’Neill, Keane and the Football Association of Ireland could do with a rousing occasion tonight, as well as victory over Poland, or at least a draw.
O’Neill said: “This is the first big competitive game that I’ll have experienced at home – as we were expected to beat Gibraltar.”
That is true. Assessments of O’Neill and Keane’s management of Ireland must include the fact that Group D is as hard as any, and also the phoney war pre-dating it. This saw them pick sides for eight friendlies over 10 months before the tense reality of a first competitive match.
When it came, in Georgia in September, Aiden McGeady supplied a 90th-minute winner. The nigh-on meaningless 7-0 win over Gibraltar followed.
From Gibraltar to Germany is a leap but Irish discipline in Gelsenkirchen was rewarded with another 90th-minute strike. Winning his 100th cap, John O’Shea equalised Toni Kroos’s opener, and at that smiling moment it was possible to be green with optimism.
But then came defeat by Scotland at Celtic Park. Combined with Poland’s surge of a start – they beat Germany 2-0 in Warsaw in October – pressure has been applied.
It is why, along with Scotland’s visit in June, the Irish need to reclaim the redeveloped Lansdowne Road for themselves with a display of vitality. Soccer, after all, remains Ireland’s No 1 sport, the main distraction. It just needs to prove it.
“The old Lansdowne was brilliant,” Keane said. “It’s up to us to be on the front foot and get the fans behind us. I think it will be electric.”Reuse content