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A Small Minority of Idiots

Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill Are Just What Irish Football Needs

Every international squad should have two managers: a sociopath and a philosopher.

by Clive Martin, Illustration: Sam Taylor
15 November 2013, 8:00am

Among tonight's slew of tedious friendlies arranged for the sole purpose of testing out squad players and recouping money for expensive stadiums, one game stands out. Not in a footballing sense of course (that game is Italy versus Germany), but in another sense. A sixth sense. A sense that can predict mania and lunacy. In that sense, the game that stands out is Ireland versus Latvia, because one of the teams lining up will be managed by both Roy Keane AND Martin O'Neill. I mean, there's no way it can be anything else other than totally bizarre and controversial.

In recent years, the Irish national team have been rank. Truly awful. But this wasn't always the case. They might never have had the squad to trouble the rest of the footballing world, but they still had Robbie Keane in their midst, in his day a finer striker at international level than any Englishman; Damien Duff, a winger who – we often forget – put the shits up the likes of Barcelona; and Shay Given, one of the rare keepers who could straddle a line between steadiness and virtuosity.

I'm too young to really remember the 1990 or 1994 World Cup tournaments, but I've had the footage of David O'Leary's penalty and Jack Charlton's argument with that arsehole official in the bad jacket rammed into my subconscious by endless clip shows and pub anecdotes. And THAT seemed like a team I could have got on board with, especially compared to the ramshackle collection of morons and journeymen that Graham Taylor had failed to get to qualify the same year.

But most importantly, they had a great kit and great fans. Fans who would turn the terraces green, bellowing the songs of old, as opposed to their Queen-ruled cousins who moan about the "left side problem" and parp out The Great Escape theme every time a deflected Steven Gerard shot tumbles past a semi-professional Slovakian goalkeeper.

In fact, there was only one person who hated Ireland even when they were OK: Roy Maurice Keane. The man, the myth, the scowl. Their new assistant manager – the midfield monster whose relationship with his national team was a bit like Ike's with Tina. He got off to a flying start, publicly calling the national side a "bit of a joke" when he was still in the Under 21s (try to imagine Jack Butland doing that for a second).

After that magnificent entrance, he was banned by Jack Charlton for going on the piss with Steve Staunton during a pre-season tournament, only to come back and win Irish player of the tournament in World Cup 1994, before stating, in the face of national pride, "There was nothing to celebrate. We achieved very little." Then, finally, in 2002, he stormed home from the training camp in Saipan, famously telling manager Mick McCarthy: "I didn't rate you as a player, I don't rate you as a manager and I don't rate you as a person. You're a fucking wanker and you can stick your World Cup up your arse."

Again, not something you can imagine Jack Butland doing.

Even when his playing days were long behind him, Roy once again proved himself to be Ireland's least sentimental man. When Thierry Henry shattered Ireland's World Cup qualification hopes in 2009 with a callous handball-goal, instead of focusing on Henry's blatant cheating, he blamed the loss on minor Irish defensive errors.

As a club manager, he should be chiefly remembered for his assertion that he wouldn't sign any players with "fancy names and long hair" for his Ipswich side. Naturally, with all that in mind, he was the perfect choice to manage the Irish national team in 2013.

But the Irish FA knew he couldn't do it on his own. I mean, hating the team you manage is a good start, but the reality is that Roy Keane is a shitty football manager and – according to Fergie's book – lacks the patience and temperament to build a good team. Roy could offer the bad vibes, but who was going to provide guidance?

Roy needed a ying to his yang, a Laurel to his Hardy, an Obi-Wan to his Chewbacca, a Method Man to his Redman. That brave man would come in the form of football's resident existentialist PE teacher, Martin O'Neill. A fiercely intelligent manager who's had a terrible run of luck in recent years – a man who can count criminology among his hobbies and Kasabian among his pals. In his own way, Martin's just as passionate as Keane; he represents the quiet man who occasionally goes mad rather than the mad man who occasionally goes quiet.

You can imagine it already: the sociopath and the philosopher standing on the touchline. One threatening to break John O'Shea's legs, the other pondering if it was man's sense of his own mortality that was causing all those mistakes.

It's a truly ridiculous combination, which sort of works, and sort of totally doesn't. Neither of them are managers whose philosophy screams "co-operation". But frankly, that doesn't matter. Because really, such an appointment goes beyond football. Despite their long history of near-glories and beautiful dramas, the Irish national team have been dull as fuck in recent years. Giovanni Trapattoni, the Junior Soprano of international football, started brightly but disappointed massively when it came to crunch time. Which is, of course, the precise opposite of what people want Ireland to do in the World Cup. People want to see them punching massively above their weight – Steve Staunton bossing Raul, Ray Houghton putting it past Italian keepers and Robbie Keane doing his pub-practiced somersault in front of baffled foreign media cameramen. 

But Ireland didn't qualify for the last World Cup and they haven't for this one. In the last European Championships, Ireland played the kind of football that inspires kids to learn rugby, and their journey ended in a miserable 2-0 defeat to Italy, in which Keith Andrews was sent off for dissent. If there's a more depressing way to end a tournament than having Keith Andrews sent off for dissent, I have no idea what it is. 

Ireland often transcend their means with effort alone, and the appointment of Keane and O'Neill (forgetting their recent club disasters) is undoubtedly an attempt to restore some of that spirit. 

Tonight’s game against ex-Southampton man Marian Pahar’s Latvian side will be the first of many tests for this new-look Ireland. On paper, they should easily beat a team whose only player of note is a defender at Reading. But looking back on their last few dire defensive performances, you can’t help but think that simply having four men in the opposition's half will be viewed as a bonus.

At the very least, the team should aspire to be entertaining. And if they can’t do that, then maybe Keano can get out of the dugout and break Pahar’s ankle, leaving O’Neill to charm the press seagulls following his assistant's trawler.

Follow Clive (@thugclive) and Sam (@SptSam) on Twitter

Previously: Alan Pardew Must Pay for His Deal with the Devil