There's a Ghost in My House

WWRKD: What would Roy Keane do?
TAGS: Roy Keane
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Roy Keane, pontificator emeritus of Irish football

Photo courtesy of Flickr. 

Oh, sure, you thought Euro 2012 ended on July 1. But these championships keep going long after everyone's headed home and an engineer from the host broadcaster has wrapped up the last heavy-duty cable. Like an election campaign, it's one big crisis point where everything changes, even when nothing does. You may recall—those of you patient enough to play therapist to my whining client over the summer—how the national team of my glorious motherland, Ireland, won the race to be the first side eliminated, in a showing almost entirely without redeeming qualities. In the last fortnight, two veterans of the team, Shay Given and Damien Duff, have retired from international football. The tributes paid to them were (rightly) generous and wistful when reflecting on their past glories and (inevitably) regretful when considering their inglorious curtain call. It may have have ended painfully, but the emphasis was on celebrating what they'd given the team for thirty years between them.

I swear I couldn't help it, I didn't mean for it to happen, and I'm not proud of it, but I did briefly wonder what Roy Keane made of it all. Might he laud Given and Duff's long service? Might he rail against the kind of thinking that wilfully confuses mediocrity for heroism, for a lack of anything better to do? Whatever, if he did choose to say something about it, it would be news. Everything Roy Keane says is news in Ireland. It's not just because he's been the biggest star in Irish football for generations. It's because in his twenty-odd years in the game, he has lacked the will to take an interviewer's question, process it, and return with a laminated prefab answer. He lets loose his quick wits. He is candid, with a nice line in mordancy. What's more, he has a knack for sniffing out a raw wound, and a fondness for jabbing his finger into it.

Keane was on analyst duty for ITV for Ireland's 4-0 defeat to Spain in the Euros. A combination of the Irish fans' defiant choruses and the players' post-match acknowledgement of same drove him to thirty seconds of exasperation which instantly became a talking point in itself. When Roy Keane sneezes, Ireland examines the hankie for portents. At first, it was determined that he had been having a go at the supporters. But the sharpest criticism was aimed at the players, which he clarified a few days later in the Sun on Sunday. "The likes of [Robbie] Keane, Shay Given, Richard Dunne, John O'Shea and Damien Duff are picked every game as they have a big reputation," he wrote. "A reputation for what? They hadn't qualified for anything in 10 years." Elsewhere, he said that he had "no problem with fans singing," so long as it was appropriate: "It's great that they back the team during and before games — but should they really stay on long after the final whistle cheering? There’s a danger that the players think that what has happened on the pitch is acceptable, when it's not." The unspoken corollary was: If only I'd been there...

It was Keane all over. Here was the one who was all too aware of his limitations as a player, yet worked his way to the point where he became the most influential man on the greatest English team of its era. (Eric Cantona was the totem, but Keane was the true spirit of the operation.) He got the better of superior footballers because he held himself to a higher standard. He couldn't afford to fall back on hand-me-down excuses, and he despised others who went in for the luxury. In 2000, Ireland drew 2-2 with the Netherlands in a World Cup qualifier in Amsterdam, after dominating for most of the game and going two goals ahead. Most of the team said afterwards that they were disappointed to lose the lead, but that to draw away to Holland was a good result. To Keane, it felt more like a defeat. To think otherwise was to aim too low: out of cowardice, out of lack of genuine pride, out of not caring enough. It was to fail to come up to scratch.

Ireland has always been split over Keane. The split predated the (whisper it) Saipan incident. The depth of feeling that prompted could not have been generated spontaneously. The fault line was already there; Saipan just ripped it open. In part, the division is, somewhat pathetically, along club lines: Ireland is as strong a bastion of Manchester United fanaticism and ABUism as any other Mancunian suburb. Keane also finds more favour in his native Cork than elsewhere in the country. But it comes mainly because any strong, singular personality is inherently divisive. As a player, he provoked fear and respect in opponents and colleagues alike. He had a hair-trigger temper; never was a man more often described as "brooding." Whatever its origins, Keane's attitude was and remains supremely arrogant: there is a standard you must all meet; I am that standard made flesh; you are all falling short. There was no choice but to thrill to him, whether it was a thrill of delight or disgust or both at once. You couldn't ignore someone who could make that attitude manifest like he did: who could use it to inspire or intimidate his teammates into playing above themselves; who looked like he could deck someone at any minute; who could take his disappointment in the world and with it temporarily shape matter according to his will.

Sportspeople are usually pulled towards moribundity once they retire. Some try to stave off their impotence by going into coaching. There had long been speculation that Keane would become a manager and whip some poor bunch of ingrates into shape. His managerial career so far, at Sunderland and Ipswich Town, has hardly been disastrous, but apart from that brilliant first season with the Black Cats, it has been a sideways crawl. He plans to take up another position in time (over the summer, he was linked with the job at Nottingham Forest, the club that first brought him to England). Either way, his influence was always destined to continue to be felt, in Ireland at least. The mark of Keane is indelible. His voice was always going to heard. It would have been heard even if he never said another word—not that that was ever likely. He fulfills the same role that Johan Cruyff does in Holland: a footballing nation's spirit guide—the ancestral whisper that guides you in the right direction, the ancestral bark that scolds you for taking the wrong path.

Cruyff is different, though. Of course, he too can be egotistical and divisive (this is Dutch football we're talking about, after all); he too is entirely convinced of the righteousness of his beliefs. But he speaks with the knowledge that those beliefs have been tested in the world outside his head—that his ideas were dependent on harnessing the minds of those around him, even if they weren't fortunate enough to be his. His ideas are good not only because he says they are, but because they have been shown to be so, independent of the fact that they came from him.

Keane's starting point is to assume the worst in everyone else. He knows his mind in every detail, and he projects it onto the universe around him. It's Roy Keane's world and everyone else is just a wanker fucking it up—it's a volatile mindset, and it's blown up in everyone's faces more than once, but when he played, it frequently worked, because the sheer force of his personality could be directly and scaldingly felt by his colleagues. It served as a dare to those around him to aim higher.

But deprived of the means of practical application, it's hardened into a frustrated solipsism. His comments in the Sun on Sunday were absurd. His assumption was that the Ireland players, having been trounced by Spain and swept aside by Croatia, would take the lack of abuse or flying bottles of piss as assent for their results and performances. They apparently lack the moral stature to have regarded "The Fields of Athenry" as anything other than a tonic, dissolving the humiliation their feeble constitutions couldn't withstand and flushing it away. We are left to infer that he wouldn't have felt that way. Keane is, like most of us, complicated, but he rarely allows for nuance in others. "They love having a dig back when I say something," he wrote, "but I tell you now, I'll be ready if they do because players have to be accountable for how the team did." As if the players didn't instinctively realise that—they needed someone to knock some sense into them, and Roy Keane knows just the fella.

The problem with Keane's philosophy is that he puts himself so firmly at its centre that it makes little sense without his direct involvement, whatever merit it might have—knock away the Keane-shaped prop and, under the gravity of the real world, it falls apart. His belief in a near-neurotic refusal to settle for second-best is an eminently useful one. But it's identified so closely with him—and he identifies himself so closely with it—that the message becomes secondary, and he is too easily resented as someone who thinks he invented the very concept of giving a shit. It's just another round in the perpetual Keane v. World bout. He's a provocateur whose heart is in the right place—he does it out of genuine conviction, not for kicks. But the provocation has no sense of its end point. It's all poetry and no poem.

What is Roy Keane? Is he Irish football's conscience? Is he an old pugilist hanging around outside the boxing club, challenging the young fighters walking through the door to a scrap right here and now? Is he the keeper of the Irish soul or just someone marking his territory? Why does it even matter? Irish football is a small world, and one with an unsteady idea of its own identity. When someone as outstanding as Keane comes along, he is bound to make a dent. In the bigger, brasher world of the English game, it has often been safe to identify Keane as a dangerous animal and cordon him off. In Ireland, we have had no choice but to see him up close and in full. That, too, can make for simplistic readings, but at least it makes for a range of them. There is a minor personality cult whose inductees' ideal world would be populated entirely by Roy Keanes. This is offset by those who think the world would have been infinitely better off without his presence. The latter scenario would be a great shame, the former a disaster zone.

But as time goes on, the subtleties of Keane's character, the interfaces and tensions between its facets, risk getting worn away completely. For example, his TV punditry work was gleefully anticipated not because of what he might contribute to the discourse, but because of the chance he might go off on one. UK television coverage of football is so sickeningly antiseptic that any kind of dirt is revered as a holy relic. Keane is nobody's clown, and he's been careful to mostly stay bland, but there's a danger he might end up as an Eamon Dunphy who isn't in on the joke. A decade or so ago, there was a magazine ad for Keane's boot supplier which featured a "Keano" doll: "EASY WIND-UP ACTION!!! ... TOUCH MY LEGS AND HEAR ME GROWL." I wonder whether he approved it: there was always more to him than the red mist. But then, it's never been easy to work out how much he wants to be understood and how much he wants to be misunderstood.

His comments on Ireland at the Euros might have been a glimpse into his future: a man left with nothing to grapple with but thin air. A good managerial career could change that. He may yet prove that his philosophy has a real use, if he can bring himself to see that management is ultimately a collaborative effort. There's still time. As of now, there's nothing he can do. But doing is all he can do.


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