It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Rewind just over a year and the rehabilitation was almost complete. In the after-glow of James McClean’s smash-and-grab in Cardiff, the succession plan was set in stone.
Martin O’Neill would have the reins until Euro 2020 probably, before being passed smoothly to Roy Keane.
Yet, as the field became apparent on Wednesday, one name was conspicuous by its absence. It quickly became clear that this race would be run without the former assistant manager.
Martin O’Neill (left) and Roy Keane were sacked by Ireland on Wednesday afternoon
Their time together at Ireland comes to an end after a bad poor run of recent form
As Keane leaves another job, the same question follows him out the door as when he left both Sunderland and Ipswich. Does he have the temperament to become a top-class manager?
Previously, defenders of Keane’s character were easier to find. The show has now got old. The bust-up with Harry Arter, and what subsequently emerged in the leaked WhatsApp voice message, was one row too many.
Even the half of the country who will go to their grave supporting his stance in Saipan have grown tired of his antics. Even Manchester United supporters who backed him to the hilt in his feud with Alex Ferguson are weary.
The most compelling and divisive Irish sporting figure in history is in danger of slipping into relative obscurity.
O’Neill departs leaving a void at the top of Irish football once again with a replacement needed
12 – Roy Keane won promotion to the Premier League as Sunderland boss 12 years ago in 2006/07
Some of it might not be his fault. A common refrain in the past five years was to wonder what exact role he fulfilled within the managerial dream team, given that our midfield often looked so devoid of ideas. One unintentional part was to provide light relief to O’Neill’s spikiness. His regular jousts with the media were usually the most entertaining aspect of the international week, even if the sideshow did rub some people up the wrong way.
Liam Brady, a long-standing critic, remarked: ‘Every time there is an international match there is a story about Roy Keane, whether he is having a go at somebody or launching another book. Martin O’Neill, or the powers that be, have to say, “Enough of this”. This has got to stop.’
But O’Neill and the powers-that-be wouldn’t have had it any other way. Putting Roy on display and allowing him to give a state-of-the-nation address masked many issues. But in the past six weeks, when deflection was needed more than ever, the assistant manager was not heard.
Keane must now go in another direction and find another job in football management
If Keane’s voice had been muzzled in public, it also seemed to be muffled on the training ground. During his time as one of the world’s pre-eminent midfielders, he was never afraid of putting his foot on the ball and yet, Keane seemingly had no solution to the current malaise in our midfield.
It is said that Keane left such a lasting mark at Old Trafford that his voice was still ringing around the training ground long after his departure. In his autobiography, Michael Carrick, who replaced Keane in the No 16 shirt, captured that legacy when he recalled that Rio Ferdinand told him that Keane once gave him a bollocking for not passing the ball forward. ‘Take risks. You’re not at Leeds or West Ham now, you are at Man United.’
Carrick, who only joined the club a year after the Corkman left, reckoned Keane lived on at United in the high standards that he demanded. But that spirit was missing in the Ireland set-up. The Irish players, especially those in midfield, seemed terrified, but maybe it was Keane they were terrified of.
In his maiden press conference as assistant manager, he poked fun at the caricature of himself, claiming that he was no monster. And his lack of ego was refreshing in taking the No 2 job to O’Neill, and Paul Lambert at Aston Villa, in an effort to learn some of the man-management skills that may have been missing.
Keane is known for setting high standards but that approached may not have always worked
In his second autobiography, The Second Half, Keane said that he wanted to combine Brian Clough’s warmth and Alex Ferguson’s ruthlessness. But it looks like he didn’t pick up from his mentors an ability to find what makes individual players tick, the mark of any great man-manager – and that can often lead to confrontation.
Even when things were going swimmingly under O’Neill, Keane’s fiery nature caused disruption. He had a bust-up with Aiden McGeady before Euro 2016 and his brief time as Lambert’s assistant was also characterised by run-ins with senior players such as Gabriel Agbonlahor and Tom Cleverly, whom Keane is alleged to have made a house-call to after stepping away.
Keane’s extraordinary first year in football management, when he saved Sunderland from League One and possible oblivion, is always held up as an example of his potential.
Keane, unveiled as Sunderland manager by Niall Quinn in 2006, enjoyed a fine first year
Keane walks behind his mentor and former manager Man United manager Sir Alex Ferguson
Keane collects player of the month award alongside Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough
But it’s more than a decade now since he took the Black Cats to the Premier League. There has been no suggestion since that he has re-discovered the magic. And the story does always seem to end the same way.
Everything that has emerged in the past few weeks would make the notion of a return to club management unlikely. Or maybe not. He will always be box office.
Even in the final days at Ipswich, when things had turned particularly nasty and toxic, a Sky Sports news camera crew would turn up at Portman Road on a Friday morning to capture his latest state-of-the-nation address. In the rolling news era, Keane would guarantee headlines for 24 hours. And more.
There may well be an ambitious chairperson in the lower reaches of the Championship or League One who is willing to take a punt on Keane. Simply for the guaranteed airtime for the club and their sponsors every Friday.
Never returning to the stage at all may be preferable to seeing one of Ireland and the Premier League’s greatest ever players reduced to that sort of sideshow.