At it, Niall Quinn ended up sitting beside Terry Phelan, the speedy little left-back who adorned various Irish sides in the mid-1990s. A nomadic soul, Phelan now lives on an island off the coast of New Zealand, neither keeping in touch with nor giving a thought to the world of Irish soccer he’s long since left behind.
They got to talking and Phelan eventually enquired of Quinn what it was he was doing with himself these days, making him almost certainly the only person in the room to be unaware that old Disco Pants is now the chairman of Sunderland. “Really?” said Phelan. “And who’s the manager there?” Quinn just burst out laughing. “Fair play to you Phelo,” he said. “You must be the last man on Earth to know.”
You can be sure Quinn filled him in. On how Roy Keane took his club over after five straight defeats had opened the season. On how he bought and sold players with the fervor of a horse trader over the next few months, involving the club in over 30 transfer deals, reviving the whole place as if by blood transfusion.
On how a team which was dead bottom of the Championship and lumbered with a goal difference of minus when he arrived have moved smoothly to within touching distance of promotion and now boast a goal difference of +22, the best in the league. On how they haven’t been beaten yet in 2007, despite having faced all but one of their main rivals for the golden ticket to the Premiership. On how the punt Quinn took on Keane back in early September looks like paying off in the most spectacular fashion over the next few weeks.
And maybe, in the end, Quinn will have smiled and filled Phelan in on how for all the things that go on in Ireland, sporting and non-sporting, there isn’t and has never been a man who’s deeds captivate and engross the Irish public like Roy Keane does. We’re coming up on the five-year anniversary of Saipan and all that and it’s still impossible not to be drawn to him, to his story.
In quieter moments, it’s sometimes worth wondering just why this is. There are the obvious reasons, of course. He’s good at what he does and he’s always willing to have a go and cause a bit of consternation if needs be – see his recent comments about Liam Miller being ignored for Ireland because he’s from Cork for evidence of that. But there’s got to be more to it than just being a cranky entry point to the world of football that fascinates people so.
A theory that does the job as well as any is that he appeals to the part of all of us that is disappointed in ourselves. The side of our personality that knows that if we’d just worked that extra hour or two we’d have done an excellent job rather than just a very good one. The side that nags us about not doing that good deed for a friend because we know they won’t hold it against us. The side that questions us and scolds us tells us to cop on to ourselves. Nobody is so feckless as to not have that side to them and yet very few are so responsible as to listen to it more than just occasionally.
The more you’re around sportspeople, the more of them you find to let you down. They’re not bad people, they just suppress that nagging voice at times and take more short-cuts than they should. Then, when it’s all over and they haven’t done what they could have, they blame bad luck or bad timing or bad refereeing. Maybe the reason we follow Keane’s every move is that he’s so demanding of that extra hour that the rest of us hate that we can’t give.
It’s either that or we’re just a nosy shower with nothing better to be at until something decent comes on the TV.
get their chance
The argument outlined above doesn’t mean to suggest that Roy Keane is right all the time. Indeed, there’s no doubt that he retains just the same capacity for talking through his hat that the rest of us do from time to time. While he stood very firmly over his thoughts on Liam Miller’s absence from the recent Ireland squad, he has to have known he was on very shaky ground at the time.
There was the makings of a point in what he had to say but he failed spectacularly to do so. Nobody could, with any sort of straight face, dent that there was a time in the not-at-all recent past when players from outside Dublin had to be of an inordinate standard to get into Irish squads. Sean McCaffrey, the current coach of the under-17 and under-19 teams, could tell you a million tales from his time trying to get players from his home town of Monaghan trials with Irish schoolboy sides and failing miserably.
He once had a player under his care who was scoring three goals a game for his under-15 club side but who, when he turned up at a schoolboy trial, was given the last 10 minutes of the game at left-back. His face and his accent didn’t fit, he didn’t play in the Dublin Schoolboys League and the coaches therefore assumed he wasn’t worth their time. None but the most one-eyed Jackeen could argue that such a scenario was anything other than par for the course up to as recently as three or four years ago.
Things have changed, though. They’ve changed slowly but they’ve changed. For all that the FAI are continually lampooned, they’ve came around in the end to the notion that being born in Tallaght makes you no more likely to be able to wrap your foot around a ball than if you were born in Tralee. The nationwide explosion in soccer’s popularity that followed the Charlton years has raised a generation of professional footballers from all across the island and more and more, those players are getting their chance.
You need only look at the side that took the pitch against Slovakia last Wednesday as all the proof needed to make a mockery of Keane’s argument. Of the 14 players who played – including substitutes – only Richard Dunne, Damien Duff and Alan Quinn were from Dublin. With Kevin Kilbane, Lee Carsley and Aiden McGeady flying the flag for the diaspora (Steve Finnan too, even though he was born in Limerick), the rest are made up from all corners of the country. Shay Given is from Donegal, John O’Shea and Stephen Hunt from Waterford, Paul McShane from Wicklow, Kevin Doyle a Wexfordman and Shane Long from Tipp. And just to put the tin lid on it, Stephen Ireland is from the very town in which Keane used to play League of Ireland soccer, the little Cork port town of Cobh.
As a trend, it hints encouragingly at the tip of an iceberg. At that FAI dinner a couple of weeks back, Long was the only Tipperary man in the room, Jonathan Douglas the sole Monaghan representative. Doyle bridges a 75-year gap back to Billy Lacey so far as Wexfordmen playing for Ireland goes. It is taking time but gradually, players from Down the Country are getting a shake.
Sorry Roy, but it’s the truth.
out of Heineken
It seems that with one fell swoop last weekend, the national interest in rugby vanished into thin air. It kind of took everyone by surprise. There we were, one minute planning our trips to London for the Heineken Cup final in May, the next wandering around blinking like people who’ve just had the blindfold taken off and been shoved out of a getaway car. Munster were torn asunder in Wales in Friday night by a Llanelli side whose dominance over the Irish side would have been remarkable were it not for the fact that Wasps comfortably outstripped them in denuding Leinster the following day. In the space of 24 hours, the Irish rugby season was over. Just like that.
There’ll be Magners League and the national side’s tour to Argentina in the summer to be looking at over the coming months but in a sport with which a lot of the public are still only just coming to terms (having all but refused to acknowledged its existence before, say, 2000) there’s going to be nothing to see really until the World Cup starts looming in the autumn.
Whatever will we find to watch in Croke Park in the meantime?