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Roy Keane wants Ireland's footballers to be men, not boys

Why the assistant boss’ coaching philosophy can be traced back to ex-Sunderland striker Stern John.

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IN RECENT WEEKS, some critics have questioned why no new faces have been introduced into the Ireland squad in the aftermath of the Euro 2016 campaign, as the Boys in Green prepare for their vital opening Euro 2016 qualifier against Serbia on Monday.

On the other hand, at his press conference on Friday, Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane dismissed the idea that the youngsters in question necessarily deserve a place in the set-up and urged them to “earn it”.

Perhaps the absence of new players in the latest squad shouldn’t have raised eyebrows. A recurring theme of the O’Neill era has been a preference for experience over youth, with Ireland having the oldest squad at Euro 2016 and 31 being the average age of the group picked to travel to Serbia.

To make matters more interesting, on Monday, they face a distinctly young-looking Serbian squad with many players having come through an acclaimed and highly successful youth set-up. Of the squad’s 27 players, 11 are aged 23 or under, whereas only one Irish player (Cyrus Christie) is under the age of 24. Moreover, the hosts will also be missing two important, experienced Premier League players — the suspended duo of Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolarov.

By contrast, Keane spoke during the week of certain Irish players “building reputations before they’ve kicked a ball” and said that people were “sadly mistaken” if they thought any of the established players would be giving up their places lightly.

In his initial comment, the Corkonian was perhaps referring to the promising likes of Jack Byrne and Eoghan O’Connell, who have received plenty of hype in recent times despite limited experience at senior level.

The Irish assistant boss talked about the need for these youngsters to be playing regular first-team football, yet in some cases, they have featured more than their elder counterparts.

21-year-old defender Eoghan O’Connell has three Champions League and two Scottish Premiership appearances, while 27-year-old Ireland squad regular Alex Pearce has yet to start a game for Derby in the Championship.

The inexperienced Stephen Henderson has been a regular for Nottingham Forest in the Championship this season, while more established Ireland players such as Darren Randolph and David Forde were preferred despite the former suffering from a lack of game time at club level and the latter playing two divisions below the Dubliner.

The fact that the rather awkward and inconvenient call-up of Dundalk’s Gary Rogers was decided upon after Forde’s late withdrawal also suggests O’Neill and Keane don’t hold Henderson in particularly high esteem.

Similarly, of the other squad regulars, 30-year-old Stephen Quinn has not started a game in the Championship for Reading, while 26-year-old Eunan O’Kane hasn’t featured at all since the start of the season. By contrast, promising youngsters Jack Byrne (20), Alan Browne (21) and Darragh Lenihan (22), all of whom featured in Noel King’s most recent U21 squad, have each made six appearances for their clubs this season.

But perhaps there is a deeper reason why O’Neill and Keane seem somewhat reluctant to call up younger players.

One of the particularly interesting passages from Keane’s autobiography, The Second Half, focuses on Trinidadian striker Stern John.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Birmingham City v Sunderland - St Andrews Stern John, in many ways, came to represent Roy Keane's ideal of what a footballer should be. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

The veteran forward didn’t exactly set the world alight after Keane bought him while manager at Sunderland. John made 16 appearances in total for the Black Cats and scored five goals before being sold to Southampton, yet Keane calls him one of his “best” signings during his time as manager at the Stadium of Light.

In the book, Keane writes: “I knew he’d be a man, and he was one of the best men I’ve come across. I knew he could deal with coming up to Sunderland. I knew he wouldn’t be coming into my office with, ‘Can I have a day off next week ’cos my wife needs a scan?’ I knew I wouldn’t have to baby-sit him.

“A year or so later I was after Kenwyne Jones, and I told Stern, ‘I don’t want to sell you, but I’m trying to get Kenwyne Jones in and Southampton want you as part of the deal.’

“He said, ‘Okay, I’ll go for it.’

“He stood up and shook my hand.

“‘Thanks for everything.’

“And I went, ‘That’s why I signed you.’

“A man.

“He was brilliant.”

Similarly, when asked about England’s 2014 World Cup hopes ahead of the tournament, Keane correctly predicted that their players would “struggle”. Reflecting on the Three Lions’ subsequent failure, Keane said: “If I look at the England squad and the players then a lot of them still lack vital experience. Whether it’s Champions League experience or big-game experience.

“A lot of those players are yet to win a trophy and yet people still expect them to go to the World Cup and reach the quarters or semi-finals.

“People are ranting and raving about the younger players — they still have a lot to do.”

So clearly, Keane has an old-school mentality, and is no doubt one of the many people who feel young footballers nowadays get too much too soon. The Irish footballing legend is far from the only distinguished ex-player to express such thoughts — after England’s Euro 2016 failure, Jamie Carragher wrote a scathing Daily Mail column entitled: ‘English players are weak… we think we are making them men but we’re creating babies’.

As far as the former Manchester United player is concerned, qualities such as character and experience are clearly at least equally as important as the statistical evidence of a footballer’s ability. Remember, for example, Keane’s infamous Arsenal “selfies” comment last year?

A first international call-up remains a significant milestone in footballers’ careers, and the Irish management team seem determined to avoid rewarding players prematurely.

O’Neill is seemingly of a similar mindset to Keane. Think of arguably the Derry native’s biggest period of managerial success, when he was at Celtic. Consider the Glasgow club’s main players during that period — Bobo Balde, Stiliyan Petrov, Neil Lennon, Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton and John Hartson among others. These individuals were largely strong, solid, dependable, highly experienced and yes, manly footballers.

In this context, it’s easy to see why O’Neill and Keane will continue to rely on veterans such as John O’Shea, Glenn Whelan and Daryl Murphy at the expense of promising youngsters, including O’Connell and Byrne.

Quite simply, Keane and O’Neill want men, not boys, in their team. For better or worse, it’s integral to their philosophy on the game. And so on Monday, Ireland’s experienced stalwarts will be hoping to teach Serbia’s kids a lesson.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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