The Irish question

WELL, Mick McCarthy has resigned as Ireland's manager and Roy Keane, the root cause of it, may or may not come back to the national team. In his six years in charge McCarthy, slightly more Irish than his Geordie predecessor, Jackie Charlton - he's a Yorkshireman of Irish descent - nearly got his team to Euro 2000 and did, so splendidly, not only get them all the way to the 2002 World Cup, but went out to Spain in Suwon only on penalties. Having gallantly acquitted themselves in the preliminary stage when Germany the eventual finalists were held to a draw. Arguably the Irish might even have beaten Spain had Keane, far and away their best player and to some the best in Britain, only been on board. But of course he wasn't after his bitter confrontation with McCarthy on the Japanese island of Saipan before hostilities began. There had long been bad blood between them, and though McCarthy in the event had no alternative but to let Keane go home, I do still believe it was avoidable.

Let us turn back in time to what occurred. The ever combustible Keane was incensed by the casual and inadequate training facilities on Saipan an island without a decent football pitch best or worst known for its brothels and casinos. He made his feelings vigorously known, as is his wont. Had McCarthy taken him aside one to one man to man, there would doubtless still have been an eruption, but it might well have been contained. What happened of course was that McCarthy chose to face Keane not on his own but in the presence of a bunch of other Irish players. So the epithets flew, McCarthy was subjected to obscene abuse, so, much so that even Keane's teammates were shocked and Keane headed back to England.

I asked myself then and still ask myself now whether McCarthy, consciously or unconsciously, did not achieve the effect he desired. Surely he must have known what would inevitably occur once Keane was subjected to what he plainly and understandably saw as the humiliation of being rebuked in front of his fellow players. In Ireland itself, however, Keane has far more support than Mick McCarthy, not least among the football Press.

Indeed, when Ireland had lost their second Euro qualifying match this season in Dublin to the Swiss, there was the repugnant sight of Irish journalists standing up in the Press box and cheering, knowing that McCarthy was on his way out. The previous game had been lost to Russia in Moscow. The bottom seemed to have fallen out of the Irish adventure.

Had McCarthy lost his way? For me he was never in the same class managerially as the admittedly super pragmatic, ultra careful, Jackie Charlton; who by the way has also been denigrated, in print, by Keane. There were times when McCarthy's strategies misguided. Especially when, in the penultimate Euro 2000 qualifier in Zagreb versus Croatia, with just a seemingly soft match in Malta to come, he elected to put out a weekend team, play ultra defensively; and thus lose at the very end of added time. So it was Croatia rather than the Irish who prevailed.

Keane threw oil and plenty of it on the flames when a few months ago he published an autobiography ghosted by the journalist and former Irish international, Eamonn Dunphy. In it Keane, or perhaps Dunphy, was rash enough to describe in truly horrifying detail how he had revenged himself with a shocking foul on Alf Inge Haaland in a derby against Manchester City. To see that foul when it is shown on television still make the blood run cold. Moreover, Keane gave chapter and verse on the volley of brutal insults with which he accompanied the assault: for which he was quite properly sent off.

It was by his own admission a long desired "revenge" for what happened in a match at Leeds between Manchester United and Leeds United. Trying by his own admission to foul Haaland, Keane succeeded only in hurting himself to such an extent - torn cruciate ligaments - that he would be out of the game for many months. Haaland he said had stood over him and accused him of faking. Which, in the circumstances, Haaland may erroneously have thought to be the case. After all, he knew that Keane had been trying painfully to foul him.

The consequence of what Keane wrote was that the Football Association heavily fined Keane and suspended him; a suspension he was, in fact, able to serve out while recovering from an operation. Meanwhile he'd been in more trouble for a dreadful assault during a match against Sunderland on his Ireland team mate Jason McAteer, coming up behind him to drive an elbow into his head. Another red card.

In such circumstances, the suggestion of the former Irish international and player-manager of the team, Johnny Giles, that Keane be made the new manager seemed utterly ludicrous and unworthy of someone who has always been a keen and shrewd student of the game. Keane is a loose cannon, a fine player but a sporadically violent man, the last kind of character you would put in charge of a football team. How much patience would he have with those who dared to disagree with him or who he felt on the field were not pulling their weight? We have often seen how he upbraids his Manchester United teammates on the field when he finds them wanting.

One way and another the Irish public took to Jackie Charlton, who got the team twice to the World Cup finals, in Italy and in the USA, in a way they never did take to McCarthy who, at least, had Irish blood. This despite the fact that Jackie, whose testimonials in Ireland made him rich, eschewed the romantic approach, the Irish might have been expected to prefer and enjoy, casting out the two technically adept Arsenal players, centre half David O'Leary, who didn't want to keep booting the ball long out of defence, and that elegant inventive playmaker, Liam Brady.

Arguably the Irish have played more football under McCarthy though the towering head of Niall Quinn who has only just returned from the game was always a preferred and productive target. And McCarthy's achievement in qualifying his team for the last World Cup in a group where they actually eliminated the powerful Dutch, who where unable to beat them, was remarkable. Even then, Ireland had to overcome Iran in a play off. But Irish eyes may be smiling; Irish memories seem short. In football, not politics!