It was one of the ugliest scenes witnessed at Lansdowne Road. Not the rampaging of English fans hurling rubble onto Irish supporters. Rather Irish supporters hurling vitriol at a former hero who had captained the country in our first ever World Cup, who had cried in the dressing room when we failed to beat Italy in the quarter-final, who later managed his country to another tournament, and who endured, along with his adversarial skipper, a trauma that would scar any man in ordinary life, let alone his footballing one.
In October 2002, Mick McCarthy’s Ireland were losing at home to Switzerland, having suffered an opening loss on the road to Euro 2004 in Portugal. It was a poisonous atmosphere in Dublin 4. Saipan was at its most red raw and the division in the Irish support that day was palpable. As Ireland desperately sought to get on level terms, Kevin Kilbane bore the brunt of the fans’ ire. Not having one of his best days, Kilbane was vociferously booed from the grandstands, bizarrely shunted into an attacking role before making way for Clinton Morrison. The home side continued to labour and then it happened. The chant rumbled slowly from sections of the crowd before building, and building, “Keano. Keano, Keano” until it rang around the old ground, and it wasn’t for the Irish striker.
McCarthy must have expected such a reaction at some point but this was different. Lansdowne Road may have been falling apart – it was still 5 years away from its demolition to make way for a gleaming modern stadium – but it could always guarantee unwavering support for the home side. Now the Lansdowne Roar was ripped asunder. Men and women in green shirts sitting side-by-side bitterly argued on the terraces, and, in the most public way possible, McCarthy was sent a message. Within three weeks he had resigned.
Well over a decade later the names of Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy are still invariably mentioned in the same sentence along with the ‘S’ word. In the spectacular development this week that’s likely to see Keane installed as Martin O’Neill’s assistant, it’s unfortunate that McCarthy was lined up as the FAI’s second choice. The two men are forced together once more.
McCarthy has had to endure repeated questions at press conferences in recent weeks on whether he had been contacted by the Irish officials. Growing increasingly irked, he repeated his understanding that it was Martin O’Neill’s job to refuse. Now Keane has arrived as part of the package and McCarthy has had to walk away from the Irish job again.
It would be grossly indecent for those staunch Keane supporters to use this appointment as some opportunity to gloat, to seek vindication. Not over McCarthy who has put up with a decade of it. Crowds up and down the UK repeated the ‘Keane’ chant in the aftermath of the 2002 World Cup, most spectacularly during Man United’s feisty encounter with Sunderland when Keane saw red and Jason McAteer infamously made his ‘put it in your book’ hand gesture.
No, the Keane-camp need not take this as a chance to lord it over their fellow Irish fans, of whom a sizable number – and it must be said an increasing one in the wake of verbal outbursts from Keane the manager and pundit – turned on the Corkman in the aftermath of the Saipan fiasco.
“However, whether you were with him or against him, both sides must acknowledge the strength of feeling possessed by the divided factions of the Green Army.”
Many were abhorred by the thought of Keane becoming the Irish manager in his own right. More are just as horrified of his involvement as Martin O’Neill’s number two. Therefore the ‘Dream Team’ that many media outlets have dubbed this partnership is far from unanimously supported.
Of course, this is not Keane’s first return to the Irish set-up since Saipan, despite what some papers have written. It seems forgotten that Brian Kerr was the man who convinced Keane to don the Irish shirt once more.
But this is different. Keane has stepped to the other side of the white line into management and with varying degrees of success. Now, in a sense, he’s stepping into McCarthy’s shoes. The safety net is that the buck stops with O’Neill, not him.
If, as expected, a bumper crowd now attends the home friendly with Latvia to witness the duo’s unveiling, many are going purely out of curiosity. Those who fell out of love with Keane once worshipped him for all the reasons that his supporters did; his ferocity, his determination, his passion, his will to win, and, it has to be said, the fact that he was a hell-raiser.
“Even those who disagreed with his behaviour in 2002 agreed with his desire that the Irish international team should have the highest standards in everything. Now that he’s involved, we will demand the same things.”
The Trapattoni era was not only defined by the style of football, and the empty seats at the Aviva Stadium, but by booing crowds when results didn’t go well, such as the defeat to Russia, and the home draw with Slovakia, a hangover from Steve Staunton’s disastrous tenure and an indication of the changing attitude of the Irish fan.
The Italian was also the focus of an emerging ugly nature of the so called ‘greatest supporters in the world,’ intensified by the advent of social media and instant news reporting. Trapattoni was not just criticised for his footballing decisions, but subjected to sustained vitriolic abuse by keyboard warriors, and type-writer terrorists. “Geriatric, senile, mercenary, shameless, fool, idiot” along with every manner of swear-word were a collection of the terms aimed at the Irish manager.
The 35,000 Irish fans who travelled to Poland in the summer of 2012 were nowhere to be seen at Ireland’s subsequent home qualifiers. If O’Neill and Keane were not touted to take the reins, as expected, this month’s meeting with Latvia was likely to be played in a virtually empty arena.
As it stands, the combination of both men is likely to energise the Irish support, regardless of their previous allegiances. The partnership has been labelled ‘Box-Office’ and many can’t wait to see how it all pans out, with plenty foreseeing disaster because of Keane’s combustible character.
The very fact that Keane’s appointment appears to be overshadowing that of the number one Martin O’Neill gives an indication of what lays ahead.
Many are predicting it will end in tears but the only people crying if that happens will be the Irish supporters who will spend yet another summer watching from afar as the world’s top teams compete on the highest stage.
With Trapattoni in charge, at times there were’t enough people in the stands for the jeers to register. We can only hope the new pair entrusted with Ireland’s fortunes succeed and that the days of boos competing with chants of ‘Keano’ at Lansdowne Road are gone.