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A temporary detour from ecomic issues to Irish soccer madness

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Alex Ferguson with his new autobiography in Dublin last week.
Alex Ferguson with his new autobiography in Dublin last week.

There was plenty of heavy political and economic news here over the past week to do with the bailout exit, a new housing bubble in Dublin, property tax and other serious subjects.

But really there was only one show in town for the media.  All anyone wanted to hear about was Martin and Roy.

As Eamon Dunphy put it when asked on radio if he understood the rationale behind the new management duo for the Irish national soccer team, "It's show biz, folks!"

We all know what he meant.  Martin O'Neill, a former manager of Glasgow Celtic from Northern Ireland, on his own would have been a great choice.  But the addition of Cork-born Roy Keane lifted the whole thing on to a different level altogether because Roy is box office.

It's a pairing made either in heaven or hell, depending on how you look at it.  And it could go either way!  That's why the interest has been phenomenal.

The tension is palpable.   Was O’Neill mad to ask Keane, or inspired?  As the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said, "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that."  

They used to talk about the whiff of sulphur off Gerry Adams.   But Keane is truly explosive, simmering there in his sharp suit on TV football panels these days while viewers everywhere wait for him to go off, to say the un-sayable and then slap down any panelist who disagrees with him.  

As the legendary former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson says in his new book, when Keane got mad with him "his eyes started to narrow, almost to wee black beads.  It was frightening to watch.  And I'm from Glasgow."  

O’Neill may think Keane will behave himself as his assistant.  But who knows?

So the incredible announcement that O’Neill was the new manager and that he had asked Keane to be his assistant and that Keane had accepted after just five seconds was the most serious news last week for a lot of people here.

An incredible 200 alleged journalists and over a dozen TV camera crews turned up for O’Neill’s press conference in the Gibson Hotel, a super-cool new hotel at the far end of the new financial area in Dublin's old docklands.  

The venue, all steel and glass and designer furniture, seemed to emphasize that this was big.   The ranks of the assembled sports writers, news reporters sent to do color pieces and social diary writers sent to see who might turn up, were infiltrated by football "officials" and followers, security men and gawkers of all kinds. It all got very One Direction when the press were kept in a holding area as O’Neill arrived and the officials rushed him into a private room.

God knows what it would have been like if Keane had been there too!  O’Neill emerged ten minutes later to face the press conference looking a bit sheepish and shook hands all round and was as thoughtful and affable as ever.

Mind you, the absence of the new assistant manager (at the Aston Villa game presumably watching Ciaran Clark) allowed the real journalists there to put a few hard questions to O’Neill about Keane.  And to be fair to O’Neill he did not dodge any of them -- for example, at the World Cup pre-training camp in Saipan in 2002, when Keane left the Irish team after a disagreement with manager Mick McCarthy, O’Neill said he thought Keane was wrong and should have got on with it.

And no, he doesn't expect Keane to change.  He wants that intensity, that insight.  "I expect that from Roy," he said.

As my mother used to say, I hope it stays fine for him.   Opinion appears to be somewhat divided here,  but judged by on street interviews and calls to radio, most of the real fans (the ones who actually understand the offside rule) think Keane’s arrival is great.

The most recent Irish boss, Italian Giovanni Trapattoni, had a controlled, defensive approach that sucked the lifeblood out of the Irish team.  The team badly needs that fierce determination, belief and even aggression that Keane brings with him.  That, and O’Neill’s shrewd management could be a winning combination.  

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