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Part Messier, part Mattingly and part LT, Roy Keane returns to Ireland's soccer team

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Memorable Keane moment: in the must win 2001 match against
Holland Keane 'took care' of Dutch star Marc Overmars in the
 first minute, setting the tone for an Irish win.
{Photo: TheJournal.ie}

If you follow soccer you probably know Roy Keane is back with the Irish national soccer team, this time as a coach, not a player. Tonight Ireland has its second match under its recently appointed regime with Martin O'Neill as head coach assisted by Keane. It's really Keane, however, who has Irish fans excited – not for what the team will do, but for what he will do.

If you don't know who Roy Keane is, if you never saw him play, well he was something else. Keane was a unique combination of will and anger, skill and thuggishness – a great player who made his teammates better players, but often let them down with his own indiscretions. He was never theatrical, but always dramatic.

He was like Don Mattingly, but without the even temper. He was like Lawrence Taylor, but without the cocaine and convictions. He was like Mark Messier, but without the smile (or tears).

Like Mattingly, Keane always seemed prepared, a professional. Like Taylor, Keane combined talent, will and aggression to become the most feared player in the league. And like Messier, Keane was a captain, a leader and a winner. Just as Messier willed the Rangers to victory in 1994 that was what Keane was like for Manchester United in 1999 when they won the Champions League.

With Ireland Keane played mostly with players who were not the caliber of his Manchester United teammates. Regardless, he played hard and lifted his teammates to higher levels. His greatest achievement with the Irish team was when they qualified for the 2002 World Cup.

Then came Saipan. To most of the world Saipan is a small island in the Pacific, site of a bloody WWII battle. To the Irish Saipan is one of life's great 'If onlys'.

The Irish team arrived in Saipan before the 2002 World Cup full of joy at having qualified, but without the equipment they needed to prepare for the tournament. A “Sure, it'll be grand” attitude ruled. Except with Keane.

Keane arrived without joy, but with a fire in his belly for the tournament ahead. He wanted to win – to win the World Cup. To Keane everyone else was 'just happy to be here.' He couldn't take it and what followed was a slow motion eruption that ended with Keane sent home by the manager, Mick McCarthy.

The people of Ireland were riven between those who backed Keane and those who backed McCarthy. It was a civil war with brother against brother. It was the main story on the nightly news for weeks. Would Keane return to the team or remain 'offside'? People beseeched the government: 'Fix this!'

In the end, Keane stayed home. The team played admirably, but they were eliminated in the second round when they failed to recognize that Spain was playing one man short during extra time – a definite failing of leadership.

Would they have done better with Keane? Undoubtedly. Would they have won the World Cup? Probably not, as the eventual winners, Brazil, looked far superior to every other team. However, given how things played out the Irish team may well have been Brazil's opponent in the final if Keane had been there. 'If only ...'

But it was not meant to be. What we learned then is that the Ireland of 2002 wasn't much different than the Ireland of 1902. Roy Keane, like other difficult geniuses Ireland has produced, could not cope with Ireland nor Ireland with Keane.

Yet, now he's back and the nation is agog. The media is following his every move, dissecting every twitch, seeking meaning in every word. 'How long will it last?' is what everyone wants to know.

For now all is peaceful, but more than any other people the Irish know that this is not how things stay. The plot thickens, the drama intensifies and builds to the climax which, inevitably, ends in tragedy. Then it will be 'Exit Keano – stage left.'

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