Never in the history of football has the appointment of an assistant coach created as much news as Roy Keane joining Martin O’Neill at Republic of Ireland. Arguably one of the greatest players of his generation, Keane has, however, struggled to bring his knowledge and combative personality over to the coaching side of the game. He has spent the past two years as a pundit on ITV – never short of an opinion and never one to hold back from his true feelings, regardless of personal feelings getting in the way. As an assistant coach myself, the Keane appointment has greatly intrigued me. What will he bring to Martin O’Neill, the team, and the culture of Irish football? The role of an assistant coach can change with any set-up and depends solely on that of the head coach. But there is an intricate science towards being an assistant coach that requires an understanding both of the man in charge and your role in improving the performance of the team. In my opinion, for a successful coach-assistant coach relationship to prosper, three factors must be present.
In order for the team to be successful, assistant coaches must support the head coach in all their decisions and help them fulfill their vision for the team. This is non-negotiable but is not to be confused with simply agreeing on every aspect of the game. Remember Graham Taylor’s much publicized documentary behind-the-scenes documentary as England were attempting to qualify for the 1994 World Cup? His right hand man, Phil Neal, was vilified for his “Yes boss” after every suggestion or remark. There is no doubt Martin O’Neill will trust Roy Keane to give him an honest opinion.
In fact, no one gives you an honest opinion quite like Roy Keane. In the past he has been critical of everything from Irish players, tactics, hierarchy and even the fans. But in his defence, he has always had a solution. He believes in professionalism of the highest order, and for each player to commitment their mind, body, and soul towards the quest for success. There is no doubt that the coaches meetings in Dublin will be passionate and fiery affairs. The biggest test of their relationship will come if and when they have a difference of opinion.
Will Keane sacrifice his beliefs and ideas for the benefit of the team? This is something he must do for the relationship to work. He must never criticize Martin O’Neill and there must always be a united front on the touchline. No doubt the media scrutiny throughout every game will be focused on the interaction on the bench.
Over the last decade, we have seen head coaches in the European game employ assistant coaches who specialize in a certain aspect of the game. These areas are typically as trainers, sport science experts, or player recruitment. This has been somewhat tough to judge on the Keane appointment as we have not yet seen what he specializes in as a coach. He has certainly not been a hands-on coach and was regularly absent from the training ground in both previous spells as a head coach. On the recruiting side, his evaluation of talent has been widely criticized as he spent a lot of money at both Ipswich and Sunderland to very little avail.
The counter argument to that is that day-to-day training is not required in international football, where the coaching staff only have the players for three days at a time before a game. Also, the player pool for Ireland is not big enough for recruitment to become an issue. Maybe Keane’s qualities; the knowledge of the game, leadership, and an element of excitement, are best suited to a national side.
Relationship with Players
This is where it gets really interesting. Roy Keane influenced the dressing room as a player like no one has done before. He helped create a culture at Manchester United where standards were set to the limits and fellow teammates dared not risk falling short. Consequently, the United changing room became a group of hardened winners and silverware was always up for grabs in every competition.
As a coach however, this may have been Keane’s greatest downfall. In his recent book, Sir Alex Ferguson believed that Keane’s relationships with teammates began to decline as soon as he could no longer function as a world class midfielder. He definitely carried the fear factor into Sunderland and Ipswich but it did not have a successful effect on the players.
Relationships broke down and often became public knowledge. However, time is a great healer and we cannot judge Keane on simply his past record. Both Keane and O’Neill are disciples of the Brian Clough School of Coaching where the impact of personalities creates the influence and motivation. This is a tough thing to do with the modern player, but again is much easier to execute in international football where you have less contact time with the players.
As we speculate what will happen with this new managerial team, and how they will operate, there is one critical variable that we know for sure. Martin O’Neill is a very intelligent coach, who does not suffer fools himself and specializes in motivation for the big games. The Irish people must back his judgment. His experience is crucial towards the success of this project and he must have an idea what he needs specifically from his staff. What he will want to extract from Keane are the qualities he had as a player; the drive, the commitment, the standards, and the influence.
My honest opinion is that it is a huge risk, but one worth taking. Yes, it has the ability to go wrong or backfire – just like everything else in the game – but we are all dreamers to a certain extent and, if this goes right, we are all in for a treat. Roy Keane is box office. He will bring an excitement to the set-up, sell every ticket at the Aviva stadium, and demand that no player in a green jersey ever feels overawed by the opposition or an occasion.
Irish football needs this type of excitement like never before. Legendary Irish coach, Jack Charlton, who guided Ireland to 1990 and 1994 World Cups once said of the job; “We never had a huge squad and we never had a great deal of choice. But in many ways that helps because you’ve got to make do with what you’ve got. You don’t have too many problems about picking the team you just hope that everyone turns up on the day.”
Make no mistake, every player will definitely show up with Keane and O’Neill in charge.