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UEFA Nations League: O’Neill facing Roy Keane Conundrum

The first international break of the season has been one to forget for the Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill. A facile 1-1 draw away against a makeshift Poland side on Tuesday night ended a horrible fortnight for the former Celtic manager.

The embarrassing 4-1 loss in Wales last week was preceded by the capitulation in the World Cup play-off at home to Denmark last November. The horrific recent results and performances have highlighted the fractured morale within the Irish squad. The alleged behaviour of Roy Keane in his altercation with Harry Arter last June is yet another problem Martin O’Neill could do without having to face. Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have two crucial home international matches in the UEFA Nations League next month, with both men knowing they must get positive results if they are to avoid increased scrutiny regarding their futures managing the Republic of Ireland.

When Martin O’Neill named Roy Keane as his assistant in 2013, many cynical fans and commentators in Ireland saw the move as a way for the Football Association of Ireland to sell more match tickets. The former Manchester United and Ireland captain is a box office name who divides opinion in his homeland. Keane will forever be adored by the many hordes of Irish based Manchester United fans, and this will never change. However, he is also reviled by many Irish people who believe he abandoned his country when he opted not to go to the 2002 World Cup due to the infamous Saipan incident. The Cork man was renowned as a player for his winning attitude and his ability to inspire his fellow players. Keane demanded nothing but excellence from his teammates even in the training sessions. This trait has not transferred well into the modern football management and has led to many off the field controversies involving Keane and players he has coached.

The latest training ground fracas involving Keane came last June when he had two explosive arguments with Jon Walters and Harry Arter. There is a history of disagreements between Walters and Keane dating back to their days at Ipswich together. The Burnley striker didn’t back down to his assistant manager, and the issue now appears to be forgotten. The second argument with the on-loan Cardiff midfielder is reported to have included an expletive-laden tirade of abuse from Keane towards Arter. Arter who qualifies to play for Ireland because of the grandparent rule decided not to make himself available for the September internationals. Ireland captain Seamus Coleman has agreed to make himself available to arbitrate a resolution to the issue and get Harry Arter to return to the squad for October’s crucial doubleheader with Denmark and Wales. O’Neill has elected to support his assistant publicly and has raised doubts of the veracity of many of the reported accounts of the clash.

First of all, I don’t think that Stephen [Ward] was there,” O’Neill told The Telegraph . “Stephen wasn’t actually there. He was just picking up on things; something that we talked about at the beginning of the week.

“Probably not anything more really to report. Jon [Walters] is fine. Harry is perhaps not so fine. But I said to you before, you would have to ask whether that is the complete reason why Harry is not participating in these games this time.

“I think you probably know that anyway, because Harry has let that be known to a few people anyway, on the reasons that he has decided not to come.”

Asked if Keane had a problem with any of Ireland’s players, O’Neill replied: “I would have to say, absolutely not”

“First of all, the incidents took place at the end of May,” he added. “They have surfaced months later. It’s not the first altercation between players and staff. I had one with the man beside me on Friday [David Meyler] and he took it on board.

“We have lost two competitive games on the trot. In the previous 11 we lost one. I’ve capped eight players this year to get us ready.

“These two confrontations took place months ago, they happen all the time, I will be astonished if there isn’t one between now and November.”

“We could not have reached the Euros, we could not have performed in the manner we did in the World Cup campaign moving from fourth seeds to second place, unless the morale was sky high,” he added.

Every press conference, members of the media attempt to get a soundbite from Keane. One man appears to be the centre of attention, and he is not even a player in the squad. He is still arguably the most prominent current Irish sports star even accounting for the emergence of Conor McGregor in the past five years. Keane’s legacy as a player, his will to win and his love for his country, were without a doubt, some of the main positives for bringing him into the Irish coaching set-up. It is now a matter of debate whether Keane still retains the respect and faith of many of the players within the Irish squad. Keane’s inability to manage his level of rage both on and off the pitch has always been his Achilles heel. The former midfielder’s seemingly uncontrollable temper is viewed by many as the main reason why he missed out captaining his country at a World Cup and why Alex Ferguson exiled him from Manchester United to Celtic in 2005.

Former Irish greats, John Giles and Liam Brady, have been severely critical of Keane in the last week and fervently believe that his involvement within the set-up is a constant needless distraction. Suggestions of an orderly succession plan involving Keane taking over from O’Neill once he chooses to leave the role of Irish manager now appear unlikely to materialise. The issue of Declan Rice’s international future with Ireland, mending the rift with Harry Arter and replacing the injured Seamus Coleman are the three most pressing issues ahead of the doubleheader next month. If Ireland fails to perform in the home games in Dublin, it is highly probable they will fall into pot 3 for the Euro 2020 draw in November. Dublin’s Aviva Stadium will host matches, and it will be a considerable embarrassment if the country does not qualify for the tournament. The monumental pressure to get points from the next two games cannot be underestimated. Martin O’Neill needs Roy Keane to make a positive impact on the Irish squad much like he was able to do for the Euro 2016 qualifiers. Keane and O’Neill futures will, without doubt, continue to cause fevered debate in Irish footballing circles in the weeks and months ahead.

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