05 April 2008

Lessons in Loyalty

There's a marvellous interview with Roy Keane in today's Irish Times, conducted by Tom Humphries, who I tend not to think of as one of Ireland's best sports journalists, but rather as one of Ireland's best journalists, and one who just happens to write about sport. He has quite a history with Keane, of course, having conducted the interview that precipitated the whole Homeric Saipan affair -- thus ultimately inspiring I, Keano -- and seems to be rather good at getting Keane to open up.

I never liked Keane as a player -- for all his talent and industry, I felt he was basically a thug. Sure, when he was in green he was our thug, but a thug nonetheless. As a manager though, I keep being impressed, being struck by his intelligence, his freshness, his openness, and indeed his humility. This little detail is very telling.
Things are changing with him anyway. Sunderland has infected him. For instance he pays some attention now to the wisdom of crowds. A few weeks ago against Everton in the Black Cats' own backyard he heard a voice behind him having a pop. He swivelled around and caught the end of the it. "Playing for 75 minutes with one up front and it isn't effin working ya . . ."

His face darkened and then.

"Do you know what? He was spot on. We had five in the middle and one up front and it wasn't working. It's like that. He was right. I don't always agree but a lot of time fans are spot on. Sometimes we get nasty letters. Sue in the office, well I don't think she shows me many, just the odd one when she thinks I should know what is going on. She gave me one last week. This man was having a go at the way we played (pause). So I rang him up."

At this point he allows a moment for you to picture the stricken features of the poor soul who hastily committed his frustrations to the vellum and sent them off confident perhaps that Sue in the office would either include the epistle in the bundle for the days shredding or hand it over in a sheaf heavy with disgruntlement. And here now was Roy Keane on the other end of the telephone. The thump, thump, thump of that vein in his temple audible down the line.


"Ah, we had a chat. I said to him I knew what he was saying but it isn't time yet. In a few years hopefully we will have five maybe six players capable of getting forward but for now we have to survive. We need to play the way we do to stay in the division. Not to be a yo-yo club."
Patience is a virtue, after all, and realism matters. It's the kind of thing I wish legions of posters on Toffeeweb would keep in mind, that construction schedules for eternal cities are perhaps of their nature not so speedy as we might wish. It's interesting to see him cast a cold eye on loyalty in professional sport, too.
United. It's a surprise to hear him say he feels no affinity with any of his former professional clubs. Everything is changing though. He goes to clubs now as a manager where he remembers being booed, and fighting tooth and nail with the locals and hating the sight of their jerseys and they are wonderfully courteous and friendly to him. Good people. Arsenal couldn't be more decent. Arsene Wenger and Pat Rice. Rafa. Great. David Moyes. Excellent. He spent some time with Martin O'Neill after the Villa game and he could have sat listening to him all night. Everywhere he goes he soaks things up, looks for evidence of values and the right way to do things.

And affinity? It is with Rockmount AFC. Where he was made. The lads come over regularly. A couple of his old mates manage the team now and they talk about the old days and management. They were all over for the Villa game. Len Downey and Damien Martin are coming over for Middlesbrough.

The older he gets and the more he sees, the greater his appreciation of the innocence and the loyalties he saw at Rockmount. He went to Rockmount when he was eight and stayed till he was 16 or 17. That he believes now is what football is all about . He has seen the business side of the game and people suddenly begrudging you when you cease to be of use.

It still hurts. Forest tried to milk him for money he was owed when he was sold to Manchester United. The postscript to his playing career at Celtic was a mistake he feels. United still feel the sting of his venom. Their betrayal still hurts.

Having statements ready like United when you have served a certain amount of time for them and they don't even get the years you were there right in the statement. You think "Ah well, there you go".

"The day I left United, in hindsight, I should have stopped playing really. I lost the love of the game that Friday morning. I thought football is cruel, life is cruel. It takes two to tango also. I am fully responsible for my own actions but some things are wrong. I left on a Friday and they told me certain things before I left that day. I was told the following week I couldn't sign for another club. I had been led to believe I could. There were certain things I was told at certain meetings that were basic lies.

"That was part of the exit plans, I am convinced. Especially with my pride, I wasn't going to accept that. They had a statement prepared and they were thanking me for 11 and a half years of service. I had to remind the manager and (Manchester United chief executive) David Gill I had been there 12 and a half years. I think that might have been part of the plan. Then financial stuff was mentioned. I was thinking, my God. I am happy to leave. I won't go down that road. A week later they announced £70 or £80 million profit after telling me I hadn't played for six weeks and so they weren't prepared to do this and that. I told David Gill I had broken my foot playing for Manchester United against Liverpool. Pretty sad.

"I look back and think I should have said this and I should have said that. It is like Mick McCarthy at the World Cup. I always think when he said if you don't have respect for me you can't play for me, I should have said to him what I felt. I am not playing for you I am playing for Ireland. It is easy to be wise afterwards."

He talks for a long time about loyalty. Its meaning in his life. United hurts and Saipan hurts. They were times when he expected some loyalty back but he realises now when you outlive your usefulness to some people loyalty is too much to expect.

It's a telling point, really: loyalty to clubs is for fans, more than anything. Players can be fans and so too can owners, but ultimately players tend to play for money, for glory, and for fun; they're mercenaries, and owners are businessmen or moneylaunderers. But loyalty to teams? That's a fans' preserve.

I can't help wondering, when I think of this, whether fidelity in sport is related to fidelity in life; is it the case that people who are loyal in one thing are more likely to be loyal in other things? Are people who stick by teams through bad patches the kind of people who'll stick by friends and lovers through hard times? That's the real test: celebrating success is easy; it's enduring failure that's hard.

Chesterton wrote a fine essay on Kipling once, where he remarked that Kipling, ultimately, was a man who understood nothing of patriotism, as he lacked the faculty of absolutely attaching himself to any cause or community.
He admires England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.
It's when success ebbs away that the true measure of the sports fan is shown. Whether this applies to other aspects of life is a different matter. Are Everton supporters less likely to cheat on their spouses than Chelsea ones, say? I reckon there'd be a Sociology PhD in that if someone wanted to give it a shot - Marital Infidelity and Football Fanaticism: A Study in Correspondence.

Just to wrap up, regarding the Keane interview, it's good to see that he's not quite as dour and earnest as he can sometimes seem.
Last year going for promotion everyone was getting uptight and the pressure was starting to tell. They were playing Wolves at home, a big game on the verge of the play-offs. They players were called in to their pre-game video analysis of Wolves. Instead they got that wonderful segment of Ken Loach's 1969 movie Kes where Brian Glover plays a teacher with a Bobby Charlton fixation. They just had a good laugh together. They never mentioned Wolves once. Then they went out and won.
You've not seen it? No, well, it'd been years since I did too, but don't worry, I've dug it out just for you. The Brother reckons it's one of the best passages in any film ever. Enjoy.

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