Roy Keane had a piece of advice and, this being Roy Keane, it came with more than a hint of menace. Should the Republic of Ireland team know when and how to stop the game, the assistant manager was asked in advance of his country’s final and decisive Euro 2016 Group E tie against Italy on Wednesday.
“Foul, you mean?” Keane said. “Yes. My advice would be: ‘Yeah, take them out.’ We’re not here to make friends. The fans will do that. From a player’s point of view, if you smell danger and you think: ‘We’re in trouble here,’ then yeah, you do whatever you can to get the right result. If that’s a foul, then you foul him. It’s not a crime. You might get a yellow card, you might even get a red but your team might win. Sacrifices. You have to make sacrifices for your team. Does that answer your question?”
Possibly but Keane had a further point to make. “What do you think I would do?” he said. It was another entirely rhetorical question, the sort that Keane tends to accompany with one of those 100-yard stares. It is sometimes tempting to wonder whether a bomb disposal squad would be better equipped to make the overtures at one of his press conferences.
Keane was on top form at the Ireland training base, setting the tone and leading from the front as usual. He had other pieces of advice, as Martin O’Neill’s team attempt to put the disappointment of Saturday’s no-show in the 3-0 defeat against Belgium behind them – take better care of the ball, cut out the individual errors, make sure that the mental and physical preparations are perfect.
But one thing underpinned it all. “You need to play with courage and balls,” Keane said. Courage, as Keane explained, does not mean jumping into challenges and playing the hard man, rather demanding the ball, even in tight areas, and setting a positive example. “You have to have lads who can put their foot on the ball, show a bit of composure, a bit of courage, want the ball. Sometimes players are showing for the ball but they’re not really showing for it. You want to see the whites of their eyes. Do you want the ball?
“That’s where courage comes into it. Courage is a big part of being a footballer. Courage doesn’t mean booting somebody. It’s wanting the ball when sometimes you don’t actually want the ball, if that makes sense. Bravery. Courage. We need to see that in the next two days.
“Strangely enough, in international football you do actually get time on the ball, so it’s about your decision-making, what you do with your first or second touch. I’ve heard before from great managers that a manager judges a player on what he does when he’s got time on the ball, his decision-making and how long he takes from his first to his second touch. That’s an area that we have to improve on.”
Keane has no time for recollections about his glorious playing career, which is a shame, as he has been there and done it. Some of his best moments for club and country came against Italian teams. He was a part of the Ireland side that beat Italy at the 1994 World Cup in the United States and he inspired Manchester United to their 1999 Champions League semi-final, second-leg victory over Juventus in Turin.
“I don’t know if you need reminding but I stopped playing 10 years ago,” Keane said. “I have little chit-chats with the players about my experiences but not as many as you’d think. It’s irrelevant to this game coming up.”
At the same time, though, Keane did reference the famous World Cup win over Italy, when Ray Houghton’s goal made the difference, as an example of how such results could happen. Ireland have to beat Italy in Lille on Wednesday evening to stand a chance of reaching the last 16. Keane also brought up the 1-0 home win over Germany during the qualifying campaign for this championship.
Keane’s admiration for Italian football was plain. He highlighted how the striker, Éder, had cynically pulled back the Belgium midfielder, Dries Mertens, in the 74th minute of Italy’s 2-0 victory in the opening round of group fixtures before booting the ball away. Éder was booked and Belgium saw a scoring chance, at 1-0 down, rubbed out. Keane would go on to talk about how Ireland had been caught on the counterattack for the first and third goals they conceded against Belgium.
“To me the Italian team were always favourites to top the group,” Keane said. “This idea that it was a surprise they won their first match against Belgium … no. They have a bit of everything. They have vast experience from the goalkeeper to the centre-halves to [Daniele] De Rossi in midfield, who I really like. We’ve mentioned warriors. Well, he’s up there. We’ll have to be at our very, very best but we’ve beaten Italy before, so it can be done.”
Italy have ensured their progress as the group winners; the manager, Antonio Conte, will make sweeping changes to the starting XI and there is the hope in Ireland that they might be vulnerable as their focus begins to shift to the last 16.
Keane gave that notion predictably short shrift and he stressed how Ireland could expect no favours. In what is the game of the players’ international careers, they must produce a performance to match.
“We were punished against Belgium and I actually quite enjoy that in sport. I like that side of it,” Keane said. “If you’re not at your best, you get punished. We had a bad day at the office but we’ve had setbacks before. You have to deal with them and I think we will. I’m looking forward to the next challenge. That’s what sport is about. It’s like a boxer when he gets knocked out. You get back up and start swinging.”
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