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FOOTBALL: Why Roy could yet be Keane on Ireland return; OLD TRAFFORD VIEW: Kerr should hold out hope.

IN the months that followed Roy Keane's explosive departure from the Republic of Ireland's World Cup camp, many people came to perceive the whole unsavoury affair exclusively in terms of the longrunning enmity between Keane and his international manager, Mick McCarthy.

The fact that the pair continued to take pot-shots at one another in print, of course, did little to widen this focus, and so when McCarthy ultimately quit his job after the Republic's poor start to their European Championship campaign, the general assumption was that once he had regained his fitness, the former captain would be back in the fold faster than you could say ''Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole . . .'' Keane, though, made considerably more enemies in the FAI than just McCarthy. Indeed, it can be said that for all the bad blood between the former Ireland boss and his skipper - something that went back to their time as international team-mates - up until the day of their infamous showdown in Saipan, they had largely succeeded in rubbing along.

The catalyst for subsequent events was Keane's perception that McCarthy had betrayed him. The midfielder at first believed he had got the manager on his side in his effort to improve what he had outspokenly regarded as the FAI's amateurish ways when it came to training, preparation and the treatment of players - only to discover on arrival in South East Asia that things had merely got worse.

Hence when Irish football's governing body passed over the likes of Bryan Robson and Peter Reid - both friends of Keane - and appointed an apparent company timeserver in Brian Kerr as McCarthy's replacement, like many others, I rather suspected that the Republic's estrangement from its only genuine world class player was now inexorably destined for divorce.

Kerr's failure to address the Keane issue before naming his first senior squad, from which the Manchester United player was omitted, tended to confirm this view. Then speaking to BBC1's Football Focus on Saturday, Kerr was clumsily evasive on the matter, while studio pundit Reid, seemingly only half-jokingly, remarked that he must have given the wrong answers over Keane during his job interview at the FAI.

ust a week after the hitherto lowprofile Kerr's arrival in his new post at Merrion Square, however, the suspicion is growing that we may have under-estimated him.

First of all, Sir Alex Ferguson suddenly comes over all pro-active, questioning whether Keane, with his recent record of injuries, might be spreading himself a touch too thinly were he to return to international football, and citing Alan Shearer's new lease of life with Newcastle since he quit playing for England as evidence for the prosecution.

``I'll sit down with Roy and let him know what I think,'' said the United manager without so much as a hint of self parody, but emphatically enough to suggest he harboursfears Kerr could be about to take the first steps towards a reconciliation.

Then an alternative picture emerges of Kerr's years as a coach with the Republic's various youth sides - roles, incidentally, in which he enjoyed consistently outstanding success. Far from being a career `yes' man, it seems Kerr also had a poor relationship with McCarthy,who is said to have treated him with suspicion.

In his newspaper column earlier this week, the former Republic striker Tony Cascarino, who retains excellent contacts within the FAI, said he knew for a fact that Keane had already been sounded out on returning and had intimated he would be willing to play for his country again, but only in competitive internationals.

On that basis, Keane's failure to be named in the squad to face Scotland in a friendly match in Glasgow next week is of little or no significance. The real test of his intentions will be whether he is included in the party for the Euro 2004 qualifier in Georgia on March 29.

Cascarino also paints Kerr as a studious, methodical operator in the Gerard Houllier mould, his style contrasting sharply with the bluff McCarthy's apparent seat-of-the-pants approach. The former striker further suggests that the new coach's attention to detail would forestall the sort of criticism previously levelled by Keane regarding preparation and facilities.

Even so, it seems possible, likely even, that Keane is yet to come to a decision in his own mind on the issue. Certainly he will feel he is being pulled in opposite directions.

On the one hand, most Irish people remained supportive of him after his World Cup bustup, even if they hadreservations over his timing and the fact that he did not retain sufficient selfcontrol to bite his lip.

Then there are his family and close friends back home in Cork, who, while loyal to Keane, maintain their allegiance to the green shirt too, and will use their persuasive powers in the hope that the two might yet be reunited in the common cause.

On the other hand, Keane's respect for Ferguson knows no bounds and it seems inconceivable that he would return without the Old Trafford boss's blessing, however reluctantly it might ultimately be given. And interviewed just a fortnight ago, the Irishman spoke of his debt of loyalty to both his team-mates and the club's fans, before explaining how he needed to conserve his energy in order to prolong his career at the top level.

Much, I feel, will ultimately depend on a mutually satisfactory exchange of assurances. Keane will want to be convinced that preparation and facilities are to improve, while Kerr will need persuading that Keane intends his comeback to be a lasting one.

wo other factors could also be significant. Firstly, there is Keane's contrary disposition towards those who have crossed him. He would certainly take a perverse pleasure in the likely discomfort his return would inflict on those at the FAI who had previously delighted in the thought that they had seen the back of him.

Secondly, the near hopelessness of the Republic's Euro 2004 qualifying position - second-bottom of group 10 with no points from two matches and seven adrift of leaders Switzerland - presents the sort of challenge Keane relishes.

And what greater motivation could there be than the opportunity to go down in Irish football history as the man who rescued the nation from a shambles already widely regarded as being of McCarthy's making?

SIX Premiership wins in a row for Manchester United and if Arsene Wenger wasn't already feeling Sir Alex Ferguson breathing down his neck, after United's 1-0 victory at Birmingham on Tuesday, the Gunners manager will surely have detected an ominous whiff of spearmint.

Robert Pires' last-minute goal to give Arsenal maximum points against Fulham on Saturday prompted Wenger to talk of his team's mental strength. Now Ferguson's fervent hope will be that his own team can put that to the test by winning the Manchester derby at Old Trafford on Sunday lunchtime ahead of the Gunners' match at Newcastle later in the afternoon.

Given that United's defeat at Maine Road in November proved a positive turning point in their season, there would be a neat satisfaction derived from simultaneously gaining revenge over City and moving joint top of the table.

On the face of it, Arsenal have the easier title run-in after Sunday but United's trump card could be a fresher squad, with so many leading players running into peak form and fitness after injury lay-offs earlier in the season.

Mental strength is important of course, but mental and physical stamina is likely to be crucial.

CAPTION(S):

Mc Carthy; IRISH EYES LOOK TO THE FUTURE: Roy Keane is considering his international prospects
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Feb 6, 2003
Words:1258
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