LONDON — Roy Keane’s comeback with the Republic of Ireland was as messy as the confirmation of his international football retirement 14 months ago.

Christopher Davies

An undoubtedly gifted player on whom the “truly great” tag rests easily is, however, rarely far from controversy and the decision to make himself available again to Ireland, announced on Tuesday, is remarkable because the situation which forced Keane to stay in international retirement has worsened.

After Brian Kerr took over as manager from Mick McCarthy, he spoke to Keane in February 2003 about the possibility of a return to the Irish fold.

With Sir Alex Ferguson and the Manchester United medical team believing an extra 10 internationals each year would not help the midfielder’s troublesome hip, the player said: “The unequivocal advice given to me by my doctors was that I should not return.”

Yet more than a year later and Keane, 33, not able to play in every United match because of the problems following hip surgery, the midfielder is preparing to join the Irish fold again.

Ferguson, who gives the impression he would ban international football if he could, has given Keane his full backing in his decision to play for Ireland again.

“I’m pleased for Roy,” said Ferguson. “He’s made a good decision for all parties concerned. I think it is a good decision for them.

“There has been some dialogue between Brian and Roy in the last couple of weeks and they have come to the feeling this was a good time to go back, in order to qualify for the next World Cup.”

Ferguson is unworried that Keane might no longer be a 100 percent United player.

“In this case I would say it is a very good decision for Roy — and I support it 100 percent,” the Scot added, though it is understood the discussions between Keane and Ferguson, who has used his captain selectively, were in fact far from amicable.

Has the hip, which kept Keane sidelined for five months, miraculously improved with age?

Why now?

And why the denials from the FAI and even Keane’s attorney Michael Kennedy, who said over the weekend that he had “no knowledge of any meeting between Keane and Kerr”?

Keane, who won the last of his 58 caps against Nigeria two years ago, could rejoin the squad for the friendly in Poland on April 28, which would complete an astonishing turnabout for the midfielder who was sent home from Ireland’s pre-2002 World Cup base in Saipan after a row with then-manager McCarthy.

Do not for one moment think that Ireland is unanimous in celebrating the return of its finest ever player. The country is still split about Keane with some believing he should never wear the green shirt again after turning his back on Ireland, while others feel the only important factor is that Republic’s chances of reaching the 2006 World Cup finals will be increased by the captain’s presence.

Whatever your view, Keane’s comeback represents a major coup for Kerr after two weeks of denials, amid growing rumors that Keane wanted one more opportunity to play on football’s biggest stage, having pulled the plug on his previous opportunity.

Kerr said: “I am glad that one of the greatest players ever to play for Ireland has chosen this path. It cannot have been easy for him but his desire to represent his country is immense.”

Keane’s sentiments must have changed, because even before the bust-up with McCarthy in Saipan, which ultimately cost the manager his job, the player had announced he would quit international football after the 2002 World Cup finals.

It was not just his frustration with McCarthy, with whom he has nothing in common apart from the pair sharing a mutual dislike of each other. Keane had criticized the FAI, travel arrangements, the training, facilities and even questioned his teammates’ desire to play for Ireland.

It is still a mystery why Keane chose to make his anger public a few days before Ireland arrived in Japan rather than waiting until after the finals.

Kerr added: “We met last week and discussed everything about his decision in great detail. I look forward to working with Roy. He brings quality and experience to a potentially excellent squad of players whose sole focus is the World Cup qualifying matches next autumn.”

While in public, Ireland players have always been positive about a possible return for Keane — what else could they say when asked if they would like him back? — private thoughts are different.

Those who were in the 2002 World Cup squad will remember his newspaper criticisms of the squad, notably: “All the players feel the same (about the FAI and training facilities). They react differently. Some people accept it easier. Maybe that’s why they’re playing where they are.”

It prompted Jason McAteer to say: “He thinks we’re all sh–.”

The newspaper interview, which was highly critical of just about everything connected with the squad, management and FAI, forced McCarthy to call a players’ meeting at which Keane went ballistic, ending his involvement at the World Cup.

When asked for his views on Keane’s comeback, McCarthy burst into laughter before saying “no comment.”

Kerr knows Keane’s return will affect team spirit and the manager will have to be at his diplomatic best when he explains to Birmingham’s Kenny Cunningham, as he will no doubt have to, that he is giving the captaincy back to the player who almost sabotaged Ireland’s 2002 World Cup campaign.

Fran Rooney, chief executive of the FAI, said: “This is a new FAI, there have been a number of changes and there is a new professionalism.”

However, Keane would have been unimpressed when the bus taking the squad to training before the friendly against the Czech Republic two weeks ago broke down, with the training session affected by the presence of school children, which prompted several players to make their feelings known to Kerr.

However, Keane has always spoken about “unfinished business,” and the persuasive powers of the Cork-born midfielder were underlined when Ferguson gave his blessing, albeit reluctantly, for his captain’s Ireland comeback.

One school of thought suggests the latest development means Keane could be leaving Old Trafford this summer for Celtic, where the pace and intensity of the Scottish game may be more suitable to the player’s condition.

Nine lines from the end of his controversial autobiography, Keane wrote: “I hope some day I’ll play for Ireland again.”

His wish is set to come true, but it also represents the biggest gamble of Keane’s colorful career.

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