Keane is running out of time
As a player, Roy Keane was pretty much in a league of his own. The Manchester United and Republic of Ireland midfielder created a benchmark that today means players with bite and vision are described as Keane-esque.
But as a manager, Keane is struggling to make the same sort of impact at Ipswich Town, and whereas once he was being mooted as a successor to Alex Ferguson at United, there is now a danger he will be heaped in with all those great players who failed to make the switch from dressing-room to manager's office with the same level of success.
He hosts Northampton, conquerors of Liverpool, in the fourth round of the Carling Cup tonight at a critical point in the season, having lost three league games in a row. A cup run might not be the top priority, but Keane needs to turn around Ipswich's season somehow -- and fast.
With almost a third of the campaign gone, Ipswich are nestled in 14th place in the Championship and, come the end of the season, that is unlikely to be sufficient for Keane to keep his job.
His unveiling as manager at Portman Road in April 2009 was unprecedented at the club in terms of the spectacular media coverage it received. Even the appointments of Bobby Robson and Alf Ramsay, the club's two most successful managers, did not compare.
Jackie Milburn -- a top-class player in his own right for Newcastle United and England who briefly, and spectacularly unsuccessfully, managed Ipswich -- did not get the same attention. But Keane's tenure is increasingly looking more akin to Milburn's than Robson's or Ramsay's.
Keane wouldn't be the first top player to flop in management; fellow Manchester United legends Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles are cases in point. Both World Cup winners were failures as managers at Preston and for Stiles West Bromwich Albion was also as unsuccessful as it was shortlived.
During his much trumpeted early press conferences at Ipswich, Keane stated very clearly that he had signed a two-year contract because that was how long he would need to get Town promoted and if he didn't achieve that, then he would regard himself a failure and not worthy of an extended contract. He added that any half-decent manager could finish in the top half of the Championship -- it was promotion that mattered.
Time is fast becoming as big an enemy to Keane as his lack of a streetwise midfield and a misfiring attack. The cracks, albeit by no means cavernous just yet, are starting to appear and the plain-speaking Corkman has made clear his feelings on secretive owner Marcus Evans' decision not to bring in players that Keane coveted.
That means Keane has had to rely on signings from his old club Sunderland and the Tractor Boys' academy, especially the likes of highly rated striker Connor Wickham, New Zealand's World Cup defender Tommy Smith and the emerging Ronan Murray. That has been a source of frustration, although he refuses to blame his players.
"I don't get frustrated at the players," insisted Keane yesterday. "It is more I get frustrated along with the players. I enjoy working with the players and I'm happy, although I recognise we are short. I'm short as a manager in certain areas and I get frustrated with myself. Being a manager is a lot tougher than playing."
At the moment Keane is pragmatic about the situation he finds himself in. "It has been a bad week but you have bad weeks in football and it is how you respond to that which is important," he said. "If we win (against Northampton) we would be in the quarter-final of a cup and three points away from sixth place in the league.
"The supporters have been unbelievably patient but that is a reason why I took the job. I knew they would be patient when other fans would have turned. But I live in the real world and if you are not winning football matches, that creates frustration and pressure."
The feeling in this part of England towards Keane remains mixed, with some of the opinion he should be given plenty more time and getting rid of yet another manager at the end of the season would just set the club back another couple of years, and an increasing number of fans who are turning against a man they see as something of a bluffer and not cut out to be a top manager.
Given that Evans showed patience with the previous incumbent, Jim Magilton, before cutting him loose once it was confirmed Ipswich were not going to make the play-offs, and portrayed immense alacrity by appointing Keane within a couple of days, it is likely this manager will be given the remainder of his contract to ensure a top-six finish.
If Town fail, or Evans is not convinced that sufficient progress has been made, then the contract will not be renewed, although things may come to a head long before then if Keane doesn't believe he is getting the right sort of backing.
Keane won't let criticism get to him, but he has form with the Republic of Ireland and Sunderland for walking away if he doesn't think the right sort of support from up on high is forthcoming.
If he were to quit a third high-profile job, then it would be a potentially fatal career setback for the uncompromising Keane, who will know he may not get another opportunity if he follows the footsteps of Milburn, Charlton and Stiles.