Raging genius of an ordinary manager
Pragmatism must come to fore if Roy Keane wants to be a leading manager, says Dion Fanning
Published 09/01/2011 | 05:00
At the beginning of this season, Roy Keane decided he was going to be pragmatic. He knew that the club captain Jonathan Walters was being tempted by Premier League clubs and he knew this, too, that this was the game.
Some advised him to stay calm even though Keane felt Walters was being provocative. The player would leave anyway, that was how football worked. Keane could let him go with his best wishes, perhaps even get a couple of games out of him before the inevitable happened. This would be the pragmatic stance. Keane agreed with this approach. He would be pragmatic.
Walters played in Ipswich's opening-day victory at Middlesbrough and the pragmatic approach seemed to be working.
The following Tuesday, Walters was missing with illness when Ipswich travelled to Exeter in the Carling Cup. Keane felt he was being messed around but he would be pragmatic. Walters would leave, the club would get their money and the manager would live in the real world, football's grubby world.
The days drifted by towards the weekend and the next game. Keane would be pragmatic. He would hold his tongue and hold his tongue and hold his tongue. He would be pragmatic. But the thoughts in Roy Keane's head are not pragmatic ones, they never have been. He has done much in his life to get distance from his thoughts and crazy impulses but football management is not always the place for it.
As the week went on, the idea of a pragmatic response turned into the more familiar one: that there was a need for confrontation. Keane decided Walters had been messing him around, spoke to the press, stripped him of the captaincy and then announced that the player's response to having the captaincy removed had been shocking. "As long as I'm manager he won't play here again," he announced as the pragmatic approach sheltered in a broom cupboard.
A couple of days later, Walters completed his inevitable move to Stoke. Keane's falling out with him had no effect on the player's transfer but it was another example of the energy wasted by the manager in going to war.
There were a million battles, many just raging in his head, but many left in the Ipswich dressing room which, just like the Sunderland dressing room he left behind, is a scarred place after exposure to Keane.
When he left Sunderland, one employee reflected on life without him and how the world was a simpler place. Keane's reaction to some mundane bit of club procedure could swing in the space of 24 hours from acceptance to murderous rage. Nothing would have changed except his reaction, which nobody could predict. It wore people around him down and it wore Keane down.
If Roy Keane is to return to management, and those closest to him all expressed the belief last week that he would return, he will need to find some way of suing for peace as well as prosecuting global thermonuclear war. He is a man deeply sensitive to his own feelings but, right now, he is not nurturing any grievance about his sacking.
Ipswich are slipping close to relegation but Keane's time was not cataclysmic, it was just ordinary. Ordinary and mad.
Strip away the rage and the genius and the madness which are all best used when Keane is reacting to something or somebody and there is an ordinariness about Keane's views that needs to change if he is to succeed when he returns to management.
His life has been about responding to the slights that have happened to him while management, in part at least, is about imagining how somebody else might be feeling. Keane doesn't do empathy. He can be sympathetic and when he deals with players who are suffering with injury, he can be compassionate because he understands what they're going through. He cannot see the rest, often, until it is too late.
This may be the necessary tunnel vision of an obsessive manager. But Keane married the obsessiveness to too many reactionary positions about players. When he wasn't being inflammatory or controversial in a press conference he could sound old school, giving out about snoods or the invasion of agents into the game.
His friends spoke again last week about how a confrontational style hadn't done Alex Ferguson any harm, but Ferguson has always loved being around footballers. Keane, with his contempt for banter and the dressing room badinage about money and cars, feels less at ease.
Money and cars are not things that concern him. He is an incredibly wealthy man but he will not retreat into the sun. He will not even retreat from Suffolk. He has settled in the area and his children are in school so for the time being he will remain in a part of England which seemed alien to him.
He is a smarter man than Graeme Souness, but his management career could go the same way. Souness was fuelled by rage as a player and then became contemptuous as a manager, questioning the motivation of players who he believed were driven by money. Keane questions their motivation too and he is right, but it isn't always the way to get the most from them.
The oddest thing to say about Keane the football manager is that he has not yet discovered his own style. Obviously karate-kicking a chalkboard or sending Dwight Yorke a text that said 'Go fuck yourself' didn't seem out of character but he spent as much time trying to emulate Brian Clough as be himself.
At Sunderland, he tried to tame wild players as Clough had done but still needed somebody to tame him. At Ipswich, he wasn't helped by an unadventurous scouting network. In his last week he was linked with Andy O'Brien and Kevin Kilbane, which would suggest there is something failing in his management.
Keane surrounded himself with those he knew, something that was strange for a man who had spurned all friendships in football. It was as if he was comfortable reacting to the failings of those he understood rather than those he couldn't comprehend. He needs to be more daring. Some have suggested he might go abroad to manage next and it would be one of the best things he could do.
He also needs a Peter Taylor to his Clough. In fact, he nearly did appoint another Peter Taylor, the former Leicester manager, but hesitated, wondering if it would be seen as an admission of failure if Taylor's arrival led to improvement.
He had brought Gary Ablett, the former Liverpool player and coach, onto his staff but lost him through illness. Instead, he turned to Tony Loughlan, his friend in football. "Tony is a lovely man, but I'm not sure how well respected he is in the dressing room," one observer said last week.
Keane was merely feared, a reductive emotion that wasn't working. Yet there are some who believe he could have stayed at Ipswich. "He talked himself out of this job," one friend remarked, pointing out that Keane's constant admission that managers get the sack had created an environment in which it was perfectly reasonable to sack him.
Keane learned on Thursday afternoon that he was being fired. There were rumours on Friday that the players had found out before Keane did but they were dismissed by sources close to Keane. Members of the back-room staff might have found out late on Thursday evening or Friday morning, but Keane was already aware and the severance package agreed.
Keane will now retreat and wait and see who is next prepared to gamble on him. "He won't go looking for a job, he never does," says a friend.
Keane will not play the media game, he won't be Sam Allardyce putting himself out for jobs but he is being sucked into that milieu now, competing with the Gary Megsons of this world for the next artisan's job. Well-connected people in football had heard a month ago that Paul Jewell had a new job. Jewell is now the favourite to take over at Ipswich.
Keane has always tried to remove himself from football's grubbiness. He despised those who played the media game or tried to portray themselves as something they were not. His legend is changing now and it's hard to play the myth when real life stops being so obliging. He's young and young managers make mistakes. Keane's mistakes always seem significant. He rarely does anything that doesn't seem significant.
He is smart and obsessive enough to be an outstanding manager. Ideally, he would work under a successful manager at a big club or find a wise head who wouldn't be afraid to tell him when he is wrong or to point out when it is a time for patience or that pragmatism is not an admission of defeat.
Keane has spent his life fighting every battle. He gives the impression that to disengage is the equivalent of losing when it is sometimes just about survival.
On Friday, a man who knows Keane well, reflected on what will have to change this time for things to change the next time he is appointed to a club that is ready to gamble. "Maybe he'll grow to like himself," he said.
Keane the manager gave everyone a hard time. It was no consolation to his players and those who worked with him that he was even more scathing about himself.
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