Saturday 24 August 2019

Getting the balance right will be key to any hot-seat return for Roy Keane

Roy Keane must realise there's a middle ground if he's to be a boss again

Roy Keane watches yesterday’s Premier League match between Everton and Aston Villa
Roy Keane watches yesterday’s Premier League match between Everton and Aston Villa

Daniel Taylor

What was your first thought when Roy Keane let it be known that once Euro 2016 is over, he wants another go at front-line management and is not willing to box up that part of life just because others might think there are better places for him within the sport?

My suspicion is that many people would instinctively think of Keane the caricature - the thick vein throbbing on the side of his forehead, little puffs of black toxic smoke emanating from his ears, and the darkest eyes you will ever see - and think: 'Best of luck with that one, Roy', when it comes to finding a reasonably competent club where the chief executive or owner thinks it might be worth the hassle.

Equally, there might not be such a stampede to rush into judgment if more people had been in Martin O'Neill's company over the past week to hear his eulogy about Keane and witness, close-up, the appreciation one of our more accomplished managers clearly holds for his right-hand man. From my experience of O'Neill, he has always been one of game's more astute judges and these were not just the standard platitudes from one colleague to another.

O'Neill talked about his appointment of Keane being his shrewdest move since becoming the Republic of Ireland manager, and he made the point so vigorously it felt like he was telling us to ditch some of our preconceptions. Keane, O'Neill said, had brought a force of personality to the job that had made a serious and telling contribution to helping Ireland navigate a route to next summer's finals. "I've had to make many big decisions, but the biggest was bringing in Roy Keane and he has been absolutely phenomenal. He's an iconic figure. He sometimes polarises opinion, but certainly not in the dressing room."

That last point jumped out, bearing in mind Jon Walters features in Keane's book because of the way their relationship spiralled so badly at Ipswich that they ended up grappling in the manager's office. Walters wanted a transfer to Stoke and Keane suspected his captain had been tapped up. "There was effing and blinding, a bit of shoving," he writes. "I got carried away and Jon got carried away."

It probably sums up Keane's autobiography that the Walters story would not probably feature in a top 50 of the more sledgehammer moments and, in hindsight, I wonder whether it was such a good idea releasing that kind of warts-and-all memoir rather than waiting, perhaps, until later in his career, when the ramifications might not have an impact on his professional life.

Keane was clearly on a mission to chop down a lengthy list of irritants headed by Alex Ferguson and, to give him his due, he accomplished that job with expertise. Yet those moments are so hard-faced, it tends to be forgotten there is also a great deal of humour and insight on those pages. PR-wise, that book has done Keane no favours. And, whether we like it or not, football is now a world where PR rules, at least in the eyes of prospective employers.

Nobody wants to see Keane resorting to the forms of blandness that others make their speciality, but if he is to find a way back into management, perhaps he might have to realise there is a middle ground. Nobody wants to be seen as dull and restrained. Equally, it is never satisfactory when a manager is known more for his personality than his team's achievements. No manager should want his press conferences to be greater subjects of interest than the matches.

Jurgen Klopp's first media call at Liverpool was one of the more entertaining events of its type of the year, full of catchy one-liners and colourful newspaper copy. Since then, however, you may have noticed he has withdrawn. That is because Klopp has his priorities in the right order. He wants to be on the back pages for winning football matches. It is smart. Keane, I suspect, wants the same; he just doesn't help himself sometimes with those hair-trigger sensibilities.

That is not irreparable and it certainly isn't outlandish to think he can re-establish himself as a manager in his own right. Yes, his time at Ipswich was an ordeal, culminating in his admission that he never felt right at Portman Road, that the chemistry wasn't there and, as an old Manchester United and Celtic man, that he didn't even like the club colours ("I don't like f*****g blue. City were blue. Rangers were blue. My biggest rivals were blue. Is that childish?").

But football has a remarkably short memory sometimes. Sunderland had been relegated from the Premier League with 15 points, the worst figures in their history, when he took over in August 2006. They were rooted at the bottom of the Championship, having lost their first four games, and had just gone out of the Carling Cup to Bury, then 92nd in the football ladder. Keane won his first three games and led them to promotion as champions. For a manager of 35, taking his first steps in the profession, that was a remarkable achievement.

He also reckons he lost his temper only three times over the course of the whole year. There was a soft-focus Keane, too. "Staff would come to me asking, say, for time off because of marital difficulties, or problems with their children," he says. "I think that was one of my strengths; I think I had a kindness to me."

The problem is he has spent so many years creating a monster out of himself, the other side to Keane is often misjudged. You may have seen 8 Out of 10 Cats when the comedian Sean Lock pointed out that Keane - in one of his darker phases, with the pirate's beard at its longest and the look in his eye of silent fury - crept up the stairs, pretending to be the tooth fairy, to slip a pound under his kids' pillows. It isn't always easy to imagine, but there are hidden layers. He is not a monster. Ask Walters; they made up long ago. What is not clear since everything started to unravel at Sunderland, leading to his departure in December 2008, is whether Keane possesses the little touches that were second-nature to the two managers who figured most prominently in his life - Ferguson and Brian Clough - and have also played such a rich part in O'Neill's success.

Rio Ferdinand tells how he could count on one hand the number of times Ferguson praised him at Manchester United and how he eventually came to realise it was deliberate psychology on the part of his old manager. Ferguson left him craving approval and that, in turn, made Ferdinand play even better. Clough did the same with Larry Lloyd at Nottingham Forest, figuring that his centre-half was big-headed enough. Kenny Burns would get the finger-to-thumb hand-sign meaning "perfect". So Lloyd, ego bruised, would try even harder.

Does Keane have that acute understanding of what makes a man tick? Keane was so irritated by a 30-yard free-kick that Craig Gordon let in during a pre-season tournament for Sunderland in Portugal, he put on some goalkeeping gloves in the next training session and challenged the players to get the ball past him from the same distance. If they scored, he would give them £1,000, but if they missed, they had to give him £100. It was meant to be light-hearted, but he realised later that all it did was belittle and embarrass his actual goalkeeper. Keane knocked a few round the post, tipped one onto the bar, kept a clean sheet and made £800, but suspects he lost Gordon for a few weeks, and possibly longer.

Others will make the point that Keane has found happiness as O'Neill's assistant, so why change? And, yes, what a difference to see that shy, boyish smile when the manager virtually frogmarched him onto the pitch in Dublin to take the crowd's acclaim. Yet Keane clearly wants more. He still has plenty to prove, or disprove, but he is only 44, still young in management terms, and for all his faults, perhaps the sport might be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.


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