Sunday 19 November 2017

COMMENT - Roy Keane may not return to management but Ireland experience shows he still has plenty to offer

Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane

Luke Edwards

Roy Keane has always been a natural leader of men, but there is no guarantee he will lead a team again. After three years successfully combining his job as Republic of Ireland’s assistant manager with his captivating work as a television pundit, Keane might have turned his back on management for good.

It would be a shame if that happens, yet it is a growing possibility. After so long without the stress and strain of a manager’s burden- the exhilarating rushes and the crushing come downs, Keane may no longer have any desire to return.

He is financially secure, retains his fame, but is also happy, enjoying himself with Ireland, amusing himself with his television work. At the age of 45, Keane appears content with life. Does he believe he still has a point to prove as a manager? Does he need to risk failing again?

Whenever he is asked about it these days, Keane is vague; evasive, with a hint of disinterest.

He does not have an agent. He has never bothered with networking, he does not feel the need to oil hinges to open doors and he is certainly never going to kiss any backsides to land a job. He has never even applied for one. People have always come to him and he is unlikely to change.

Keane does not play the game, like other out of work managers, partly because he is not out of work, mainly because he does not want to. His interpretation of the rules has always been different.

For his part, O’Neill remains adamant Keane will become a manager again, because “he will want to make the big calls himself one day.” However, there is a real chance Keane would prefer to remain as O’Neill’s assistant should he, as the Northern Irishman intends, eventually return to club management.

They were once described as the odd couple, but they have been a perfect marriage for Ireland.  It is a partnership that is more enduring than anyone predicted. They do not wish to be parted.

O’Neill could not be more complimentary when he talks about Keane, both as a man and a coach. They combine so well, a strange but intriguing mix of personalities, generations, sense of humours, ideas and methods.

Keane, though, still has much to offer. For all the criticism he attracted during a disastrous spell in charge of Ipswich Town and the time it has taken for the bruises that chastising experience left, even on a skin as thick as his, the former Manchester United captain could still be a success as a manager.

His work at Sunderland has largely been forgotten, but should not be overlooked. With the passing of time and the subsequent failure of so many other highly rated managers to surpass his achievements, Keane did an excellent job.

Sunderland were in the bottom three in the Championship, a few months after crashing out of the Premier League, when Keane arrived. He took them back into the top flight as champions, just nine months later.

He also kept them there, with a degree of ease that has not been enjoyed for years at the Stadium of Light. He received plenty of financial backing, first from the Drumaville Consortium and then from Ellis Short – before they fell out and Keane quit after a difficult start to his third season.

It was no surprise when he swiftly returned to work with Ipswich, who were looking for someone to do precisely the same job at Portman Road that he had just done at Sunderland. One of the finest players of his generation, barely lasted 18 months in his second managerial position and departed with his reputation in tatters.

He blames poor recruitment, but Keane’s ego also got the better of him.  Those who witnessed things unravel in Suffolk, claim he was surrounded by staff who would not stand up to him.

In turn, he failed to appreciate the finer points of man management,  was too confrontational and abrasive.

It was not how things had been done at a small town club like Ipswich. Word spread. It was a bad fit, the wrong club at the wrong time, but it was perceived as more than that. Keane, people claimed, was not cut out for management after all.

These things happen, though. Virtually every famous manager, even the most lauded, has failed in at least one job.

Keane said he learnt a lot from the experience, but it was a painful one. Keane’s stock plummeted. It was only when he returned to prominence, thrown a lifeline by O’Neill, another former pupil of Brian Clough, that the job offers returned.

Celtic called less than a year after starting his new role with Ireland. He rejected them.  Other clubs, in both the Championship and Premier League, have also tried and failed to tempt him.

Having briefly returned to the Premier League as assistant manager at Aston Villa, he quit when he felt he was not able to devote enough time to O’Neill and Ireland.

But Keane is no longer being linked with jobs. The offers have, for the most part, dried up. His name no longer crops up when a vacancy appears. Even the bookmakers no longer see him as a front runner.

Which brings us back to the partnership with O’Neill. They knew each other vaguely before O’Neill, impressed by the younger man’s knowledge when they were working as pundits for ITV, asked if he would like to be his assistant. Neither was sure if it would work, yet it has exceeded both their expectations.

Keane has shown a different side. He can be supportive and constructive, rather than just brutally motivational. He can be soft, as well as sharp. He is also a fine coach.

Despite the jokes they tell about not spending much time together, the fact they rarely speak when not on international duty, it is a light-hearted lie. Neither Keane or O’Neill really understand why there is such fascination in their relationship. Nevertheless, they are a double act neither wants to break up.

Keane may still be a leader of men, but he has excelled as a number two. He should be a better manager for it, as long as he still has a desire to prove it. He is no longer as certain as he once seemed.

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