Saturday 20 January 2018

Keane can draw little comfort in mid-table

Daniel McDonnell goes to Ipswich to see how mounting pressure is affecting Irish legend

Roy Keane. Photo: PA
Roy Keane. Photo: PA
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Roy Keane is speechless. The Saturday evening post-match press conference is winding down, and the Ipswich boss cuts a frustrated figure. Expressions, rather than the words, are the giveaway. It was never going to be cabaret after a draw with Doncaster.

One of the friendly local hacks pipes up with an observation. "Roy, that's 11 one-all draws this season, and 19 draws in total," he says. "I've worked it out and if it was one point for a draw and two points for a win, you'd be top of the table now."

The audience in Portman Road's media suite chuckle. All Keane can muster in response is 'oh right', before falling silent. Perhaps he was mulling over the permutations. Perhaps he had an inkling that the calculations were utterly wrong (Ipswich would be nowhere near top spot if the points were changed accordingly).

Sensing the moment, the MC steps in and declares it an appropriate time to call a halt to proceedings. The laughter increases.


"Thanks for cheering me up," mutters a bemused Keane, rising from his chair and accepting the handshake of the questioner on the way out.

This is his life. It's the business end of the season and a man who won seven Premier League titles with Manchester United has spent the afternoon standing on the sideline for the middest of mid-table Championship encounters: Doncaster are 12nd and Ipswich are 13th. The excitement matches the importance.

"It was a bit hit and miss from both teams," observes the Corkman, before resorting to understatement. "The game lacked quality."

Next Friday marks the one-year anniversary of Keane's appointment as successor to Jim Magilton. It would be unwise to assume that the landmark will be celebrated.

He will spend the day travelling to Newcastle in preparation for a meeting with Chris Hughton's champions elect. They occupy the berth that Keane had the Ipswich followers dreaming of when he abruptly arrived into their lives to collect two victories in as many games at the end of last season.

"We've got quality, particularly going forward," he said, after the first of those successes -- a 3-0 drubbing of Cardiff. A summer of anticipation and hectic transfer activity followed. Promotion was the target. But they lost their opening game at Coventry and didn't win a game until their 15th outing.

By Christmas, the priority was avoiding the drop and, while that mission was accomplished by a decent beginning to this calendar year, the campaign has developed into a terrible anti-climax for the Tractor Boys.

Amid rumours of owner Marcus Evans losing patience with his big-name gaffer, chief executive Simon Clegg was forced to deliver the dreaded vote of confidence a fortnight ago. In the programme notes for Saturday's game, the CEO acknowledged that the 'patience and loyalty' of regular match-goers had been severely tested.

Regrettably, the joust with Doncaster was another money-spinner for the swear box. Sean O'Driscoll's visitors are regarded as one of the best passing sides in the division and tried to do things the right way wherever possible, without any real penetration. Their approach emphasised the directness of the hosts. Nevertheless, Ipswich looked destined for victory when a route-one and a fortunate bounce of the ball presented teenage prodigy Connor Wickham with an opening goal. However, the joy was short-lived, with a slip-up from Cork-born left-back Shane O'Connor resulting in a converted penalty which condemned Ipswich to draw number 19.

"No doubt it's some sort of record," muttered Keane. He was right: 19 draws in a season is a club record. "Generally we lacked a bit in the final third. As we've done all season," he mused, in complete contrast to his initial observations 12 months ago.

His public are sceptical, even if the anger is controlled. There was a smattering of boos at half-time and full-time on Saturday, but the loudest show of dissent was saved for the interval entertainment which consisted of unfortunate characters bellowing out the lyrics of Pink songs. (Oddly, the American songstress has added Portman Road to an upcoming tour, and local youths sacrificed their dignity on Saturday to compete for a ticket.)

Certainly, Keane has received strong criticism for a series of unconvincing displays, yet there has been no protests or baying mobs grabbing pitch-forks.

A recent poll on popular website asked fans if the boss should stay or go, and two-thirds stood by him. In fact, the feeling is that his position strengthened in the wake of speculation regarding his future.

"There was a belief that the agenda was being driven by London media as opposed to the local media," says one observer.

Still, the doubters have a voice. On Thursday, an Ipswich caller to BBC Radio Five offered to drive the Irishman all the way to Glasgow if it meant Celtic would take him off their hands.

A mischievous fan of local rivals Norwich duly called in response to say he would go all the way to Scotland to take him back. With the Canaries securing promotion from League One at the weekend, Keane will experience a unique local derby next season.

That is, of course, if he is still around. Ahead of Saturday, he spoke enthusiastically about his wishlist for the coming months with a view to mounting a stronger challenge.

"I'm hoping it will be a busy summer here, especially for our chief executive," he said.

In other words, he is looking for more cash, a cry which his critics treat with disdain. An erratic transfer policy is the biggest stick to beat him with.

Last summer's significant acquisitions flopped, with the exception of Grant Leadbitter. Others, like Lee Martin, Tamas Priskin and Carlos Edwards, fell way short of expectations.

The parallels from his time at Sunderland are apparent. A proliferation of Irish players, and recruits from old hunting grounds have raised eyebrows. For every success like Brian Murphy, there is a head-scratcher like Colin Healy.

Like the scribes in the North-East, who suffered their own recession when Keane left, the press pack in Ipswich are grateful for Keane's presence.

While the odd leak from the dressing-room hints that the 38-year-old remains an uncompromising figure behind closed doors, the outbursts in public have been few, with the infamous clip of a mobile phone ringing in a press conference and his exasperated response portraying an inaccurate picture of the norm.

If anything, he is unfailingly obliging. Another bugbear of his detractors is the frequency with which he pops up on Sky Sports News discussing the burning global issue of the day.

The observations emanate from his early morning media briefings with half a dozen or so stalwarts.

Sky's representative, Stuart Jarrold, is tasked with posing the queries and recently, in light of poor results, Keane explained that he understood why he was asked about non-Ipswich matters but, in the circumstances, suggested that from now on it would be better if he refused to comment on anything outside his sphere.

"You probably won't want to speak about the Mancini and Moyes touchline clash then?" came the reply. Rather than objecting, Keane offered the sought-after soundbite.

So, while the players may be on the receiving end of his temper, the press and staff around the place have only positive tales to tell from their dealings.

The club's reputation as a friendly host is deserved. Keane arrived with the intention of changing the flowery perception, but he is evidently respectful of the history which the natives cherish.

Indeed, in his first managerial visit to the venue, with Sunderland, he was alerted to the presence of Kevin Beattie -- the ex-Ipswich and England defender from the Bobby Robson-inspired glory days of the late '70s and early '80s -- whose career was cruelly cut short by injuries. Recognising the name from his youth, Keane instantly requested a meeting and a kind word.

Similarly, when Plymouth came to Portman last month, he spoke glowingly about their boss, another Ipswich legend Paul Mariner, in the preliminaries and expressed the wish they would share a drink afterwards, an innocuous platitude which took a bizarre turn when Mariner didn't show and Keane publicly aired his disgust at the snub in a manner akin to a jilted lover recklessly firing off a text message.

The spat emphasised the parochiality of his current battlefield. To the outside world, it was a vaguely comical small-town dispute, with the added bonus of a global figure in a leading role.

Alas, this is where Keane resides for the time being, operating at a level where the club is reliant on its community, although he is quick to dismiss any inference that he could pander to his parishioners with his end-of-season team selections.

"I'm not here to please everybody," he responds, when asked about the decision to award a number of academy graduates a place on the bench for the Doncaster game, including local lad Billy Clark, who was granted a late cameo.

"These boys have got a chance, but it's nothing to do with you or me," he continues. "It's up to the boys themselves. If I thought for one minute they'd come in on Monday or Tuesday with a lax attitude because they think they've made it, because they've sat on the bench for one afternoon, then Newcastle is the last place they'll be going to."

Briefly, he reverts to that familiar, emphatic tone before returning to diplomatic mode.

The bullishness is limited, and probably best advised when his own fallibility is such a hot topic.

Irish Independent

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