Roy Keane: 'I will stay here and fight'
Roy Keane is under pressure at Ipswich but he wouldn't have it any other way, writes Dion Fanning
W e are waiting for Roy Keane, waiting anxiously. "He has those eyes, those horrible, horrible eyes," one journalist says as he recalls the moments when Keane has locked on a target in his weekly audience with the press.
"I've worked with them all, and I've fought with them all," another local reporter said on Friday, remembering his time covering Ipswich Town and recounting how things had become a little heated in Roy Keane's press conference the week before.
"I fought with Bobby Robson, I fought with John Lyall. I fought with Johnny Duncan." Impressive though this cv is, nobody believes it is preparation for fighting with Roy Keane. "Every week, I shake hands with him, no hard feelings."
So we sit and compare war stories, wondering what we'll get this time. I remember the time I completely forgot my question to Keane half-way through it and simply stopped talking. Keane gave a look that could have vaporised me. There are shudders of sympathy.
When Keane walks in, the journalist who has worked with them all strolls up to the table and offers his hand. Keane looks at him -- 'those horrible, horrible eyes' -- ignores the hand and says, "Let's just get on with it, eh?" Working with John Lyall was never like this.
Ipswich Town was once a club where, no matter what, a man felt he could find some peace. Roy Keane doesn't do peace. He might not do conflict as he once did but there is always some battle. Sometimes it may be internal, sometimes it may be hidden, but the policy is always the same: he wages war.
"You shouldn't be frightened of the word 'pressure', you seem scared to mention it," he replies to one TV reporter who has brought up Keane's position. The reporter sighs with relief. Yes, he concedes, he was a bit scared.
The stories have come dripping out again. For every Jordan Henderson who comes along to acknowledge what Keane did for his career, there is a Jonathan Walters, graphically describing a Roy Keane dressing room and sending messages of support to his comrades still working behind the wall in a world of fear and loathing.
Today Ipswich Town play Norwich City, a local derby but a game of even greater significance for Keane. Two weeks ago, he was booed by the supporters at home who then, in Keane's eyes, turned on his young team.
In the following days, he defended himself. He didn't care what the supporters said, he could handle it. These were the great Keane themes. He didn't come into football to be popular. There was no point, as you'd be lying to yourself.
He returned to the night he was booed at Lansdowne Road. Like all the seminal moments in his career, all the times when somebody has done him wrong, the exact details are not forgotten. "They all booed, like sheep."
Keane was never inclined to join the pack. His life has been the life of the outsider from the days he thought he would be forgotten as a footballer while bigger schoolboys were sent to England. Then he was alone. When he got injured in 1997, he was alone. When he gave up alcohol at a young age, as a millionaire, he was apart, if not alone.
So Keane won't pay much attention to the perceived wisdom of crowds, even the Ipswich Town supporters who could turn on him again today if there is a fourth successive defeat. "Don't worry about that, I will stay here and fight. Hopefully I'll be here on Sunday. What happens after that, who knows?"
On Friday, he behaved as if nothing was going wrong. This was Keane at his most relaxed. "You had your little tantrum last week," he said to one reporter. His eyes weren't horrible and when he was asked about Darren O'Dea, who had missed training as he had been in Glasgow all week where his girlfriend is expecting a baby, the eyes danced with mischief. He didn't take the bait except to observe that he had missed the birth of his first daughter -- "she's never held it against me" -- as he was at the '94 World Cup or, more specifically, "in a bar in Florida".
His problems come when he walks into the dressing room. Management requires some degree of empathy or at least tolerance of the ways of footballers. Keane, hater of banter and bullshit, has always found it difficult to conceal his frustration.
At Ipswich this season, he has been forced to learn another way. In the summer, the decision was taken to give the young players a chance, although Keane may not have wanted to give them as big a chance as this.
"We're playing far too many," he says and this has made his goal of promotion this season, "more difficult". Keane's press conferences this season have been littered with the names of honest, experienced footballers he would have liked to school his young players. On Friday, he talked about Kevin Kilbane and Lee Carsley. Most weeks he'll mention QPR's Shaun Derry, whom he came close to signing. "How close did I come? It's like chatting to a girl, did you go home with her? How close is close?
"I go back to our first game of the season up at Middlesbrough when we set our stall out. We knew we would get one or two younger players involved over the course of the season. We had Mark Kennedy. Gareth McAuley, Luke Hyam, Jonathan Walters and Jon Stead. Those five won't be involved and we haven't been able to cope with it. I tried to bring in experienced players over the summer, but we never done the deals. We kind of made a conscious effort that if we do have injuries, we'll go with young players and the Championship is tough for young players."
His contract ends at the end of this season and he knows that if Ipswich have had some bad luck in the first half of the year, they will need good fortune to move up the table. Even if they don't, Keane says he would like to be at the club next season. "That's out of my hands."
He needs to make sure he can be at the club next week and he knows that the reasons he gives -- "I hope they don't sound like excuses" -- can be lost amid the noise. He has handled the frustrations of managing a squad that is more inexperienced than he'd hoped, knowing that the struggle is the thing.
"Managing is a frustrating job anyway so you'd be frustrated in different aspects anyway."
This is not the Keane from his final days at Sunderland, with the beard growing wild and providing clues to a state of mind that, if senior voices at the Stadium of Light were to be believed, was wilder still.
"I think I have changed, I don't think I get as frustrated as I used to. I understand where we're at as a club and I understand over a few years good money has been put into it. I think the club traditionally has always been good at giving younger players a chance. I just think we've gone too far with too many young players."
Ipswich's debt has forced them to change their plans in a changing world. He followed events in Ireland last week with sadness. "It's not good, it's not nice. I don't like people suffering, it's sad. I might live over here, but I'm Irish, don't forget that. People think I'm worried about contracts, but I count my blessings every day because I know people are suffering. People have to cut back but I think it's crazy that people were going buying things they couldn't afford. That's my logic on it. Everyone got carried away."
Ipswich are living in the real world too. Keane talks about Shane O'Connor who played ten games for the club last season. "Shane was contemplating going to train for Rockmount so that's where we're at. We knew the situation. The club has invested decent money at Championship level. If I want to be a manager, I may never work with a club that throws millions at players."
Once again, he may be dealing with a redrawing of ambitions but how he handles this challenge will be crucial in shaping the perception of him as a manager. He acknowledges the terms of reference might have changed since he arrived but he still has ambitions.
"The beauty of the Championship is that sixth place is always available to a lot of teams -- look at Blackpool last year. I feel we can have a good season, whatever that may be. It could be that we finish seventh or eighth and we got to the quarter-final or semi-final of a cup and with the way our young players have progressed, we're happy with that. But of course our fans are like any supporters around the country, they're very demanding. Obviously I came here two years ago and spoke about promotion within two years and if you don't reach those targets, you set yourself up for a fall."
There is a quarter-final in the Carling Cup against West Brom on Wednesday night which might help shape that season. The season is certainly shaping Keane as a manager as he adapts to working with a callow squad.
"You need a bit more tolerance and understanding, I think," he says, before acknowledging the laughter. "I'm learning, you'd think I would know that now with five kids. I think it's all helping me in terms of my experience as a manager."
The young players may even be players whose company he can enjoy. He is working with a group who may have expectations of wealth but haven't achieved it yet.
"The young players are doing their best. I can understand where you might have too many senior players who think they know the game and don't want to listen."
In the future, he might be more tolerant of the experienced pro's weariness. "We have some really good young players but the danger in the Championship is that he's looking for a helping hand and the player next to him is younger than them. We're getting no guidance. In the reserves the other day, the most experienced player on the pitch was Colin Healy and you could see that a mile away, the way he was speaking to players. Colin can come back into the reckoning for today but he's been injured."
Keane may not hear the same talk of Baby Bentleys and Rolexes that used to torment him. If he prefers the company of the young players, he has also had to get to know defeat. And Roy Keane has never liked having that around.
Norwich City v Ipswich Town,
BBC 1, 1.0