Sport Soccer

Sunday 25 February 2018

Roy's own story - with a dark side

From Red Devil of a player to manager who saw the Light

Whatever the complexities of the Premiership season ahead, Roy Keane will not survive, fall or prosper in anonymity
Whatever the complexities of the Premiership season ahead, Roy Keane will not survive, fall or prosper in anonymity

Nick Townsend

A HAND at the throat of Juve's Alessio Tacchinardi. A stricken Pavel Nedved prone in the background.

The photograph could symbolise the dark side of the Roy Keane playing years. A freeze frame, perhaps, of the popular perception of the Irishman's life.

Confrontation. Provocation. Retribution. The image, taken at Giants Stadium four years ago, is from the last time Sunderland's manager was involved in a pre-season match with yesterday's friendly opponents, Juventus, though that day he represented Manchester United.

"They will be glad to know Keane is in the dugout today," is the mocking caption. This on Sunderland's official website.

It is a reminder that Keane will not easily escape his past, or be readily allowed the metamorphosis from player of distinction, but of raw, sometimes ugly instincts, to the loquacious, mellow character we see before us today.

On the touchline, they still see Roy Keane. Hard man. Winner. Glint-eyed anger. The man whose profanity-strewn autobiography is punctuated with "incidents".

Blood. Alcohol. Excess. Rows with a myriad of opponents, and many on his own side, notably Jack Charlton and Mick McCarthy. Incidents, physical or verbal, that mostly tend to be followed by a statement of the satisfaction gained: "I gave as good as I got".


At the Stadium of Light the then-United captain boxed Sunderland player Jason McAteer's ears after the Scouser had mocked him with that scribbling motion - "put it in your next book" - after the pair had clashed, and declined his now-chairman Niall Quinn's handshake as he stalked to the touchline after his dismissal.

Whatever the complexities of the Premiership season ahead, the mercurial Irishman will not survive, fall or prosper in anonymity. Neither, with Keane in control, will the Mackems be allowed celebrate finishing fourth from bottom.

A poll (among Sunderland fans) found 64 per cent believing their team would finish between seventh and 10th. No pressure then, though how will they, and he, respond when points are rather more scarce than the first half of this year, in which his team garnered 16 wins and recorded one loss on the way to the Championship title?

They have already learned that Keane the Manager is a different personality altogether, although there is still disdain for those who don't possess his principles, don't share his desire.

His squad, to which he has added some impressive names, including Michael Chopra from Cardiff and Manchester United's England winger Kieran Richardson, comprehend the folly of assuming anything else.


Ask his players what qualities Keane imbues in them, and one is paramount. "He's made us mentally tougher," insists club captain Dean Whitehead. "His attitude rubs off on you and you need to have a lot of mental strength to play at a club like this. You have to be strong if things don't go well."

Though he has moved on to a higher plane, one on which it is necessary to distance himself from the players, he clearly still enjoys the craic of being around them.

"The manager likes joining in training. None of us can get anywhere near him," adds Whitehead. "I'm sure he could still play in the Premiership. You can't help but learn from him. It's great for me, as a midfielder, to pick things up. He still has that aura about him as a player, but I don't think he's got any plans to come out of retirement."

Though management clearly agrees with him, it was never an inevitable transition to his new role.

At the time of his infamous walk-out from the Republic of Ireland World Cup squad in 2002, Keane conceded he faced a dilemma: "I'd love to pull the strings of a big club. I look at our manager (Alex Ferguson) and I think about it. I know it's stressful. Good players and good people with me, people I could trust . . . on the other hand, there's getting away from it to a life where people leave you alone."

Keane recognises that a student does not become a master merely by having developed under those mentors Brian Clough and Ferguson, no matter that this was work experience at its finest.

He began his coaching badges four or five years ago, and wishes he had begun earlier: "The knowledge would definitely have helped me as a player."

This summer, he started UEFA's year-long pro-licence course at Warwick University. It involves devising training plans for specific matches, psychology, understanding contract negotiations and dealing with the media. We will return to the latter.

Nothing about Keane is clearly defined. The football village anticipates that this is an apprenticeship for the Big One: successor to Ferguson. He deals with this diplomatically, and denies that Sunderland are some kind of stepping stone. "I could be here a year or 10 years," he says.

Keane does not appreciate being regarded as calculating. Neither does he relish being compartmentalised, psychoanalysed, understood, even if it entails more character approval than destruction.

For instance, they talk about him being obsessed with excellence. In his autobiography, he wrote: "I read things about myself. (From) players even. Niall said, if Roy was buttering his toast it would be perfect. I'm thinking, 'What's Niall talking about?' People think they know you . . . "

His relationship with 'Quinny' is just one of the interweaved connections within the Republic of Ireland line of descent. Together, the two former Ireland internationals are determined that the Sunderland Bounce - between Premiership and Championship - will be halted.


The Black Cats were jettisoned from the big time with only 15 points under former Republic manager McCarthy in 2006. McCarthy may have been the epicentre of Keane's contempt at the 2002 World Cup, but the explosive force of his words caught others in the fall-out.

Notably, his references to Quinn made a future liaison between the pair as likely as Paul and Heather McCartney becoming patrons of Relate.

"Muppets" and "cowards" were his descriptions of Quinn and the current Republic manager, Steve Staunton, when they came to his room prior to his departure from the Irish camp, after both had sided with McCarthy.

Keane and Quinn had not spoken since that day when they met, at the behest of the their agent, Michael Kennedy, at the Co Kildare house of one of the investors in the Drumaville Consortium who now own Sunderland. At the time, Keane said he intended to complete his coaching badges. Quinn, reluctantly, took charge as chairman-manager. The club were 23rd in the Championship when Keane came in.

It was not the career path many foresaw. But Keane had seen the potential, was engaged by the vehemence of the support at the Stadium of Light. The situation allowed him to continue his education without perpetual scrutiny. Sunderland advanced up the League almost surreptitiously. No spats with managerial rivals, condemnation of his players, rants against journalists. Well, just one.

Read his excellent memoirs, and you will find a man who is acutely sensitive to slights, imagined or otherwise, as this observer can testify. At Oakwell last season, a comfortable 2-0 victory was achieved after Keane famously left behind three players - Anthony Stokes, Tobias Hysen and reserve goalkeeper Martin Fulop - who were late for the team bus.

Most would have accepted it as such. He didn't. There was what one could describe as a menacing silence, and eyes fixing me like lasers. I knew then something of the glare Jack Charlton received after castigating Keane for his tardiness in the US: "I looked him in the eye. He neither frightened nor impressed me. He was a bully who didn't like it when the boot was on the other foot. He backed off."


Back to the Oakwell press room, and Keane claimed I was trying to patronise him. "What's your point? What are you trying to say? Are you trying to say that there's a rule for me and a different one for my players?"

I stayed calm, explained the incident, but didn't want a major row, and another walk-out.

And at the end of this nonsensical confrontation? By a circuitous route, he voluntarily returned to the original question, and conceded that, yes, he was late for the plane. "And I got punished for it."

I never understood what devil briefly possessed the man. Maybe we were actually talking at cross-purposes. What I do know is that the journalist who sat between us revealed later that he was on the point of diving for cover, such was the fury in Keane's features.

At least I'm in decent company. The man who managed to provoke Keane's ire would never live in isolation, though he claims grudges are not carried. A truce has even been established with McCarthy, who returned to the Stadium of Light last season with Wolves.

And so to this season. The fixture computer has been relatively kind to Keane's men in the first week. Tottenham, in Saturday's early kick-off, will be an exacting introduction, though it is at home and will be no jolly for the north Londoners. Then Birmingham and Wigan, before Liverpool. By then, Keane will have a measure of the task ahead. "If I lose the first 10 games I'll be back walking the dog," he says.

Claiming to know the real Keane is about as futile as making any assumptions about the longevity of football managers. We shall know considerably more in 10 months' time.

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