Friday, December 5, 2008

Keane gone from Sunderland, a surprise?

Well, well, I really ought have guessed. Jumpthefence has been mulling on entering the blogosphere for quite a while and when I finally bite the bullet, who’s there waiting as my first blog but Roy Keane. It’s like learning to cycle on a mountain stage of the Tour de France. People get hurt. Keane is about as divisive a figure as you can get in Irish sport and we’ve some history here. I’ve fought bitterly with family members who I’d normally be minding my ps and qs around over Keane.

I’ll lay my cards on the table early on and say I’ve always liked the man. Admired the way that amongst all the stars from around the world who washed up at Old Trafford it was a boy from Mayfield who led the most successful team in England for a decade or so. This doesn’t all mean I agree with every utterance or move he makes (a common misperception). I’m a Radiohead fan but that doesn’t mean I love every song or album of theirs. What’ll nag at me about Keane leaving Sunderland is the buckets and lashings of schadenfreude that’ll be whipping around over the next while. Some people never really had a liking for Keane, mainly due to the Man Utd angle I’m reckoning. Some never forgave him for Saipan. Many domestic league supporters resented the Sunderland story, seeing it as all that’s wrong with the modern Irish football fan (In fairness, if the most influential Irish player of all time in his first job in management with a club of Irish ownership and with another extremely famous face as chairman doesn’t generate a whole pile of press and interest, there’d be something up). A lot of people for different reasons will take great pleasure in Keane suffering here, which is a pity.

Anyway, to the story, and he’s left Sunderland of course. Nobody can say it wasn’t coming, or that it’s a shocker. A man like Keane, that has that impulsive, contrary streak running through him, is always capable of pulling a stunt like this. Story goes that he was increasingly isolated by the end, and that may turn out to be the biggest hindrance to him succeeding as a top manager. His whole career reads of a man cutting himself off from colleagues, of fighting that internal battle a little removed from advice or help. I imagine him as a Brian Clough figure, up in his office fighting demons and doubts and fuming over some mistake made ten days previously.
From a footballing viewpoint, I honestly don’t think he did that bad a job. Sure, he spent money (around £77m) but it was there to be spent. He took the club from struggling badly in the Championship to surviving in the Premier League. At times I liked the look of him on the sideline, there seemed to be a thought process going on and a structure to what he was trying to do. Initially he bought players to get promotion, then players to survive, then last summer was about taking another step. That’s where the whole process seemed to get muddled. He bought players like David Healy, Teemu Tainio, El-Hadji Diouf, without any real thought as to how to gel a team together. There was no player – except perhaps Kenwyne Jones – who you could say improved under Keane’s management. There were so many players in the end, Keane never seemed to know his best team. Guys were played, then dropped. There was no consistency of performance. Sunderland beat Newcastle one week and then lost to Stoke with the same team the following weekend. Then, they were unlucky at times. They were a minute from beating Arsenal. They ought to have whipped Fulham and Portsmouth. They had a run of winnable games coming up. Few doubt that Sunderland had enough to get well out of trouble. The problem was that Keane seemed to doubt himself, his own abilities.

The future? There’s a train of thinking that says Keane is now damaged goods as a manager, and the way of English football would suggest that may be the case. But I recall reading an interesting piece with Gianluca Vialli in the past saying that English football is far too quick to judge and cast aside failing managers. It’s all a learning experience surely. Rafa Benitez was sacked by Real Valladolid after two wins in 23 games, Osasuna after one win in nine, he promoted Extremadura to La Liga and then saw them relegated. That’s three apparent failures before hitting the jackpot with Tenerife, Valencia and then Liverpool. Italians – who tend to produce the most successful managers – see it as a trade, where you learn gradually, make mistakes and get better with each job. Carlo Ancelotti was a bit of a disaster at Juve but still got the Milan job. Whether Keane has the hunger to go back, learn from his mistakes and evolve, is of course the big question here.

Hopefully, someone out there will take a punt on Keane in the future. It’d be a shame if what’s happened has put him out of the game for good. Football will be less interesting in his absence, that’s for sure.

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