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To succeed as a manager, Roy Keane must show that the perception is not the reality

The Man United legend reportedly turned down the chance to become Sunderland manager earlier this week.

Roy Keane (file pic).
Roy Keane (file pic).
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

THERE IS a scene in Richie Sadlier’s book ‘Recovering’ where the former Sunderland player tells the club’s then-manager Roy Keane he is retiring from professional football due to injury problems.

The passage provides a notable insight into what makes Keane tick.

“He praised me for the work I had put in to get that far and enquired what my options were. I mentioned the possibility of media work, and he advised me to speak my mind, always. There were enough spoofers out there, he reckoned.

“Don’t be another one who says nothing. If you do get work in that area,’ he said, ‘tell it like it is.’

“At that time, in that office, I felt I couldn’t have had a better man to talk to. I walked out of the room with more of an insight into why former teammates spoke so highly of his influence on them.

“If you’d asked me as I left how far I thought Keane was going to go in management, I’d have told you he could become one of the greats. At that moment I would have followed him anywhere, done anything for him, believed anything he told me. I couldn’t see how he could fail.”

During that era, plenty of people shared Sadlier’s enthusiasm. Sunderland were bottom of the Championship when Keane agreed to take over as manager and 18th in the Premier League around the midpoint of the season when he left two and a half years later.

Overall, it’s hard to argue against the notion that he did a good job, even if it ended badly, falling out with chairman Ellis Short, and getting booed by fans amid a 4-1 defeat in his last match against Bolton, while some players reportedly celebrated news of his exit.

Yet football has changed immeasurably, even in the 13-plus years since Keane left Sunderland.

News in recent days that he was in contention once again for the Black Cats job prompted a sense of excitement among many fans and journalists, given both Keane’s status in the game and his reputation as an entertaining and extremely quotable character.

However, there was also some scepticism as to whether he could repeat the degree of success he enjoyed in his first Sunderland spell.

One aspect of the aforementioned Sadlier passage that stands out is the reference to punditry.

Keane could certainly not be accused of ignoring his own advice — for both Sky Sports and ITV, he has become a popular panellist, largely owing to a frequent refusal to mince his words.

While this characteristic has certainly enhanced his reputation in the sports broadcasting world, it has not necessarily boosted his managerial prospects.

A memorable interview with Gary Neville on ‘The Overlap‘ last August provided another interesting glimpse into his thought processes.

Keane admitted he wanted to get into management but added: “I’m pretty content with what I’m doing at the moment. I have my days where I’m going to be restless like everyone else.

“I have to be careful what I wish for. I’m saying do I want to get back into management, but realistically, where am I going to go back into? The Championship? Top of League One?”

Neville, in response, brought up Keane’s managerial record, comparing it favourably to the likes of Frank Lampard and Scott Parker, and then mentioned the term “perception”.

“That’s the most important word in football,” Keane replied. “But perception is reality”.

The perception of Keane among people in football, it would be fair to say, is far from uniformly positive.

While everyone respects his hugely impressive achievements as a player, some have questioned whether his abrasive management style is increasingly outdated.

Even a far more successful coach than Keane, in Jose Mourinho, is now often perceived as too harsh, critical and demanding of modern players — flaws that were largely seen as virtues at the height of his powers, circa 2002 to 2015.

The infamous Stephen Ward WhatsApp leak is one of the more notorious recent examples of Keane’s coaching style leaving some players cold and unhappy.

Other individuals, such as Anton Ferdinand, have argued that this confrontational approach can actually be beneficial.

In an interview with the ‘All to Play For’ podcast, Ferdinand recalled a half-time chat when the team were under the cosh: “All of a sudden, Roy was like, ‘Who’s going to grab this game by the scruff of the neck? Who’s got the bollocks to do this and do that’. Then he looks at me and goes, ‘We all know you won’t, Anton, because you ain’t got any bollocks, have ya?’

“Straight-faced, he looked at me like that. I was like, ‘What?!’

“I’m like, ‘Okay, cool’, but I was fuming inside. I went into the tunnel and I turned to the boys and went, ‘Let’s ****ing prove him wrong, man. Let’s have it. Let’s make sure we win this game so we can go back in there and give him some’.

“We went out and Kenwyne scored, just after half-time, then Djibril scored. I blocked one off the line in the last five minutes, and we won the game.

“I was steaming in, after, to go, ‘What? I got no bollocks, have I?’ and Roy was there, at the door, waiting for me. He put his hand out, pulled me in and said, ‘I knew we were going to ****ing win anyway!’ And he giggled. That, for me, is top management.”

And while it worked for Ferdinand, it’s hard to imagine that these words would necessarily go down well in every dressing room, particularly given how football and player sensibilities have evolved over a decade later.

That’s not necessarily to say that Keane hasn’t changed since too, or that he is incapable of handling the more sensitive players in an empathetic manner, just as Alex Ferguson famously did with Eric Cantona and other mavericks.

Although he backed him publicly for the job, one player who might privately breathe a sigh of relief that Keane won’t be joining Sunderland after all is Aiden McGeady, who has been a key figure in his four and a half years at the Black Cats.

“I played with him at Celtic and that was bad enough,” the winger once commented.

“He is just one of those guys who has something to say about everything. I got on with him as a guy, but he is just one of those guys who has an opinion on everything.”

Of course, Keane went on to work with McGeady when the Man United legend became Ireland assistant boss and the coach was particularly critical of the winger after one performance that was deemed unacceptable in a pre-Euros friendly with Belarus.

“Aiden can do a lot better… that’s the story of his career,” Keane quipped.

Albeit Martin O’Neill later added: “Roy’s already had a word with [Aiden McGeady]. I think Roy’s words, he said himself, were slightly on the strong side.”

That instance was a direct example of how Keane’s sharp, succinct criticisms, which have earned him plaudits as a pundit, often do not translate so well into the world of management.

These types of comments, for the most part, surely do damage to Keane’s reputation in the game from a coaching perspective.

And contrast Keane’s style with the manager most observers consider to be the best in the world, Pep Guardiola.

It is very difficult to recall many examples of Guardiola harshly rebuking individual players.

On the contrary, the coach almost sounds sycophantic at times, given the tendency to go out of his way to praise stars.

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Despite working with the likes of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta, Guardiola called Phil Foden “the most talented player I have ever seen in my career as a manager” at a time when he had barely established himself as a regular in the first team at City.

That’s not to suggest there isn’t a ruthless side to Guardiola away from the cameras. He was barely in the door at City when he decided goalkeeping stalwart Joe Hart was not good enough. But he is also ostensibly not afraid to demonstrate the softer side of his character — for example, he was unwilling to offer club legend, Sergio Aguero, a new contract last May, but he still paid a tearful tribute to the departing star at the end of last season.

Even if placed in difficult situations, such as when Raheem Sterling suggested he was open to a City exit, Guardiola’s instinctive response has usually been reliably diplomatic.

Source: Brian Clough/YouTube

Keane, by comparison, has made no secret of his admiration for the late Brian Clough.

The legendary former Nottingham Forest manager gave the midfielder his first start in English football and the Corkonian famously has described Clough as the best manager he ever worked under.

And it’s easy to see the elements of the iconic coach’s persona that are attractive to Keane.

For instance, Clough made Trevor Francis Britain’s first £1 million player following his transfer from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest in 1979. But Clough, like Keane, usually did not mince his words and paid little heed to the reputation of others. Relatively early on in Francis’ stint at his new club, the BBC’s John Motson asked the manager whether fans had seen the best of him yet.

“I haven’t seen a lot of him, I don’t know about the best of him,” Clough replied. 

“He’s a remarkably nice young man. He gets his priorities wrong occasionally. But they’ve been put right quickly here. His off-the-field activities, I think, he’ll have to curtail. 

“First and foremost, his job is to become established as a really good player, and he’s not that yet. He’s not it at league level and he’s certainly not it at international level. For a man of so much talent, at 25, I think he’s only got 10 caps. He’s won a medal by fluke in the European Cup, but if we had a full squad, there was no way he was playing. So he’d have nothing to show for his 25 years of age and 10 years in football in the shape of medals and representative honours and I think that side comes part and parcel with earning a lot of money.”

This hard-line approach seemed to work well for the most part and helped Clough become one of the most British successful managers ever, but it feels unthinkable in the modern age and the antithesis of contemporary coaches like Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, who will almost always shield their players from public criticism.

But it is fair to say that, in the eyes of most people, Keane today still shares more in common with Clough then than Guardiola now.

He is a habitual truth-teller, either unwilling or unable to embrace the bland platitudes that most managers invariably spout and that are commonplace throughout the football industry — or at least, this is a perception that many now interpret as a weakness.

So when Keane instructs Sadlier to “tell it like it is,” it feels deep down as if he is outlining his philosophy not just on punditry but on life.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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