Roy Keane, Manager : The Dark Side

With the riches on offer in the broadcasting world, upon retirement, more and more top players are eschewing the pressure of the dugout for the relative safety of the pundit’s chair. Sir Alex Ferguson has seen many of his former charges make the switch to management with Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Bryan Robson and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer amongst them. When asked if he could envisage his Manchester United captain Roy Keane moving into management he replied “It’s not an easy environment to come into, I wouldn’t forecast anything”.   

As a player Roy Keane demanded the absolute best, from team mates, management, fans and owners. These imperiously high standards brought clashes during a career that saw him win 19 major trophies, 17 of which came with Manchester United before his acrimonious exit in 2005.     

A surprise appointment at Sunderland gave him his first taste of football management. Surprising in the sense that the man who made the appointment, Niall Quinn, sat in the opposite camp to Keane during the fallout in Saipan during the 2002 World Cup. Keane was unhappy with the training base chosen by the FAI and was not afraid to tell them, resulting in his expulsion from the squad on the eve of the first game. This galvanised the Republic of Ireland squad and whilst Keane spent the summer walking his dogs, the Boys In Green achieved a last 16 finish. 

The Drumaville consortium that seized control of Sunderland in 2006 was led by Quinn, who took on the chairman and managers role. Four straight league defeats and a humbling at lower league Bury in the League Cup left him with no option. He stood down as manager promising the fans a “world class” replacement. The chosen candidate was flown into Dublin by helicopter for talks. A £1m a year offer on the table, the remit clear, promotion back to the Premier League.  

Quinn handed Keane the keys to a Sunderland squad that had been relegated from the Premier League in 2006 and was now languishing 23rd in the Championship. Keane overhauled the squad quickly, going for tried and trusted players in the transfer market. Thirteen players arrived in his first season, highlighted by the free transfer arrivals of his former teammates Liam Miller and Dwight Yorke. The games and signings came thick and fast, being in the eye of the storm worked wonders for Keane. With the squad strengthened, Sunderland marched up the table in style.  

The January transfer window saw Keane make two key acquisitions. Carlos Edwards arrived from Luton Town and young Irish defender Jonny Evans joined on loan from Manchester United. These signings were the final pieces in an impressive puzzle that was on display at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland shared the goals around, new signing David Connolly led the charts with thirteen goals. The former Wigan Athletic man scoring the decisive goal against Luton Town that secured promotion for the Black Cats. 

Even in a promotion season, agitation was never far away for Keane. Before an away trip to Barnsley he left three players behind who were late, tardiness something he was not willing to accept. There were certain standards demanded from the manager, standards instilled in him from playing under Ferguson and previously Brian Clough. Back in the top-flight, Keane made a further 19 signings in Sunderland’s first season back in the top flight, eyebrows being raised by the £9m capture of goalkeeper Craig Gordon from Hearts. 

Keane again moved for experienced former team mates, Ian Harte and Danny Higginbotham both arriving on deadline day. Kenwyne Jones and Michael Chopra formed an expensive new frontline, Jones threatening strike action at Southampton to push the move through. 

Chopra scored the opening goal of the season in a 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in the season’s curtain raiser, yet it was victories in the new year that would keep the Black Cats in the Premier League. Three straight wins in March and April steered them clear of the relegation zone, survival confirmed following a 3-2 win over North-East rivals Middlesbrough. A high profile spat with FIFA vice-president Jack Warner over a potential re-call for Dwight Yorke brought unwanted attention on the club with Keane branding them both “clowns”. This belligerent, steely approach helped him scale the heights of the game as a player yet didn’t seem to translate in management when the pressure was on.  

Further backing from the board that summer could do naught to lift Sunderland up the table. Despite a derby win over Newcastle, victories were hard to come by. Keane managed his 100th game for the club in a disastrous 4-1 defeat to Bolton, which left them in 18th place and him on the brink. A simple text to Quinn and he was gone, no goodbye to his staff, players or the fans. His resignation came as a shock to the board, hoping that he would reconsider after a few days but it never came. Privately the players rejoiced, tired of his hard-line approach and iron rod leadership which alienated many of the squad. Keane returned to walking his dogs. 

Many managers say that you’ve never truly experienced the job until you’ve been sacked. In Keane’s case the resignation was just the same to a man frustrated by the position the club was in and his inability to get them out of it. This was a man who was used to success, failing wasn’t an option to him. He intimated it was problems with the board that left him no choice but to leave, yet certain questions remained unanswered. Why can’t they play like I want them to? Why doesn’t it mean as much to them as it does to me? 

Ipswich owner Marcus Evans had decided it was time for a change, incumbent manager and former player Jim Magilton had taken the team as far as possible. The reclusive owner made his money in the corporate hospitality business but would not extend his manager that courtesy, informing Magilton of his decision by phone whilst the Northern Irishman was visiting his ill mother.  

A club legend being treated with such disdain left a sour taste for many Ipswich fans. Evans moved quickly, news surfaced the next day of a two-year deal being struck with Roy Keane. A high-profile appointment that the East Anglian side had not experienced before, such a profile appealed to the millionaire owner. Promotion to the Premier League even more important with the league recently signing a £1.78bn TV deal. 

Such a ‘box office’ appointment thrust Ipswich into the spotlight, the welcome press conference attended by journalists from far and wide, fans expectations were rising. Some newspapers provided a by the minute account of proceedings, Keane reiterating that all was not as it seemed at Sunderland. As for Ipswich, he spoke of the “great opportunity” yet managed expectations by describing a “massive challenge” in front of him. His pet hate, tardiness, was mentioned, requesting if players were on time and gave 100% there would be no problem. If only it was that simple. 

Magilton’s final time in the Ipswich dugout was an East Anglian derby victory over Norwich, his three years at the helm saw a 14th and 8th place finish in the Championship. With two games left in the 2008/09 season, the playoffs were out of reach for Ipswich. Hopes were high that with the right additions that summer, promotion would be on the agenda in Keane’s first full season. Two victories in those games at Cardiff and against Coventry adding to the expectations. 

Five months is a long time in football, so what had Keane learned in the period between leaving Sunderland and taking over at Ipswich? Firstly, there would be no commuting this time, the helicopter rides from his Cheshire home to Wearside had lost its shine fairly quickly. A lavish seven-bedroom home in the village of Woodbridge was purchased for £3.5m, a mere nine miles from Ipswich. Keane, his wife Theresa and their five children (don’t forget the dogs) upped sticks from Hale and set off for the East Anglian countryside. 

Keane expected the same commitment from the players, stating that they must live within a one-hour commute of the Playford Road training ground. London based veterans Kevin Lisbie and Ben Thatcher questioned this, only on short term contracts, they saw little sense in moving out of the city when they could be playing elsewhere in the near future.  

Long serving coach Bryan Klug was relieved of his duties as ‘player development manager’ having been at the club in some guise for over 20 years. Responsible for bringing the likes of Titus Bramble, Keiron Dyer and Richard Wright through to the first team in the late 90’s his departure and subsequent appointment as Tottenham Hotspur academy director was a bitter pill for fans to swallow.  

Club owner Marcus Evans backed his high-profile appointment that summer to the tune of £10m, an amount that fans could only dream of in previous years. Magilton’s largest outlay had been £2m on midfielder David Norris who would later become captain under Keane. Continuing the trend from his time in the North-East, Keane returned to a former club to make his first big signing. Lee Martin arrived from Manchester United for £2m, having only made a single appearance for them spending the bulk of his time on loan at six other clubs.  

Keane continued his summer spending with striker Tamas Priskin arriving from Watford, the Hungarian scoring 12 league goals the previous season. Damien Delaney came in from Queens Park Rangers, as Keane placed his faith in a fellow countryman to shore up the defence. Deadline day saw Grant Leadbitter and Carlos Edwards complete a joint £4m move from former club Sunderland, ploughing the tried and tested route yet again. 

Keane stated in pre-season that “any half decent manager can get a team to mid-table in the Championship”, words that would come back to haunt him. Another move that would haunt him and Ipswich was when young striker Jordan Rhodes was allowed to leave, Keane described the move to then League One club Huddersfield as a “good deal for the club”. A £350,000 fee with a further £600,000 in add-ons was a relative steal considering Rhodes went on to score 87 times in 147 appearances for the Terriers before making an £8m move to Blackburn Rovers in 2012. 

With the squad back for pre-season Keane put into practice something he picked up when studying Graham Henry and his New Zealand rugby union side during his A licence coaching course. The squad were taken to the Colchester garrison for an army boot camp, players swapping wallets and mobile phones for artillery and makeshift shelters. The players were pitted against the parachute regiment in some tasks, midfielder Colin Healy suffering large blisters which by the end of the camp were infected. Taking players out of their comfort zone was something that Keane first employed at Sunderland. Orienteering and mountain bike trips into the middle of nowhere designed to bring the best out of the players. Keane relished these trips and would be as involved in them as he was in the Manchester United engine room a decade earlier.  

The 2009/10 season got off to a start Ipswich would be unable to recover from, incredibly winless in their first fourteen games with eight draws. The binary nature of the points haul derailed the side, taking until Halloween to record its first win. Keane’s frustration, clear for all to see when he castigated a reporter for not putting his phone on silent during a press conference. His actions were direct and swift, Priskin was farmed out to Queens Park Rangers on loan, Martin dropped as Keane’s patience grew thinner and thinner. There would be no second half promotion charge, any ideas of Keane pulling off what he achieved in his first year at Sunderland gone. The Tractor Boys limped to a 15th place finish. 

A disappointing first season led to a frustrating summer. Keane sounded out former Reading manager Brendan Rodgers about becoming his assistant, having become friends on a coaching course. Rodgers was keen to get back into the game after his sacking at Reading but the offer of the manager’s job at Swansea was too good to turn down. Former Liverpool and Everton defender Gary Ablett joined the coaching staff easing the burden on Keane. New players were also required, Keane frustrated with the snail-paced nature of proceedings, pointing the finger at Chief Executive Simon Clegg and owner Marcus Evans. Speculation arose that players would need to leave before any further investment would be made, Evans privately concerned with the failure of some of the expensive signings from the previous summer. 

One such signing, Lee Martin joined Charlton Athletic on a year-long loan and Premier League Stoke City expressed interest in Jonathan Walters on the eve of the new season. The Ipswich captain withdrew through illness from the squad for a League Cup tie with Exeter City, prompting a furious response from Keane. Intimating that he was doing this to avoid injury, with rumours of a bid from Stoke being imminent, Walters startlingly resorted to sending Keane a picture of his vomit as proof. 

Following the bust-up, Walters handed in a transfer request adding to Keane’s fury. Walters was stripped of the captaincy, Keane telling the press that he would never play for the club again. Not the best tactic for Ipswich who were already struggling to agree a fee with the Potters. Four days of wrangling later, Walters made the switch to the Potteries for £2.75m. The protracted signing of Wigan’s Jason Scotland saw Keane’s frustration with the board grow, 11 days passing between the clubs agreeing a fee and the player inking his contract. Other moves for Shaun Derry and Michael Chopra came to nothing, Keane again laying the blame at the door of his chief executive. 

Initially league form improved, Keane was nominated for manager of the month in August after Ipswich recorded three wins and a draw. Ian McParland replaced Ablett on the coaching staff after he was taken ill with a form of blood cancer that would sadly claim his life 15 months later. Walters took to the press to slam Keane for the treatment of Klug and suggested the players were walking on “eggshells” around their manager, something Keane refuted. 

Defeats in October and early November saw Ipswich slip into mid-table, more bad news arrived as the Ipswich accounts announced losses of £14m. The club counting the cost of the signing splurge from the season before. Four more defeats followed in November, including an embarrassing 4-1 defeat to arch rivals Norwich City, the playoff places disappeared into the distance.  

Keane, now known by a section of fans as ‘The Dark Lord’ saw the slump continue well into December, with Ipswich now as low as 18th in the table. Fans voiced their displeasure at the club’s AGM and although he received substantial backing from Clegg, the pressure was mounting. As the calendar turned to 2011, Nottingham Forest inflicted Ipswich’s seventh defeat in nine and with a third round FA Cup tie at Chelsea looming, Keane was sacked.  

Two years on, Keane reflected on his time at Ipswich. Perhaps with tongue firmly placed in cheek, he questioned why he got involved with a club who played in blue but also regretted his treatment of some people whilst he was there. Keane isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last revered player unable to make the adjustment to management. Perhaps his early success at Sunderland gave him a misconceived idea that it was easy? Maybe it boils down to frustration that his players can’t produce to the same high standards he strove to maintain during his playing career?  

Putting previous animosity with the FAI behind him, Keane is now serving as assistant to Martin O’Neill for the Republic of Ireland although he recently stated a return to the managerial hot seat is in his future plans.