Keane is back

Ireland’s Roy Keane, newly appointed manager of Ipswich Town, in his early spell at Sunderland, galvanised rather than demoralised the team and took it in no time surging back in triumph into the top division.

Roy Keane, as you may have noticed, is back. Back in football management, in charge surprisingly of Ipswich Town. No longer, of course, the Ipswich Town of the aristocratic Cobbolds, of Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson, who both won honours for it, Ramsey with amazing flair raising it in no time from the old third division south to winners of the championship. With happily alcoholic patrician John Cobbold, scion of one of England’s most famous families, the ever genial, g enerous and eccentric chairman.

The new chairman is very rich indeed but he is no patrician. A somewhat mysterious figure, seldom to be seen in public, he established the basis of his great fortune wheeling and dealing in tickets for major sports events. Can he, will he, be able to handle the ever potentially explosive Keane, who left Sunderland this season, you might say, under a black cloud of his own generation? Reportedly no longer talking to his browbeaten players or even to his fellow, ex-Irish international, chairman Niall Quinn, who brought him to the club. Let alone to the billionaire American — they are so much in fashion now in English football — Ellis Short, who has succeeded Quinn as the owner of the club.

Keane grumbled that Short, initially said to keep team matters at arms’ length, was interfering with his job. Since Keane had spent over £80 million on new players and the club was sinking like a stone in the Premier League, you could hardly blame him. Meanwhile, the much put upon Ricky Sbragia, the experienced coach, reluctantly pushed into Keane’s role and already longing to get back just to coaching, protests that it’s time that Keane, with no Sunderland connection now, stopped constantly complaining about the club.

When Keane, his tumultuous but distinguished Manchester United and Ireland playing career over, was put in charge of a struggling Sunderland — but struggling way down the Championship, alias the second division — I confess I was sceptical. This, I reasoned was a ruthless perfectionist who expected other players to contribute as much as he himself so dynamically did, from central midfield. My feeling was that he would prove a demoralising influence on his men.

Wrong but right, you might say. Or perhaps right but wrong. Meaning that Keane, in his early spell at Sunderland, galvanised rather than demoralised the team and took it in no time surging back in triumph into the top division. No mean feat. The players undoubtedly were playing for him. But it didn’t last. This season, things went from bad to worse, and Keane sank into his shell. His players were wary of him. All that I’d first feared and anticipated had come to pass. So, out he went. Reminding one that when he was appointed to the job, he had never been a manager, even a coach, before. Still, neither, I suppose, had Franz Beckenbauer when he took command of Germany.

Ipswich, or their entrepreneurial owner, recently and abruptly sacked their manager, Jim Magilton, when it was clear they would not get out of the championship. In came Keane. Don’t worry, wrote a sceptical columnist, he won’t be there for long, Maybe not, but undeniably, Ipswich, in the two championship matches left to them, made a fine 100% start under his aegis, a 3-0 win at Cardiff, victory at home against Coventry City. Now, the summer.

There can, alas, be no doubt about Keane’s explosive, sometimes vindictive, temperament. Two incidents in his playing career stand out. When playing at Elland Road for Manchester United, the club which acquired him, already a star, from Nottingham Forest, he attempted to foul Leeds’ Norwegian midfielder, Alf-Inge Haaland but succeeded only in smashing up his own knee, putting him out for many months. He admits in his autobiography that he swore what he deemed revenge, asserting that Haaland had stood over him, gloating.

So when it came to a City-United Manchester derby, Haaland by then being a Manchester City player, Keane, by his own admission, savagely hacked the Norwegian to the floor and assaulted him, swore obscenely at him, then willingly went off, after the inevitable red card.

Then, just before the 2002 World Cup finals began, he was incensed, with good reason, by the Irish FA’s fatuously unsuitable choice of a Japanese island with negligible facilities on which to train.

The manager Mick McCarthy, whom Keane arrogantly despised, made the mistake, or was it one, of confronting him, not man to man but before a group of team-mates, who’d be appalled by the torrent of abuse which poured out of Keane’s mouth. So, inevitably, he was homeward bound and stayed there, despite frantic efforts to bring him back. Ireland acquitted themselves well, but how much better might they have done with Keane in the side?

So to Ipswich, where it seems all too possible that history will repeat itself. A bright beginning, perhaps even promotion, followed by dark days, failing results, and Keane’s sullen departure. We’ll see.