Keane at critical point as cracks show at Ipswich

Career of manager once tipped to succeed Ferguson is in danger of ending in failure

As a player, Roy Keane was pretty much in a league of his own. The Manchester United and Republic of Ireland midfielder created a benchmark that today means players with bite and vision are described as Keanesque.

But as a manager Keane is struggling to make the same sort of impact at Ipswich Town, and whereas once he was being mooted as a successor to Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, there is now a danger, he will be heaped in with all those great players who failed to make the switch from dressing room to manager's office with the same level of success.

He hosts Northampton, conquerors of Liverpool, in the fourth round of the Carling Cup tonight at a critical point in the season, having lost three league games in a row. A cup run might not be the top priority, but Keane needs to turn around Ipswich's season somehow – and fast. With almost a third of the campaign gone, Ipswich are nestled in 14th place in the Championship and, come the end of the season, that is unlikely to be sufficient for Keane to keep his job.

His unveiling as manager at Portman Road in April last year was unprecedented at the club in terms of the spectacular media coverage. Even the appointments of Sir Bobby Robson and Sir Alf Ramsey, the club's two most successful managers, did not compare.

During Keane's much trumpeted early press conferences at Ipswich, he stated very clearly that he had signed a two-year contract because that was how long he would need to get Town promoted and if he didn't then he would regard himself a failure and not worthy of an extended contract, adding that any half-decent manager could finish in the top half of the Championship – it was promotion that mattered.

Time is fast becoming as big an enemy to Keane as his lack of a streetwise midfield and a misfiring attack. The cracks, albeit by no means cavernous just yet, are starting to appear and the plain-speaking Irishman has made clear his feelings on the secretive club owner Marcus Evans' decision not to bring in players Keane coveted.

That means Keane has had to rely on signings from his old club Sunderland and Town's academy, especially players such as highly rated striker Connor Wickham, New Zealand's World Cup defender Tommy Smith and the emerging Ronan Murray. That has been a source of frustration, although he refuses to blame his team.

"I don't get frustrated at the players, insisted Keane yesterday. "It is more I get frustrated along with the players. I enjoy working with the players and I'm happy, although I recognise we are short. I'm short as a manager in certain areas and I get frustrated with myself. Being a manager is a lot tougher than playing.

Keane is pragmatic about his situation. "It has been a bad week but you have bad weeks in football and it is how you respond to that which is important," he said. "If we win [against Northampton] we would be in the quarter-final of a cup and three points away from sixth place in the league. The supporters have been unbelievably patient but that is a reason why I took the job. I knew they would be when other fans would have turned. But I live in the real world and if you are not winning football matches, that creates frustration and pressure."

The feeling in this part of East Anglia towards Keane remains mixed, with some who believe he should be given more time and that getting rid of yet another manager at the end of the season would just set the club back another couple of years, but an increasing number who are turning against a man they see as something of a bluffer and not cut out to be a top manager.

Given that Evans showed patience with the previous incumbent, Jim Magilton, before cutting him loose once it was confirmed Ipswich were not going to make the play-offs, and then appointed Keane within a couple of days, it is likely this manager will be given the remainder of his contract to ensure a top-six finish. If Town fail, or Evans is not convinced that sufficient progress has been made, the contract will not be renewed, although things may come to a head long before then if Keane doesn't believe he is getting the right sort of backing. Keane won't let criticism get to him but he has form with the Republic of Ireland and Sunderland for walking away if he doesn't think the right sort of support is forthcoming from on high.

If he were to quit a third high-profile job, then it would be a potentially fatal career setback for the uncompromising Keane, who will know he may not get another opportunity.

Following Ferguson

Roy Keane is one of a number of Sir Alex Ferguson's former players who have gone into management.

Mark Hughes

Hughes, who played under Ferguson for seven years, impressed in a five-year tenure in charge of his native Wales. Did well at Blackburn and got Manchester City job but was given little time. Has made a decent start at Fulham.

Steve Bruce

Now with Sunderland, Bruce has led Crystal Palace, Wigan Athletic and Birmingham City, among others, with varied success after captaining United for part of his nine years under Ferguson.

Bryan Robson

After largely unsuccessful spells in charge of Middlesbrough, Bradford and West Brom, Fergie's "Captain Marvel" is now coaching the Thai national team.

Alex McLeish

"Big 'Eck'' served his apprenticeship under Ferguson at Aberdeen. Is now earning plaudits for his efforts leading Birmingham following spells with Hibernian, Rangers and Scotland.

Laurent Blanc

The 44-year-old took over as manager of France following the World Cup after masterminding Bordeaux's first league title success in 10 years in 2007. Spent two years under Ferguson at United.

Elliot Dawson