Roy, they say great players don't make great managers..." "Well, that's fine, because I was never a great player."
Roy Keane has been at it for 95 minutes at the Stadium of Light, but still he gets his challenge in early. "Well, you were a fantastic player..." the latest inquisitor in Keane's first day media marathon continues, attempting to regain possession.
"Listen," Keane says, cutting in again, "I was never a great player, so you can throw that out of the window. I was not a great player."
"But..." is as far as his opponent is allowed to get this time.
"What do you class as a great player?" Keane begs. "What did you class Pele as?"
"A great player," the Sunday newspaperman answers.
"And you'd put me in the same bracket as that?" Keane asks.
"Well... not far off," says his questioner.
"Nah, nah," Keane says. "You see. Nah, nah, I don't fall for that."
The new manager of Sunderland AFC is not being obtuse for the sake of it. He is merely tackling what he considers to be a basic point of fact. As it happens, he does not necessarily disagree with the accepted wisdom that great footballers tend to fail to live up to their great reputations when it comes to the management game. "Maybe the expectations are unrealistic," he says. As a staunch pragmatist, Keane just doesn't care for the flannel and the hype - especially when it comes to the matter of defining himself.
The Corkman has knocked down many of the preconceptions about him in the course of this opening-day trial of his stamina and patience. On his tour of the various media groups dotted about the Directors' Suite - television stations, radio stations, daily newspapers, Irish newspapers, local newspapers and now Sunday newspapers - Keane has been the epitome of quiet charm, disarmingly candid and self-effacing. No mention of his combustible past or of the former Ireland manager Mick McCarthy has provoked the ire of the man last seen in these parts elbowing the goading Jason McAteer and blanking the conciliatory Niall Quinn, now his chairman.
Keane has been taking the opportunity to set the record straight about himself and his fearsome reputation. Each answer he has given has stripped away the cardboard cut-out "mean machine" image he says he adopted whenever his car pulled in to Old Trafford.
We have had Keane the humble, Keane the apologetic, Keane the humorous. Now, before us, we even have the image of Keane the counsellor - the schoolteacher's counsellor.
"Would you be happy to achieve what Kevin Keegan did up the road?" someone asks. "Hey, Kevin Keegan did a brilliant job at Newcastle," Keane replies. "When I was on my [Uefa] A badge coaching course a few weeks ago there was a Geordie there who was still going on about the year they lost the League. Every day he was saying to me, 'We should have beaten you bastards' [Manchester United].
"He was still going on about the game at St James' Park when 10-1 would have been a fair result to Newcastle but we won 1-0. I kept saying to him, 'Get over it; move on'. But he wouldn't. And he was a schoolteacher. He was a clever lad. He kept going on and on about it.
"But, no, listen, Kevin Keegan did brilliantly at Newcastle. He's a person that I have a lot of respect for. Wore his heart on his sleeve. There was maybe a downside to Kevin with that eventually, but I always give him a plus for it. I always found him a bloody nice bloke."
For all the images of the raging bull of a player, it is difficult to see the Roy Keane sitting before us as anything other than a bloody nice bloke. A highly affable bloke, too - and a clever one. Not smartarse clever, but keenly intelligent, you might say.
There is no game at stake here, no war to be won, as Keane confesses he saw it in his playing days; his first battle as Sunderland manager is at Derby next Saturday. Still, you sense what we have before us today to be the antithesis of the bluffing, bullshitting Ron Manager.
Instead, we have the Ronseal Manager: the man from Cork who does what he says on the tin, who was brought up to laugh at conceit and pretence; who suffered rejections (from Brighton, Derby, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa and Chelsea) and unemployment before getting his break at Nottingham Forest (and being disgusted by the less than committed attitude he encountered in the reserve team dressing-room there); and who has always loved his canine companions for the simple reason that "unlike people, dogs don't talk shite".
Keane has worn his heart on his sleeve somewhat more confrontationally than Kevin Keegan but, like the man who transformed Newcastle United, as a player he maximised his ability into that of a supremely influential footballer, if not a sublimely skilful one. "As much as I can knock myself for the lack of skill I had, I worked my socks off," he says. "And I got my rewards. If you give 100 per cent to your club and your team, then you get your rewards - in terms of having a long career, a good career, playing at a good level. And that's all you can ask for: people to do their best.
"That's all I'll be asking: do your best and you'll be all right. If not, then there will be problems. But I think that's the same in any business. People come in and they're not prepared to give 100 per cent, whether they work for a football team or any team... and hopefully I'll be quick to suss that out. I think I've got a good eye for that."
A keen eye, you could say - not unlike that of Brian Clough and of Sir Alex Ferguson, the two managers who saw the priceless value of the steel in Keane's character and play.
"Two of the top five greatest managers of all time, I'm sure," Keane says. "Brian Clough kept things very, very simple. Before my first game for Forest he said to me, 'You get it, pass to a red shirt, and you move.' That was his advice to me and I made a career out of it.
"I'll be trying to simplify things. My friend Tony [Loughlan, the former Forest team-mate Keane has appointed as first-team coach] wants me to bring Triggs up to the training ground because Cloughie used to bring his dog, Del Boy. Maybe that's going a bit far.
"In terms of management, Brian Clough's ideas were very simple but there was a genius behind it. He had his ways of getting the right players to play in the right way - people like John Robertson, the way he put me straight into the first team. I had three years with him and hopefully something rubbed off, because he was fantastic.
"Was he the biggest inspiration? With the amount of time I spent at United, I will have to say Alex Ferguson. But without Brian Clough I wouldn't have got to Alex Ferguson. Obviously, I did help myself along the way. And that was by training pretty hard."
Along the way, by his own admission, he gave his managers a pretty hard time too - a hard enough one to draw a wistful smile when Roy Keane, the manager, is asked whether he would have enjoyed dealing with Roy Keane, the player. "I'm not really sure, to be honest with you," he says. "One of the players came to see me this morning about something and I was thinking, 'God, I must have been a nightmare'.
"Not that I went to see the manager every day. But I was always asking questions, always looking for stuff: 'We need to be doing this'. Not even on a weekly basis, but I knew if I had a point...
"That's why I'm thinking I probably went too far... in a nice way... in a nice way."
THE KEY RECRUITS
1 DWIGHT YORKE Keane might have bridled at the playboy lifestyle of his former Old Trafford colleague, but he has always warmed to Yorke's sunny disposition. Persuading the 34-year-old Trinidad & Tobago World Cup captain to swap Sydney for Sunderland is a major coup.
2 GRAHAM KAVANAGH The 32-year-old Dubliner is ideally suited to playing the Roy Keane role on the pitch for Roy Keane's team. Just the kind of midfield enforcer Sunderland need, too. An astute investment at £400,000 from Wigan.
3 LIAM MILLER Hyped as "the new Roy Keane" when Sir Alex Ferguson signed him from Celtic in 2004, the 25-year-old Irish midfielder failed to make a breakthrough at Old Trafford but impressed on loan to Leeds last season. Another shrewd buy, it would seem.
4 DAVID CONNOLLY Impressed Keane by spending much of his time on international trips in the hotel gym, rather than the lobby or golf course. Also endeared himself by quietly offering his support at the pre-2002 World Cup spat in Saipan.
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