James Lawton: Brilliant future awaits warrior with wisdom of past mentors

Click to follow
The Independent Football

There is a flaw in the widespread belief that Roy Keane, the prospective new manager of Sunderland, today becomes officially a volcano waiting to erupt.

It lies in the failure to remember that if all managers start off as footballers, with their own set of priorities, it is only the failures who retain that status in their hearts and their minds when they move into the manager's office. The winning managers know, from the start, that they have to change; they have to acquire cunning, if not instant wisdom, but more important than anything they have to understand that what they demanded from themselves was a burden they alone knew they could carry.

Keane, it is reasonable to believe, is too worldly in the ways of the game he dominated for so long not to know that too quickly asking for the standards he imposed upon himself would almost certainly lead to a collective nervous breakdown in the Sunderland dressing-room.

Much has been made of Keane's brisk acquisition of the required coaching certificates. But it is an irrelevance. Long before he sat in a lecture room, Keane had sailed through the biggest test of managerial skills a working pro could face.

He persuaded Sir Alex Ferguson that he could gauge the mood - and the possibilities - of a dressing- room better than any pro the old warhorse had encountered. The result: a one-two combination which ravaged Premiership opposition and delivered the European Cup and, in the process, made Keane so much more than the manager's alter ego. He was also an interpreter of trends, a scout for weakness, a sergeant major of the barrack square and an ultimate warrior in the trenches.

Yes, it ended in tears and an apparently lingering bitterness, but then that is often true of the most passionate of partnerships. The one between Ferguson and Keane was moulded by mutual self-interest and a shared belief in the proper ingredients of a successful football club. That Keane overstepped the mark in Ferguson's view - as he certainly did in his fierce civil war with Ireland's former coach, Mick McCarthy - is often what happens when a little balance is lost, and in Keane's case there was a reason that was perhaps available even to amateur psychology. His decline as a truly great player was accelerating at a pace that assaulted his spirit.

But Keane is about to become a manager now. He has been through the greatest turmoil of his life, the one that came with the dying of his physical power, and now he has to make some sense of the rest of it. How will he fare as a manager? The suspicion here is that ultimately he will be brilliant. Yes, there will be some eruptions, some moments of drama, but Keane understands football with the keenest of eyes for those who are prepared to go to their limits, as he did so consistently, and those whose hearts are perhaps less than resolute. In the mean time, no doubt he has to polish a few communication skills which in the past have not often suggested a career in the diplomatic service.

One old pro was confident enough last night, saying: "As a player Roy Keane was something of a wild man, particularly in his youth, but as his career wore on you could see what a fierce intelligence he brought to his play. He became a consummate professional and I've no doubt that he has the means to be highly successful as a manager. More than anything, he has the desire and the ambition ... just like Ferguson, and just like his first manager, Brian Clough."

Most crucial is his ability to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the winning managers he played for so successfully, Clough, Ferguson and Big Jack Charlton. They often, close up in the most ferocious competition, gave insights and lessons not available in a coaching course, and now it is his job to separate the good from the bad, a chore invariably undertaken by the most successful football men.

Yes, to a degree he has to change. For the present he has to accept his football life for what it is, which is to say a tight corner, but one with immense possibilities in the matter of proving that he is capable of dynamic leadership. There is no shortage of reasons to say that the Sunderland chairman, and tiro administrator, Niall Quinn, who was sneeringly referred to as Mother Teresa by an angry Keane, has chosen to live dangerously, and many of them have been advanced already with impeccable logic.

Can the man who reacted so violently to the imperfections of his United team-mates really be expected to tolerate the limitations of players who have crashed so dismally to the bottom of the Championship? When his job is on the line, will he walk easily away from the blunders of a referee or the needling questions of a post-match interviewer? Again, the suspicion is that he will. It is because he knows football down to his bones, because he knows what it takes to survive in any situation, and despite the worst of his own weaknesses. And, also, because so often something subtle and profound happens when a footballer has to settle for management, if only because it keeps him in touch with the central driving force of his life, and the thing he knows best.

At the time of his retirement as a Celtic player this summer, Keane was seen walking alone on a street of Puerta Banus, a place of dubious glitter in the Lotus Land of the Costa del Sol. He was without his dog, a spring in his stride, and, it seemed, much of a point. A different Keane is about to be unveiled. Different from that least tranquillised of players, and different from the lost soul who walked past the boutiques and designer houses with unseeing eyes. But then it will still be recognisably Roy Keane, a man most unlikely to have forgotten how to win.

Past imperfect Why the relationship between Keane and Quinn has not always been a good one

Niall Quinn, the Sunderland chairman, is on the verge of appointing Roy Keane as his manager but the relationship between the former Ireland internationals has not always been so cosy.

* 14 May 2002

Keane's relationship with Quinn becomes strained after Keane pulls out of Quinn's Stadium of Light testimonial.

* 25 May 2002

Two days after Keane walks out of Ireland's World Cup camp, after a row with the manager Mick McCarthy, Quinn claims many in the Irish camp are frightened of their former captain. Quinn cites Ireland's 1-0 win over the Netherlands in September 2001. Quinn said: "I can remember the dressing-room after that game, everybody was jumping round, but Roy is there with a serious expression telling one player he should have passed at some stage in the game instead of dribbling. He is on a different level when it comes to professionalism. He is a machine. I wouldn't say he frightens me but he intimidates one or two."

* 28 May 2002

Keane apportions some blame to Quinn for his World Cup dismissal, referring to Quinn as "Mother Teresa" and saying he could "rot in hell". However, he later changed his tune, saying: "Although I am bitterly disappointed at missing the World Cup, I do not bear Niall any malice for the unfortunate situation and I hope in due course that the damage to our relationship will be repaired."

* 31 August 2002

Quinn, playing centre-forward for Sunderland, offers Keane, then the Manchester United captain, a conciliatory handshake after Keane is sent off for elbowing Jason McAteer at the Stadium of Light. Quinn said it was an act of friendship, despite Keane calling him a "muppet" and a "coward" in interviews. Sir Alex Ferguson thought Quinn was being sarcastic and ushered him away with some choice language.

* Yesterday: The former Ireland manager Brain Kerr admits surprise at Keane's reported appointment 'given the previous history between them'.