James Lawton: Keane - The fighter who quit when most needed

Some of the greatest players in football history have been obliged to admit the skills they displayed on the field could not be transferred easily to the manager's office.

Roy Keane did not join them yesterday, however, in suffering acceptance of a hugely disappointing fact. What he did – and if it sounds cruel it maybe needs to be remembered that few football men have been more stridently judgemental of those around them – was run away.

He ran away from the first serious problem in some years of fine and promising work. He ran away from the £70m worth of team-strengthening with which he had been entrusted. When the hour of crisis called, Keane went missing.

It left the Sunderland chairman, Niall Quinn, the man once scorned as a Mother Teresa figure by the absent manager, holding a howling baby.

Quinn, who had staked so much of his hard-earned reputation on the belief that Keane could indeed extend the glory he found on the field into being a manager, issued a statement that could only be described as a parody of reality. He declared: "Roy's decision to stand aside and allow someone else to take charge of the next chapter sums up his desire to do what is best for the club."

This was a bit like decorating a soldier for putting down his rifle and walking away from his post.

That it was Keane, one of football's ultimate warriors, doing it made the offence all the more mystifying – but not one iota less abject.

Those of us who believed that, for all his rough edges, Keane had a much better than average chance of emerging as a first-rank manager, and maybe a natural-born successor to his old mentor Sir Alex Ferguson, had to be aware of the risks when he was appointed two and a half years ago. We had to know that his inflammatory and often frankly intolerant nature would cause some mayhem along the way. There would, inevitably, be broken glass and broken spirits, but then who could have guessed that the first significant shattering would be of the self-belief that had made Keane arguably the most influential footballer in the history of the Premier League?

That was certainly the most plausible explanation for the walkout anticipated earlier this week by Keane's erstwhile confidant and ghost writer Eamon Dunphy when he declared, "Roy has lost the plot." Dunphy took a more approving line when Keane created havoc in Ireland's 2002 World Cup campaign with behaviour that coach Mick McCarthy believed gave him no option but to send home the man who had made such a huge contribution to a brilliant qualifying drive. Then, in the view of his supporters, Keane was fighting for professional values in a campaign which he found irredeemably amateurish. In fact, he had a shockingly disruptive effect on his side; he undermined both his team-mates and his sporting nation, and yesterday, as Sunderland contemplated the odds against a new trouble-shooting manager restoring the momentum of a club in apparently bone-deep disarray, it was not so easy to draw a clear line between the two affairs.

Both of them surely spoke of an inherent instability.

You did not have to travel too far for a parallel. A few miles up the road at Newcastle, another superbly self-made footballer, Kevin Keegan, had shown his volatility often enough, though no doubt the abdication mirrored most precisely by Keane this week was when the great Liverpool and England player abandoned the national team after ejection from the 2000 European Championship finals and a defeat to Germany in the opening World Cup qualifying game.

Keegan had to force back the tears when he admitted to a terminal draining of confidence in his ability to do the job. We cannot quite know, though we can imagine it easily enough, if Keane felt such desolation, because he just walked away, once again the sole arbiter of what was best for himself.

You may say we are talking about superficialities and that the essential admission came with the decision to quit. But then there is also the matter of style and maybe, too, the requirement of a highly rewarded and in so many ways deeply respected professional to face up to – and fight – a situation that he had created for himself.

His patron, Quinn, argued, it seems, passionately for Keane not to abandon the challenge and fight on maybe to create some of that spirit which produced a superb promotion campaign in his opening season and plenty of indications that he indeed might just have the kind of resolve and inspiration as a manager that he so relentlessly produced as a player.

Apparently, though, the only resolution Quinn could fuel was in Keane's determination to retreat within the walls of his Cheshire mansion.

It has to be a dismaying development for all those who saw in Keane an extraordinary spirit, not just as a footballer but a man. His performance in Turin, when Keane almost single-handedly led Manchester United to the 1999 final of the Champions League, one from which he was barred because of suspension, spoke of a wonderfully selfless commitment as Juventus crumbled before the weight of his effort. Afterwards Sir Bobby Charlton admitted sheepishly that Keane had driven him to flout the etiquette of the directors' box. Charlton said: "I didn't recall ever seeing a more inspiring performance, one so filled with determination – an absolute refusal to let the opposition get the better of his team. I spent most of the game on my feet, roaring on the team and, specifically, Roy Keane. No one can say how he will do as a manager, but he has worked on it, got his badges and has given himself every chance."

Charlton, one of those great players who eventually accepted that he was not cut out for the cares of management, can certainly point out contemporaries who succeeded despite the most discouraging circumstances. Howard Kendall was one game away from the sack at Everton in 1984, but he won a League Cup tie at Oxford and went on a title-winning spree. Much of English football once believed Ferguson was in similarly perilous waters, but he won an FA Cup tie at Nottingham in 1990 and re-made history.

Keane's chances of such redemption may not have been written off now but clearly they have been damaged by his refusal to see out the job at the Stadium of Light. He got to choose his players, he had the backing of a chairman who had recast the culture of a football club that had failed for so long and then, with the arrival of the first serious question marks against his infant career, he said, "No mas, no mas." No one could guarantee the managerial career of Roy Keane. But they could pick out the most encouraging aspects of his nature, his raw ambition to prove himself the strongest man in any situation, and they could say that he had the best of a true fighter's chances. What they couldn't do, of course, was anticipate the circumstances of his defeat. They couldn't imagine that he would disappear for no better reason than the going had become tough. It is, of course, the kind of behaviour he has never been slow to despise.

In his own words...

"It's different if it's Chelsea, Arsenal or Spurs, but when players go to smaller clubs just because it's London, then it's clearly because of the shops"

Keane View from the web

This is pathetic from Keane. He really has lost the plot. The signings were an absolute joke. It will be difficult to take him seriously as a manager now.

Miraculousralphmilne – BBC 606

I think I speak for all supporters when I say I really liked him, he was a legend and a loveable character... but his tactical decisions were bemusing!

SuperStokesy – Sunderland MAD

He's done great things for the club but he's reached his ceiling. Sad to see him go but he obviously wasn't happy in the job and was wracked with self-doubt.

Whitburnlad18 – BBC 606

Can't say I didn't see it coming, I'm relieved he's gone. BRING ON CURBS!

lidzy_safc_2 – Sunderland MAD

Keane can't manage big-name players, he is too arrogant and stubborn. He takes no nonsense but in this day and age you can't afford to sacrifice better players to prove a point.

Whiteheads Work Rate – BBC 606

Eamon Dunphy got it right – he lost the plot! What was the purchase of Ferdinand all about!!??

Timmy – BBC 606

You spend £70m and the next thing you quit! Absolutely irresponsible.

MarylandRad – BBC 606

Being honest, I am not bothered – his heart wasn't in it. We weren't getting results, so bring on the next one.

Lardy – Sunderland MAD

Roy fecked around making too many changes. I wonder if he sat at home on the eve of a match and said: "Right, who has been the naughty boy this week?"

Staples – Sunderland MAD

Another top player to add to the list that couldn't handle the boss's seat. This smacks of jumping before he was sacked, which RK couldn't take. Mick McCarthy at Wolves could be smiling on the way up as Sunderland head downwards.

Bergysdeftflicks – BBC 606

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