Keane: improve or end is nigh

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Sunderland are prepared to give Roy Keane time to prove that he can turn around the dismal run of form that has seen them lose six of their last seven matches, but it is not an unlimited period and there has to be an immediate improvement in morale within the first-team squad as much as an upturn in results.

Following Saturday's 4-1 home defeat by Bolton Wanderers, whom Sunderland drew in the FA Cup third round yesterday, Keane has to take his players to Manchester United and Hull City. In between there is a home game with West Bromwich Albion. Lose all of those matches and Keane would know his position is no longer tenable.

Should he choose to continue – and there is no guarantee of that – Keane has to demonstrate that he can re-energise a set of players who were vibrant in beating Newcastle at home just over five weeks ago.

Since then Sunderland have plummeted. There has been some bad luck but also a worrying collective drop-off in form. There will always be grumbles from within a squad as large as Sunderland's but a fear at the Stadium of Light is that Keane's intimidating persona has frozen players' confidence.

If there is no recognition of that from Keane in the coming days, then Sunderland may be forced to part company with the 37-year-old Irishman. That is not Sunderland's preferred option but it is a decision they are willing to take, and this week if necessary.

The chairman Niall Quinn and the leading shareholder Ellis Short will wait to hear Keane's thoughts on the recent slump and how it can be reversed before acting, but there is also the possibility, as mentioned by Keane on Saturday evening, that he may walk away from the job two years and three months into it.

That would surely have repercussions for Keane's career in management and his advisors will urge that he sticks with it. That is not Sunderland's overriding concern. Quinn's concentration is on ridding the club of its modern yo-yo existence and protecting it from what would be a third relegation in seven seasons.

Ironically, had results been better in the last five weeks, Keane would almost certainly be signing a new contract. But neither manager nor club would feel comfortable with Keane signing it now.

Keane is not expected at the training ground today; his assistant Ricky Sbragia is scheduled to put the players through their paces.