The Last Word: Tradition is cast aside in Ipswich's Titanic struggle
Tides of greed had never swamped Portman Road until now, but Keane's appointment changes all that
Sunday 26 April 2009
So Roy Keane is "box office"? You can say that again. For those of us who grew up watching Ipswich Town from the old Churchman's terrace, the brooding idol of football noir at least guarantees the return of the reviewers to Portman Road for the first time since that last, bewildering sojourn in the top division – fifth in 2000-01, relegated in 2001-02. The question is: which of the two highest-grossing films in history are on the spool? Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King? Or Titanic?
Keane is the second Irishman to manage Ipswich since the club turned professional in 1936. The other was Mick O'Brien, who won the Southern League that same season and promptly resigned – so reconciling the contradictory prophecies now being made for Keane.
Excluding caretakers, Ipswich have had just 11 managers since O'Brien. Two only left to manage England. Ipswich have long been admired by neutrals as one of the last redoubts against the tides of avarice and impet-uosity eroding many other clubs. Committed to the long game off the pitch, and the short one on it, Ipswich represented stability and patience in an increasingly capricious world.
The contrast in Keane himself has proved irresistible to the various seers and amateur psychologists who have splashed into this footballing backwater since Thursday. His appointment is depicted as only the latest paradox in a career that leaves perhaps only one word applicable to both his ferocious fidelity to the team cause, at Manchester United, and the corrosive self-absorption disclosed by his perceived betrayals of Ireland, at the World Cup, and Sunderland, barely four months ago. That word is "uncompromising". Others may prefer "reckless". But the latter adjective would, perhaps, be better used in turn of all those passing dogmatic judgement over Keane's worth as a manager. As the man himself observes, he can still only be measured by his potential. His record in the transfer market at Sunderland was neither good nor bad, but the one thing nobody can abide over Keane is indifference. Every perfectionist, of course, is doomed to disappoint himself. The suspicion persists that Keane must temper the exorbitant standards he sets himself, and others, with a more humane approach. Otherwise the excoriating fortunes of his calling will again disclose pathos and doubt within. If Keane walks away from difficulties at Ipswich he will be considered about as emotionally robust as Kevin Keegan. Perhaps only Cobh Ramblers would still take him back.
To a small minority of those engrossed by what happens next, however, the stakes are far higher than the career graph of one young manager. And just as the fans of many other clubs have been edified by the example set by Ipswich as recently as 2001 – when Keane saw his own gaffer, Alex Ferguson, beaten to manager of the year by George Burley – so they should share new anxiety.
Undeniably, Keane introduces a refreshing sense of adventure to the club. Most of the appointments made since Bobby Robson have been highly conservative. But the sacking of Jim Magilton also marked the moment when the traditions that long fortified the estuary club were formally cast adrift – along with any pretence that they hold the remotest interest for Marcus Evans, the reclusive tycoon who bought Ipswich Town in 2007. Evans is a man in a hurry. And there can no longer be any doubt that Ipswich is now a club in a tearing rush.
Evans might well argue that generations of patrician stoicism under the Cobbold family had marooned the club in the financial tempest of the modern game. That it was time to dismantle the decorous mystique, time to get real. Every time he reads the old line about the definition of a crisis in the Cobbolds' boardroom – when the white wine runs out – Evans must groan aloud. (He need not worry. Now all he will ever read is how Keane ended up working for a man who made his fortune in prawn sandwiches).
But perhaps the ethos of the old regime was not so terribly anachronistic. For which is the more truly ingenuous approach? To try to build a dynasty, year by year, building up from the academy, and persevering with your manager during the inevitable lean spells? Or to join the headlong rush for overnight dividends, to invest big and, as soon as possible, sell bigger?
Keane's predecessor Magilton is another fiery Celt. Funnily enough, they say that some of the players resented his style. Keane will no doubt discover their names soon enough. But Magilton had been a classic Ipswich appointment, a true zealot to the principles that defined the club he served with all the commitment of Keane as a player. "There are going to be a lot of knocks," he said last year. "But it's about the getting up. Instant success: everybody wants it. But what we're trying to build here is something that will not only give us that success, but a structure to keep it in place for years."
Perhaps Magilton simply wasn't up to the standards set at Ipswich in years past. But the possibility that the same may be true of his boardroom makes it hard to know. In his first two seasons, Robson finished in 18th and 19th place in the old First Division. The Cobbolds knew that a good wine needs time to mature.
Admittedly, you can't have it both ways. Evans gave Magilton money to spend, and was thereafter entitled to short cuts of his own. But Magilton was fired, by telephone, as he sat by his mother's bed in a Belfast hospital. He was on "compassionate leave". Whatever else might be gained under Keane, something precious has already been lost forever.
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