Eight down already, and it is barely past mid-season. There will have been a frisson of apprehension throughout the Premier League at the latest enforced abdication, that of Big Sam, and when his fall takes place less than 10 miles north-west of the club in closest proximity,his neighbour is entitled to a certain edginess.
Even if that man happens to be the gimlet-eyed Roy Keane, whose name, for the first time since he became Sunderland manager in 16 months ago, has been prefixed of late by those chilling words "the under-pressure". Also for the first time, his image as a controlled, contemplative man has been questioned by the club's defender Clive Clarke, who has claimed that Keane's management style can alternate between chair-throwing anger and frozen silences. Though, before training on Friday, the Irishman coolly dismissed that summary of his character, Clarke's outburst came at a most inopportune time.
Keane's profound good for-tune, however, is that the Sunder-land chairman, Niall Quinn, is up there, together with his Middlesbrough counterpart, Steve Gibson, as a model of constancyeven as their clubs labour to survive. "I wouldn't use the words 'grateful' or 'relieved'," Keane said of the support he receives at the Stadium of Enlightened Chairmanship. "Like I have said from the start, I signed a three-year contract. I intend to honour that, and I hope the club will honour it.
"I hope at the end of that period that the club will be in a much stronger position than it was. You look at the League table and see where we are, but it's also about where we are trying to be."
Ultimately, will it be his own pride which decides his destiny? Would relegation prove too much to bear, and could he take the honourable course and walk? "I've not really thought about that, to be honest," he insisted. "It is something I have given no thought to. You have to look at yourself after every game and judge your performance.
"The team we put out last week [defeated 3-1 by Wigan in the FA Cup] didn't perform for one reason or another, but I would hope to see a stronger team this week."
Keane is aware that having two victories – both at home, and one of those against Derby County – as the record for his team's endeavours over the last three months is simply not good enough. Thus far, the Irishman continues to inspire faith in those around him. But as he prepares his team to meet Portsmouth today, he knows that the nextfew weeks will prove the most rigorous examination of his managerial prowess yet.
"It is a test for me, but I have only been a manager for two minutes," said the former Manchester United captain. "I never thought I would go through a career of 30 or 40 years without having a test. What is the true gauge of success is how you deal with adversity. But you try to get a balance to it.
"It's not all doom and gloom now, just as I wasn't jumping off the roof when we got promoted,I wasn't drunk, I wasn't dancing in the streets. I was at home and I was walking my dog."
Most of the criticism has been directed at the lack of quality of some of his summer purchases. "If you had given me 30 or 40 million to spend on two or three players, I would have been delighted but we knew we had to get more players in," he said. "Obviously the more players you bring in you might not get that level of quality, but again we weren't in that position."
The defender Paul McShane, signed from West Bromwich Albion, has, for many, epitomised what they perceive as Keane's poor judgement. But the Sunderland manager offered a heartfelt defence of his compatriot.
"He is not the sort of lad to go hiding when things get tough. And that is what I like to see in players," he said. "Even when they are sometimes being criticised, they have got to still step up to the plate and accept the disappointments.
"People go on about Babe Ruth and his record number of home runs, but he also said he had more strike-outs than any other player in the history of baseball. He wasn't afraid of it; he stood up to it. He said, 'I'll have my successes and I'll have my disappointments, but if you keep stepping up to it you will remember more ups than downs. And that is what we expect from characters at a football club."
He paused, before adding: "I'm convinced we will look back and say, 'I know it was a tough time, but we got through it'."Reuse content