Almost two years to the day since he last wore the red jersey of Manchester United there, Roy Keane returns to Old Trafford as manager of Sunderland today. It will be Keane's first time as a member of the opposition since he went there as a Nottingham Forest player in January 1993. Six months after that Keane signed on for 12 years. He is not conspicuously sentimental but Keane saluted his United past and his Sunderland future in the phrase: "I was born to play for Man United; I was born to manage Sunderland."
The gentle manner of Keane's delivery did not disguise the passion behind it. Keane said he "loved every minute of being at United, the players, the pressure, working with the manager, working with the people in the background. It is a fantastic club and if any player gets the chance to play for them, you have to take it. It is absolutely brilliant, a brilliant club."
But that was no overture from Keane to the Old Trafford boardroom. Keane's commitment to Sunderland is total and will be confirmed if, as is expected, he and the club begin discussions over a new contract on Wearside in the coming weeks. With two years left on his current contract, an extension of three years, for example, would keep him at the Stadium of Light until 2012.
That might cease the speculation regarding Keane succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford; it might not. But it would be further evidence of Keane's view of Sunderland as a long-term project, though he may wish to establish the club as a Premier League force more quickly than others think it can be achieved.
Keane did not use the word "destiny" when looking forward to today's game and speaking of Sunderland and United, but he did allude to it.
"It was just part of my path in life, without a doubt," he said of his decade and more at Old Trafford. "If you had said to me when I left, within a year I would pack in and be manager of Sunderland, then... but sometimes you believe the man upstairs has great plans."
At another juncture Keane asked: "How do you gauge success for Sunderland? We're not sure yet. We are aiming high and wherever we go remains to be seen. But I have great hope, a great vision, great belief that this club will be very strong over the next few years. It is my job to make sure we get there.
"I am looking forward to bringing the club there. I can be quite single-minded. I have great belief in myself and I have a great vision for the club and where I want to bring it to. I knew there would be disappointments but that has not changed my belief that we will get it right at the club. I still think we will look back on a good season. We will say we had periods which were tough – and we're obviously getting ours in very early."
That was a reference to the past eight days which have brought a Premier League defeat at home to Liverpool, a humiliating exit from the League Cup at Luton Town, a six-month injury to the captain Dean Whitehead and the distressing collapse of the on-loan Sunderland player Clive Clarke in the Leicester City dressing room.
Defeat today would be Sunderland's fourth in a row and the club's sponsors, Boylesports bookmakers, have an away win at 12-1 on a ground where Sunderland have not won since 1968. That was before Keane's birth, but this is his new world. When thinking aloud about Luton, he had a grimace wrapped up in a smile: "Fake it to make it, as they say."
With three new recruits also added, Kenwyne Jones, Danny Higginbotham and Ian Harte, taking Sunderland's summer spending to the £37m mark, it has been so eventful Keane said he had not thought about the emotional impact of today.
He has been back to the ground since leaving for Celtic – Keane went to the FA Cup semi-final there between Blackburn Rovers and Chelsea in April, and he has been back for several players and backroom staff of course.
"Anything personal is not relevant and I have been that busy with Clive, Luton and players coming in that I haven't had chance to think about it," he said. "I can never get away from my history and I hope it never happens because that's part of my life. There is no getting away from it but there's no point dwelling on it and getting all emotional. I won't. I have too much on my plate to be worried about my own feelings and Sunderland is part of my future on Saturday.
"The United fans might give me applause but they'll want to beat us and rightly so. You can't get sidetracked by emotions in this game. We will be testing ourselves against a top team and there is no other agenda. If we lose, you hold your hands up and say at least we went to put on a good show, to show we can compete. That doesn't guarantee winning but at least you can come in and say we gave it our all. When you go to these big grounds you have to make sure you're not beaten before a ball is kicked. This is part of my life and challenge and I wouldn't want it any other way. I am here, enjoying it and the challenge is there for everyone to see."
Yet the compare-and-contrast with Ferguson will be prominent today. Each has had kind and respectful words for the other. But there will be "no gift" for the Scot, that is the host manager's responsibility, Keane said.
But there will be a chat afterwards and Keane recalled a couple of others. "We had a conversation when I took the job and I remember talking to him once when we got off the bus before a game at Sunderland. He spoke very highly of it and said: 'This is a big bloody club.' Maybe that stuck with me. I knew it was a big club, and it is."
Keane's Old Trafford titles
FA Premier League: 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003
FA Cup: 1994, 1996, 1999, 2004
Community Shield: 1993, 1996, 1997, 2003
Champions League: 1999
Intercontinental Cup: 1999
PFA Player of the Year: 1999-00. Football Writers' Footballer of the Year: 1999-00
Games/goals: 326/33Reuse content