On turf that he feels is not yet his own, and on terms that he will not consider to be sufficiently competitive, Roy Keane extends the hand of welcome to Manchester United on Wearside today. For the first time since they met in 1993, Keane will not be knocking on Sir Alex Ferguson's office door but hosting him inside his at the Stadium of Light. It is some moment for Keane, and for Ferguson, one that has prompted reflection from the 36-year-old Irishman.
The two men reunited in September at Old Trafford, and prior to Sunderland's 1-0 defeat Keane remarked that he felt "born to play for Manchester United, born to manage Sunderland". Wearside's T-shirt makers were not slow to turn the latter part of that statement into a garment and Keane was asked if he felt he could ever be as identified with Sunderland as he will be forever with United.
"Only time will tell," he said. "When you're at a club for 12-and-a-half years, you'll be remembered for that. Forest fans will remember my time there, and in Ireland my team-mates will remember that it was for eight or nine years. I just hope the day I leave Sunderland, the club will be in a better place than when I got here, whether it's three years or 20 years. That's all I can hope for.
"I probably don't yet feel I've taken ownership of this or feel embedded here, probably not yet. As a manager you want to leave your mark on the club but I certainly don't feel I'm anywhere near that yet. Last year was good, but the question will always be asked of you 'Last year, yeah, but now do it, you're with the big boys.'"
So far, that has been so difficult. Keane may have been given 35m to spend in the summer but that has led to only three victories since and while local scepticism remains contained largely beyond the club, Keane's buying policy has been detained for questioning.
Too many old pals is one accusation (Andy Cole, Ian Harte, Danny Higginbotham), too many inflated fees is another (Craig Gordon, Michael Chopra, Kieran Richardson: almost 20m on those three alone). United today marks the season's halfway stage and defeat would leave Sunderland in the relegation zone. Defeat would be Sunderland's 11th.
At United it would take Keane seasons to rack up that tally and perhaps because of that the losses, he said, stand out sharply in his memory. For Keane, this is motivation and he plucked out the name of Ken Gillard from a Cup final defeat for his boyhood club Rockmount as evidence.
"We lost a big cup final to Belvedere 3-2 and I remember it as if it was yesterday," Keane said. "We were 2-0 up and the lad I was marking scored a hat-trick: Ken Gillard, a left-back playing in midfield that day. He ended up at Luton."
"I moved on from success as a player very quickly. But the defeats were always the ones that kept you going, you don't look back and think of wins. I read and hear players talking about when they won titles and cups, but I haven't got a clue what year I won anything, haven't got a clue.
"But I do know when I got relegated [with Forest]. I do know when I lost cupfinals. I do know when I lost leagues.
I do know when I lost to Clyde in the [Scottish] Cup. I do know when I lost to Luton in the League Cup. I remember all those things, but I don't remember the good stuff. I'm motivated by those defeats. So you can say that I'm as motivated now as at any time in my life."
The serial winner haunted by failure is no new concept but the freshness for Keane is that losing is now regular.
"Getting your head around it," he admitted, can be tough, but then these are different days for him. Old Trafford European nights are gone; midweek, you find Keane at Eppleton Colliery Welfare watching Sunderland's reserves.
In former Durham pit villages Keane now takes his place. If he takes Ferguson up one flight of stairs at the stadium today it will be past a giant National Union of Mineworkers banner.
"I'm learning all the time about the place, learning lessons, from speaking to punters. Everywhere I go the Sunderland people seem to be very knowledgable, very nice. I get the impression they like dogs, they're genuine working-class people and that's the kind of person I am. I've managed to do OK in football and earn a few bob, but that's who I am.
"I'm not the biggest fan of going out and opening myself up to people, but if punters want to come and have a chat with me and have banter, then I'm up for it. Like training, we have open days most days of the week: we don't shun the fans. They will give you opinions about teams and a lot of it is spot on. A lot of them could manage the team, nearly.
"Yesterday a gentleman was talking about a certain player we need and I couldn't agree more I didn't tell him that. They've been absolutely brilliant. They've seen us struggle and have a hard time, but they see where we're hoping to go to, what we're trying to do, the potential. Please God, I'll be the man to provide them with some good times ahead."Reuse content