Transfer of power puts Keane in the mood for a scrap

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The Independent Online

"What we say is: 'Listen, this is the option, this is a club that's going places.' There's no need to give them any bull. So you make your case. But we don't beg."

Calmly, confidently, Roy Keane is spelling out the message he has been giving to players he wants to bring to Sunderland for their second season post-promotion. It is one that is beginning to be heard. "Going places" is the key phrase.

Twelve months on from being rejected by players' wives on the basis of Wearside's shops, Keane senses an alteration in the perception of Sunderland as town and club and, so far, four players have been signed from other Premier League clubs – Chimbonda, Malbranque and Tainio from Tottenham, Diouf from Bolton – when last summer he was buying the likes of Chopra and Jones in the Championship. But it is not a transformation.

"There is still that mental block with people about Sunderland," Keane said, "that stumbling block that we're 'up there in the North-east'. Gareth [Southgate] and Kevin Keegan would maybe say the same.

"But I understand that, 100 per cent. I was the same. That was my sense when I was asked to become manager, so I can say to these players: 'Yeah, that was my sense.' When I met the Tottenham lads it was the same question: 'Why should I go to Sunderland?'

"I don't think 'Cheeky bastard', because I asked myself the same: 'Why should I become manager of Sunderland?' "

It seems longer, but it was only 23 months ago that Keane talked himself into joining Niall Quinn for what Quinn dubbed "a magic carpet ride". Sunderland were bottom of the Championship, having just endured a 15-point relegation from the Premier League. To say that the club have been repositioned since then is an understatement.

As Keane looks forward to the visit of Liverpool to the Stadium of Light next Saturday, Sunderland are now at a stage where he can say of his namesake Robbie, who moved to Anfield from Tottenham for £19 million last month: "I'd spend £19m next week; we might.

"We made a very good offer for a top striker, who we didn't get, but it would certainly have smashed the transfer record at this football club. So we are prepared to spend. We are trying.

"The figures don't scare me or worry me. It's when you're paying over the odds for average players... you have to try to balance your books. But trust me, if Liverpool win the League this year, they won't be saying they paid over the odds for Robbie Keane."

Should Liverpool acquire Gareth Barry, Keane thinks they will be closer to landing a first League title since 1990. But he makes a salient point: Liverpool must win on their main three rivals' turf, something they have not done in the League since Rafael Benitez became manager in 2004.

"The crunch will be when Liverpool have to go to Manchester United and Chelsea and get a result – that's when you find you've got top players," Keane continued. "That's why they paid £19m for Robbie and why they'll pay £18m for Gareth Barry. You have to beat the Uniteds and Chelseas to win trophies and Liverpool have not done it, simple as that."

Denting Liverpool's hopes afresh will be Keane's ambition on Saturday, and his anticipation is visible. Then it is Tottenham away and Manchester City at home. As a start it is stimulating, but also possibly pointless.

"Could it be easier? Of course. But then it's the first game for Liverpool, Tottenham's second, and if you're going to catch people off guard, then it might be in the first weeks of the season."

Tottenham were memorably caught on the previous opening day, Michael Chopra's 90th-minute winner setting a trend: 13 of Sunderland's 39 points came from goals in the last five minutes. That helped them finish 15th, but Keane's men were not safe until the end of April and did not win away until March.

He preferred "roller-coaster" to magic carpet. But, 37 today, Keane is back on, and smiling. "I've come back after a good break, really recharged the batteries. Football just gives you that rush that's hard to explain; we're back on the roller-coaster. I was in America with my familyon a few roller-coasters in the summer, but nothing like the bloody Premier League."

See Sunderland play Liverpool on Setanta Sports on Saturday, kick-off 5.30pm

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