Roy Keane is under palpable pressure, most of it self-imposed. His myriad media pronouncements on everything and anything have made a rod for his own back, and Dunphy is taking delight in delivering a few lashes. Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall when their paths inevitably cross some cold day/dark night.
“It’s a test for everyone at the club,” said the manager in an emailed message to members of the Sunderland supporters club after their latest dire display. “Football is the best game in the world when you are winning. When you are losing – and we have lost four in a row at home – it’s about characters.”
That’s true. But his problem is that the vast squad he’s assembled (over 50 senior pros, minus loanees, which is extravagance on a FÁS scale) is a who’s who of dodgy CVs. He obviously banked on that motley crew scoring/creating enough goals to compensate for their shortcomings as men and team-players. But they lack what Johnny Giles calls ‘honesty of effort’ and damningly organisation, two traits that are usually connected.
For all their on-field woes, the expectations at Sunderland are crazy: a craving for success that bears no relation to the club’s actual status. The facts are that Keane took them up as Championship champions in his first season (possibly too much too soon), kept them in the Premier League in year two and is just five points off seventh place in early December. They’ve already surpassed Mick McCarthy’s record-low points tally the last time they went down. But such is Sunderland fans’ lack of perspective, and the spurious sense that Keane is a serial quitter (as Mark Lawrenson ventured the other week: “I wouldn’t be surprised if he walked in one morning and said, ‘Actually I’m walking out'”) that people are waiting with baited breath for him to jump before he’s pushed.
For all his social commentary, Keane’s critics will say it’s the economy stupid: specifically the money he’s splurged on a litany of players who are average at best, woeful at worst.
He’s bought badly, without question. But good players who want to join Sunderland are about as rare as a Pogues’ singer’s teeth. ‘Happy Christmas me arse’, indeed.
Struggling to stay put for a second successive season isn’t quite what the owners had in mind when they were handing Keane a further £40m for restructuring during the summer, and shirt sponsors Boylesports were banking on the Black Cats becoming Champions League regulars. Which is what you might call a novelty bet.
But the Drumaville consortium, comprising a clutch of publicans and property developers (comparatively poor by Abramovich/Arab/American standards), with Niall Quinn as their affable frontman, were never in the Northeast for the love of football, or their much-vaunted admiration for Keane for that matter. Charlie Chawke & co simply saw an opportunity to create a Sunderland brand that would hopefully prove attractive to much wealthier investors and make them a tidy profit in the short-to-medium term. Paying Keane €65,000 a week to serve his managerial apprenticeship was worth the risk in profile terms alone.
Given that the club has reportedly agreed a ‘takeover’ deal with US tycoon and shareholder Ellis Short (in 18 months’ time, presumably performance-permitting) it’s no wonder the manager has been non-committal about his future, even before his side’s alarming run of results.
In the meantime Keane is left looking at the man in his misused shaving mirror wondering if he’s lost his touch; or whether he ever had it to begin with.
This is only a hunch, but on the surface – and he may well be a different proposition behind the scenes – the man from Mayfield seems to be suffering as a result of not being true to himself.
In taking the job he swore off the fire and brimstone approach, but in doing so seems to have forgotten that the managers who got the best out of him – Clough, Ferguson, Charlton – were the sort of characters you dared not cross, just as Keane was on the pitch. The all-things-to-all-men persona he’s adopted (a sort of detached sophistication that you can also detect in Mark Hughes these days, funnily enough) is not the aura the doctor ordered.
Fair enough, he’s taking full responsibility, showing humility. “We play with such an innocence, it’s untrue,” he says. You could say the same – the untrue bit, a sniff of what made Dunphy brand him “a bullshitter” – about Keane for a while now. The fear factor is missing for starters. Okay, so the players are nowhere near capable of reaching the exacting standards he set (something he’s possibly too quick to forgive them for), but as “characters” they aren’t responding the way he did to those who ran the rule and read the riot act when he was out there kicking and screaming for Forest, Man U and Ireland.
To deal with the harsh realities, Roy may need to get real.