Roy Keane’s departure from Sunderland raises many interesting questions about the nature of both Keane himself and the nature of modern football managership. Although the official line so far has been that they have parted “by mutual consent” (and we’ve covered what an unctuous and meaningless phrase that is on here before), the initial rumours emanating from the Stadium of Light seem to be that he walked rather than being pushed.
It’s not that Keane has done a bad job there. He promoted them as champions in his first season in charge, and kept them up by a reasonably comfortable margin last season. This season hasn’t been great, and the danger of their recent form has been that they may get dragged into the mud fight that they managed to avoid last season. And then there’s the money. He’s spent over eighty million pounds in his time in charge, and the football has often been one dimensional to the point of tedium. This is just about tolerable if results are going okay, but patience runs out very quickly when the deadly triumvirate of too much money spent, bad football and poor results. One out of those three is tolerable for most supporters. Two out of three is shaky ground to be on. Manage all three, and you’re not long for the managerial world.
For all that, though, he walked rather than being pushed. Niall Quinn has said that he had no intention of sacking Keane and, in interview earlier this evening on Sky Sports News, he looked about as angry as you could imagine Niall Quinn looking. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Keane, who has even been talked about over the last couple of years as a possible replacement for Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, just realised that he either wasn’t up to it, or wasn’t up for it. For all the talk of his achievements at the Stadium of Light, there is an extent to which one could argue that he has been underachieving there. He had a big club with massive crowds, but it is a club that is straddled with almost surprisingly low expectations considering its size. He had the full support of the chairman. He had a very large amount of money. The key question, perhaps, is this: was Roy Keane The Manager the emporer’s new clothes?
It’s possible that Keane’s departure, however, says something rather more profound about the future of football managership. Consider this. Twenty, thirty or forty years ago, if a manager was sacked, they had to find another job to put food on the table at home. Roy Keane is already a multi-millionaire, and it’s likely that, if he chose to, he would never have to work again. He was an outstanding footballer who was transferred into a very good team at a comparatively young age. At what stage in his career did he take the time to learn the absolute nuts and bolts of being a manager? At what time did he acquire the near maniacal hunger that the great managers seem to need to be able to succeed and stay at the top? It’s quite possible that he did neither. It’s no implausible that his entire mentality was geared up towards it being easy, and that that several million pounds in his bank account meant that he knew all along that he could walk away from it at a moment’s notice if he decided that it wasn’t for him.
From a broader perspective, this could be the way of the future for managers. It’s difficult to see where the next generation of great managers is going to come from, when they know that the alternative at the end of their career is buying a castle and a crown rather than having to skulk off into obscurity and buy a pub or a sports shop. Keane may return to managership, although the nature of his departure will not endear him to any chairmen at the top end of the game that value the importance of anything like a stable set up. Will his ego allow him to drop a division or two and remould himself in the image of the two managers that dominated his career, Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson? Will he go into the media? His comparative lucidity and intelligence at least may be appreciated there. Or will he go down in history as yet another example of a former superstar who thought that managing a football club would be much easier than it turned out to be?