It was an eerie moment. Genuinely creepy. The BBC television interviewer had asked Roy Keane a pretty hapless question on the subject of whether he would stay on after his team’s latest defeat in the Championship against Barnsley, and Keane, perhaps unsurprisingly, refused to answer it. The key to this exchange, however, was not in what he said. It was in how he said it. The timbre of his voice. The pregnant pause. The stare. The stare itself could have frozen boiling water at one hundred yards. The interviewer, voice almost quivering with fear, wrapped the interview up and we, the audience, are relieved for him that he managed to get out without getting his skull caved in with an ice pick. Or, at least, as far as we know he did. Has anyone seen him since? For all we know, he’s buried under the centre circle at Oakwell as I write this.
The depth of the problems at Ipswich Town were thrust harshly into the public glare the Saturday before last when, at a match being shown live on BBC1, Roy Keane’s team were shown up as woefully inadequate by Newcastle United. The match was an absolute massacre, to such an extent that even the Newcastle team seemed to consider it cruel to be showing up their hosts and took their feet off the pedal with barely an hour played. At full time, a crescendo of boos rang out around Portman Road as the camera followed Roy Keane on the long, lonely walk from the dugouts to the players’ tunnel (which is in the corner of the pitch at Portman Road) with home supporters gesticulating behind him.
This might have been the nadir of Keane’s time at Ipswich, but things haven’t improved much since then either. Last Tuesday, it looked as if they may have turned a corner of sorts when they raced into a 3-1 lead at Bramall Lane against Sheffield United last Tuesday, but with fifteen minutes to play the doubt kicked in again and The Blades managed to scramble a draw. A result which might have been considered a perfectly agreeable result prior to kick-off was, therefore, transformed by circumstance into another display of his team’s shortcomings. On Saturday came a trip to Barnsley, a match which for any team with pretensions of Premier League football would count as a must win match, ended in another late, late goal and another defeat. Protestations about his team’s overall performance fell upon deaf ears. The old cliche of football being a “results driven business” is coming back to haunt him. Roy Keane, for all his faults, doesn’t fit the mould of the manager that has lost the dressing room, but with the transfer window meaning that he can do little to rebuild his team until the start of January his next five matches in charge (at most) will determine whether he is still in a job by the end of the season.
First up, next week, are Swansea City, who started the season slowly but are improving, and then come Watford, who are arguably over-achieving in a lower mid-table position but may yet get dragged back into a relegation scrap. After these two matches come Plymouth Argyle, Derby County and Reading, all clubs that have had their backs broken in a similar way to Ipswich so far this season in different ways. If the club aren’t some way up the table by the end of these fixtures, it is difficult to see Keane hanging on for much longer. At Sunderland, he walked out on a team that he had himself taken into the Premier League, and it’s far from implausible to see him doing the same thing again. This is the double -edged sword of hiring the millionaire former player. Unlike the grizzled ex-pro of yesteryear, Roy Keane doesn’t need the money to pay the mortgage. If he wants out, he can walk away. A growing number of Ipswich supporters are starting to hope that he might.
The rest of us, though, are starting to hope that he will stay, if not at Ipswich, then at least in the game somewhere. There is something about the depth of Roy Keane’s performance that crosses the line between the pantomime villain and the genuinely unnerving, rather like the difference between Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito playing The Penguin in the “Batman” television series and films. What images are playing out behind those dark, Irish eyes? Is he thinking about whether to play a three-man midfield against Swansea City or about whether he could string up a hapless journalist with just a microphone lead? He may never reach the heights as a manager that he did as a player but he at least gives value for money as a manager to the neutral from an entertainment view. The question now is whether he will battle through his current set-backs or whether there will be a twirl of the cape and puff of smoke from the manager’s office at Portman Road as he disappears to ruminate over his wasted opportunity in Suffolk.