Saturday 3 October ~
Nineteen years ago Mark Robins scored a goal for Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup and saved Alex Ferguson's job. Ferguson went on to win every trophy English football has to offer and Robins became surplus to requirements. He left United in 1992 and journeyed through 12 clubs before beginning his managerial career. Now in charge of Barnsley, Robins could today bring an end to the career of that other powerhouse of mid-1990s Manchester United, Roy Keane. Barnsley host Keane's Ipswich this afternoon in what could prove to be a match every bit as cataclysmic for Keane as it was for his mentor two decades ago.
The pressure on Keane could not be any stronger. Ipswich’s start to the season has been catastrophic, their worst for 73 years. They are yet to win a game in the Championship and have collected only five points from their opening 11 games. Keane touted his team for a return to the Premier League, but they look more likely to end up in League One. Keane has the support of the board, claims chief executive Simon Clegg, but a defeat to Barnsley, who lie a place above the relegation zone, and Keane could face another of the unedifying exits that seem to be becoming his forte.
The defeats have taken their toll on Keane, who sounded a battered man after his side were demolished last weekend by Newcastle. "I'm doing my best but I have obviously not been good enough. For 24 hours a day I am not sleeping, I am thinking about this club," he said. Keane reflected further on his managerial career: "Maybe I was very lucky at Sunderland and I am being found out now."
Keane seemed poised or managerial greatness when he led Sunderland to promotion in his first season in charge. A great player and captain, he seemed to have all the qualities required to be a successful manager. It is ironic then that Keane's problems now seem to stem from those very characteristics that made him a great player: his drive, determination, work-rate and inability to accept defeat or compromise. Keane the player wrestled his aggression and intensity into performances that overawed the opposition. As a manager his personality has only managed to overawe his own players.
Dwight Yorke, who played alongside and under Keane, believes his style is too intimidating to achieve results: "His aura and personality are what make him such a big force in the game; they provoke a kind of fear in playing for him, a fear if you did not come up to scratch. The intensity which drove the team to those successes, however, never let up and, I think, ultimately, doomed Keano's managership. Even when we had secured promotion at the end of my first season, he wasn't satisfied. He wanted the title. He warned players he would not settle for anyone taking their foot off the pedal. It was leadership by inspiring fear."
As a great player himself, Keane is easily frustrated by performances that he would not have deemed as up to his own standard. "It was difficult for him to accept that he was not in a top-flight team that did not win the majority of its games – all that he had known at United", said Yorke. "He would join in with the five-a-sides and any player on his team who misplaced a pass or miscontrolled the ball would be subjected to a stream of vicious lecturing or abuse. It reached the stage where nobody wanted to be on the same side as him."
Keane's uncompromising character – that was both a cause and effect of his brilliance on the field – made everything around him seem not good enough. In the end, he lost trust in his players, vilified them personally, slapped his captain, kung-fu kicked tactics boards across the dressing room and eventually walked out of Sunderland to take his dogs for a stroll.
In the end, at Sunderland, as could now be the case at Ipswich, Keane seemed unable to adapt to managing lesser players. Great footballers, it seems, cannot help but see football from their own lofty position. Having understood the game intuitively, they struggle to understand the needs of players with lesser abilities. Keane relied on his unmatched snarling aggression and competitiveness, and could not cope when he found his image of the game lacking in his team-mates or players.
In a very different way, Glenn Hoddle struggled to acclimatise to players who lacked his natural talent. Hoddle admitted that as "a creative player who goes to higher levels" he struggled to get his ideas across to players with lesser talents. Tony Cascarino, who played for Hoddle at Chelsea, claimed he made "grown men feel as if they are being treated as children". David Beckham also, apparently, bore a grudge over the master-classes he was subjected to on the England training ground. Tim Sherwood, a more prosaic player, claimed Hoddle had "absolutely no man-management skills".
Roy Keane could experience a "Mark Robins moment" this afternoon, drag his managerial career back from the brink and go on to experience the greatness his former manger at Old Trafford has enjoyed since 1990. But to become a successful manager he will have to unlearn, or at least rechannel, the traits that made him a great player. That, or the managerial scrapyard of Hoddle, Graeme Souness and Terry Butcher awaits.