Town crier

Despite the big-name status of Roy Keane, many Ipswich fans have been underwhelmed by their manager. Csaba Abrahall on a disappointing year at Portman Road

Notable mostly for a club-record number of draws, it has not been an exciting season for Ipswich Town. Even the threatened drama of a relegation battle never really materialised and lower mid-table mediocrity has been the ultimate outcome. For a club that has enjoyed an eventful professional career, this could well be the most tedious season ever.

Yet throughout this non-event of a campaign, Town’s fortunes have been the focus of more media attention than in many more successful periods in their history. Except that the interest has not really been in Ipswich, but in “Roy Keane’s Ipswich”. If owner Marcus Evans’ appointment of a big-name manager was intended to raise Town’s profile, its success has been limited, the club having been reduced to little more than the support act to Keane’s headline performance.

I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In the age of celebrity, Roy Keane – he of such media-friendly acts as a deliberate attempt to injure an opponent and a spectacular flounce home from the World Cup – is a bigger story than Ipswich Town. His infamy persists and the press continue to watch.

They do so in an antagonistic manner. Keane’s barely concealed contempt for journalists has resulted in his problems being celebrated by the media and the coverage has consequently tended towards fevered anticipation of his failure. As Ipswich went from week to week stumbling around at the foot of the table, so the Football League Show continued to preface Town’s games with a shot of the glum-faced manager getting off the bus at some bleak second-division outpost clearly deemed to be an inappropriately dispiriting place for someone of Keane’s stature to find himself. Despite the club’s regular denials, numerous newspaper and website articles persisted in presenting a walk-out or dismissal as imminent and inevitable, apparently based on the simplistic view that, because he had not turned Ipswich into promotion challengers, Keane’s tenure had been a disaster. Featuring little in the way of analysis, the reporting has been sensationalist rather than informative.

Which is odd, as a considered appraisal of Keane’s disappointing first year at Ipswich would have given critical reporters plenty of ammunition. Many aspects of his management have baffled fans and left doubts about his ability to fulfil his ambition to become a “top manager”, and a failure to take his team halfway up the Championship means Keane hasn’t even met his own definition of a half-decent one. While incomprehensible team selection and unimaginative football have disappointed many, the chief gripe has been a record in the transfer market that can be generously described as absolutely shocking. This is epitomised by the hugely controversial decision to allow young striker Jordan Rhodes to join Huddersfield on the eve of the season. To no one’s surprise, Rhodes went on to score over 20 goals, roughly 20 more than his £1.7 million replacement, Tamas Priskin.

Still, the media’s apparent eagerness for, and expectation of, Keane’s departure is far from representative of the predominant feeling among the supporters. While there is obvious dissatisfaction at the feeble efforts of an expensively assembled team, there has been little appetite for his removal, even during the record winless run at the start of the season. The signs are that Evans shares the supporters’ appreciation that change was needed following Jim Magilton’s directionless reign and that these are still early days for Keane. An improvement in the second half of the season and a willingness to give young players an opportunity, highlighted by the immaculate handling of Connor Wickham – just turned 17 but carefully nurtured throughout the campaign to emerge as the team’s principal striker by its end – have given hope that patience may be rewarded.

As Ipswich’s season meandered to an uninspiring conclusion, there were hints that the disproportionate level of interest in Keane may be waning. The Guardian’s website trailed an article on Keane’s failure to turn things around at Ipswich but it never appeared, the writer perhaps having realised that Keane’s notoriety is now irrelevant. Without that, the tale is a somewhat mundane one of an inexperienced manager learning his trade at a second-tier club that has had an unremarkable season. Should Roy Keane’s Ipswich show no sign of progress by the end of the year, more doom-laden features will surely appear, by which time they may more accurately reflect the reality of the situation and the opinions of the club’s owners and supporters. Until then, there really shouldn’t be a great deal to say.

From WSC 280 June 2010