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Jul 2, 2014

Keep an open mind on Keane

Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner has announced that he wants to sell the English Premier League club.

"I might not look it, but I'm excited by the challenge." So began the Aston Villa career of Roy Keane, confirmed as the club's new assistant manager on July 1, and quickly unveiled to a no doubt slightly curious media.

This may seem a strange appointment. Keane, one of the most decorated and respected footballers of his generation, a former Premier League manager himself, prepared to act as an assistant to Lambert?

Had Villa fans not had the best part of a month to get their heads around this one, Keane's arrival would have caused disbelief. As it is, this has been on the cards ever since he withdrew from the ITV commentary team for the World Cup; the last few weeks have been about finalising contracts and negotiating Keane's continued involvement with the Republic of Ireland national team.

- Report: Keane named Villa assistant manager
- Report: Keane offered assistant role
- Report: Villa sign Joe Cole on free transfer

The question now is: Can this work? Can Keane, an undeniably strong character, really play the sidekick and if so, for how long?

Lambert has been looking to rebuild his coaching staff since the dismissals, for disciplinary reasons, of Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa, towards the end of the season. That Keane is his choice is a surprise. The pair have known each other for some time, were East Anglian managerial rivals at Norwich and Ipswich respectively, and speak highly of each other.

Yet it is a bold move by Lambert. After two difficult seasons in charge at Villa, and a change of ownership to happen soon, his own position is far from guaranteed. If he feels at all insecure about his future, some might question a decision to introduce a man who is very similar in age (Lambert turns 45 three days before Keane's 43rd birthday in August), guided Sunderland to the Premier League, and kept them there, in his first managerial position, and now has experience of coaching at the international level as well as his stint in the Championship with Ipswich.

To put it bluntly, it could be said Lambert may have unwittingly hired his successor: Keane has already been installed as the bookies' favourite to be Villa's next permanent manager.

But that's assuming Lambert is thinking of the long game. He almost certainly isn't. What he needs, alongside him, is help, and knowledge, and a fresh energy. The Villa manager seemed drained of that in the final ten games of last season, and the club as a whole is flat: currently very publicly up for sale, there has been no real breakthrough from interested parties so far this summer. Lambert has the bare bones of a transfer budget to strengthen a squad lacking in several areas, restricted so far to free signings in the shape of Joe Cole and Philippe Senderos.

Keane's arrival should liven things up. The majority of the squad return for pre-season training next week, and the Irishman will be waiting for them, apparently raring to go after over three years away from club football -- he left Ipswich in January 2011.

His time as assistant coach to Martin O'Neill, for the Republic of Ireland, has reportedly re-invigorated his appetite for the training pitch and regular interaction with players. It may just be that Keane suspects his niche lies more in coaching, and less with the day-to-day administration tasks and obligations which come with modern football management. After all, if he honestly craved a return to a manager position, his profile is high enough to claim a role somewhere.

The intriguing element of Keane's arrival is largely in the unknown. What kind of a coach is he? His history is well documented: the explosive playing career, littered with brilliance, impeccably high standards and incidents of controversy. We know all about the 2002 World Cup, his dramatic exit from the Irish squad, and that flight from Saipan; we know about the bitter end to his glorious Manchester United career. Everyone knows about the infamous thousand-yard stare.

We know about his introduction to management, too. Perhaps rushed too quickly in at Sunderland, he took a squad from the lower reaches of the Championship, to the league title, and into the Premier League. We know he struggled at Ipswich, his second club.

Keane's image masks the fact that his coaching knowledge is extensive, and this should give Villa fans encouragement. His name alone might afford him opportunities, but even as he jumped into the job at Sunderland, his coaching education was underway.

In 2008, he gained the UEFA A Pro Licence, the highest possible coaching qualification. "Sometimes people think I've done my badges, it's done now and I'm qualified, but I think all my qualifications will come over the next 20 or 30 years of experience working with teams," he said at the time.

His reputation comes before him, and there may well be some Villa players who are fearful of what awaits them when they report at Bodymoor Heath. But beneath the scrutinizing expression, there lies a clever footballing brain and a man, you suspect, who senses that he has a chance to re-establish himself in the Premier League.

Lambert and Keane might make for an odd marriage, and it may not last for long, but it will be fascinating to see how the partnership develops. Bringing Roy Keane to the club is certainly not the safe option, by any means; will Lambert's gamble pay off?