Keane reappears in the big league

August 6, 2007
By John Brewin
(Archive)

The Premier League has a new member of its managerial cult of personality. Less than two years after last gracing the Premiership, Roy Keane is back with the big boys. Once the most commanding presence on the Premiership playing field, competing among the likes of Vieira and Gerrard, his peers are now Wenger, Mourinho and, most poignantly, Sir Alex Ferguson.

GettyImagesKeane's latest and biggest challenge is turning an unsung squad into a Premier League perennial.

Keane may choose not to like it but he is the man set to be granted his own spotlight at the Stadium of Light. A year into his new career and it is already time to test his mettle. Rescuing Sunderland from the abyss they stared down at the start of 2006/7 to getting them promoted as champions of the Championship is no mean feat.

But Keane has never been one to rest on his laurels. His autobiography told the world how any trophy gained should always be swiftly forgotten in search of the next. He will not wish to be reminded of last season's achievements at any time, as he seeks to make Sunderland the Premier League force they have failed to be since Peter Reid's side finished seventh in both 1999/2000 and 2000/1.

Since then, the Black Cats, have struggled badly whenever they have appeared in the top division. Though 'struggle' is to put it mildly. Two seasons, 2002/3 and 2005/6, were so bad that their combined points total would not have kept the team in any single Premier League season. Keane does not have much to aim at, but safety will be the primary objective, if perhaps not the expectation of many.

In chairman Niall Quinn, Keane has at his side one of the players who was a part of Sunderland's last decent side, though it is unlikely that his team will play a similar brand of football to its predecessor. Schooled by Ferguson and Brian Clough, Keane likes his teams to play a passing game, with the long ball something of a last resort.

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Using his big name to lure other big names is not the Keane approach it would seem. Many have been surprised by his targets in the transfer market, with the additions of Michael Chopra, Dickson Etuhu, Greg Halford, Paul McShane and Kieran Richardson hardly looking star-laden. The first four are players who shone in last season's Championship while the latter is a player offloaded as not good enough for a leading light of the Premiership.

Richardson has much to prove. His aloof manner and expensive tastes won him few friends among the faithful at Old Trafford and, despite a tabloid rumour linking him to a member of Destiny's Child, he is no longer the most famous member of his family. The antics of cousin Charley on this year's snoozefest Big Brother have put him in the shade, and perhaps turned him a little puce when she opined that he would never move to a place like Sunderland.

Aside from the off-field nonsense, Richardson is not without playing ability. West Brom fans fondly recall his performances in helping them achieve Premiership safety in 2004/5 and he made an England scoring debut. Keane's spectacular exit from Old Trafford following a never broadcast TV interview is believed to have singled out young players underachieving, with Richardson believed to be high on Keane's hitlist, so the move came a surprise to some.

But in paying £5.5m for his former team-mate Keane has shown faith in a player whose reputation may belie his talent. In doing so, Keane has followed in the tradition of his managerial mentors. Both Clough and Fergie were known for taking chances on players few others would touch. Richardson's ability to play in central midfield as well as on the wing or left-back make him useful to a squad not especially blessed with depth.

Keane's approach to the transfer market met with criticism from one of his targets, with David Nugent, who eventually chose Portsmouth accusing Keane of being too impatient in attempting to persuade players to move to his club. Leighton Baines also chose not to move to Wearside, and so Keane has been forced to reconsider his choices, a process he has admitted his frustration with.

GettyImagesKieran Richardson has plenty to prove at his new Sunderland home.

Michael Chopra is another indication of Keane's single-mindedness. As a former Newcastle player, whose only senior goal for the Magpies came at the Stadium of Light, Chopra was Cardiff's star man last season but a controversial addition. When he faded so did the Bluebirds' promotion campaign. But, that said, his goal record was far better than that of Nugent, a comparable star of the second tier.

So, with the transfer market proving difficult, Keane is forced to turn to the players that won him promotion. With Keane, Quinn and the Drumchapel consortium that now owns the clubs, there is a definite green tinge to the Stadium of Light.

Paul McShane, impressive for West Brom last term, joins a sizeable contingent of Irishmen, with a spattering of Carribbean influence in the Trinidad and Tobago contingent of Carlos Edwards, Stern John and Dwight Yorke, another supposed bad penny who flourished under Keane. The former Eire captain, with assistant boss Tony Loughlin alongside him, was a surprisingly benign touchline presence in the Championship, though three players who were late at Barnsley felt the brunt of that famous fire when left to make their own way north east.

In keeping his purchases low profile and with something to prove, Keane has spoken of his aim of becoming this season's Wigan or Reading in putting in a fine first season to surprise the big boys. But there is factor that will make all the difference to those two teams. And that is Roy Keane.

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