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Sep 10, 2006

Meet the new boss...

As the Sunderland team bus made its slow passage down Brian Clough Way in Derby on Saturday afternoon, Roy Keane may well have been sporting one of his chilling wry smiles.

While Keane's managerial debut was not destined to be at the same ground where his mentor began to create his own legend, with the Baseball Ground long deserted, the fact that his first opponents were Derby County, the side Clough made great in the 1970s, somehow seemed fitting.

As did the fact that the former Manchester United skipper got his managerial career underway with the sort of victory that allowed him to take much of the credit, with his side apparently inspired by his half-time team talk to come from behind to claim all three points.

Goals from Chris Brown and Ross Wallace gave Sunderland a 2-1 victory to lift them up the Championship table, but this was game all about one man and that much was evident long before the teams took to the field.

Keane's mere presence on the touchline at Pride Park ensured the eyes of the world would be focused on a Championship match that would hardly have commanded a column in newspapers otherwise, but we shouldn't be surprised. This most divisive of characters has a habit of dominating every party he attends and even though he does his best to pretend he would rather shy away from the limelight, such a fate is never destined to be his.

As ever with Keane, the media on either side of his popularity fence crammed into the Pride Park press room and joined in debate on this momentous occasion.

One suggested he would abstain from attending his first press conference, with another claiming Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn never wanted him as manager, with pressure from his Irish consortium forcing his hand.

Indeed, with members of Quinn's Drumaville consortium owning a host of pubs around Ireland, the theory was offered that the only reason they got involved with buying the Black Cats was to pack out their hostelries every week, while running a part-time travel service to fly new-found Sunderland fans to games every week. If that turns out to be the case, Keane has basically offered to front a business that is little more than a football booze cruise!

News that Mick McCarthy was in attendance at Pride Park was very exciting for those us hoping to witness a scrap, but any who had hoped he may have come to chuck rotten fruit at his old foe were disappointed by the reality that he had merely come to check out Derby ahead of Tuesday's game against his Wolves side.

There was a game to be played and the army of photographers on duty greeted Keane's arrival on the touchline with the sort of enthusiasm that is usually reserved for the winner of Big Brother and with that his life as a manager got underway.

Jacketless he may have been, yet Keane seems intent on joining the band of touchline managers who prefer the suited look to the tracksuit and studs. He could hardly follow in the footsteps of that fella McCarthy and go for the casual look could he?

His tactics appear to follow the Cloughie ethos of keeping this game simple, with his 4-4-2 formation easy for his five debutants to slot into on what was, effectively, the first day of the season for Sunderland.

Derby were to strike first as they scored the opening goal of the game on the stroke of half-time through Nyron Nosworthy, but some well-placed encouragement/threats from Keane at the interval seemed to work a treat and this newly sedated all-action hero strolled into his first post-match press conference looking almost happy to be there.

'It will take me a while to get used to all this,' he admitted. 'The preparation before games is very different and the whole experience of sitting on the touchline is unusual, but I enjoyed it as we ended up winning. There is obviously plenty of room for improvement and this is only a start, but we have given the Sunderland fans something to shout about and that's all I could ask for.

'Going a goal behind on the stroke of half-time was a good test for us and I got exactly the reaction I wanted and expected. We were kicking towards our own fans in the second half and I fancied us to score a goal. I just told the lads to keep their heads, trust each other and everything would be all right. They can take much more credit for fighting back than me, that's for sure.'

Cracking the odd dry joke and fielding questions like a managerial veteran, this did not look like the same figure who has been so dismissive of the press pack in the past.

Meeting the media on a regular basis is never going to be his favourite pastime, but whatever you think about Roy Keane, he is no fool. Keeping the media on side will be an important part of his effort to put Sunderland on the map for as long as he is in the job and he looks ready to play this part of the game as a result.

At this early stage of this fascinating story, you have to say the new Sunderland boss is reigning in his natural desire to confront his opponent head on. 'It's hard to stay calm when you are hanging on for a win with five minutes to go, but that's certainly the way I intend to manage,' he added. 'I trusted the players to go out and put in a performance and said to myself before this game that whatever happens, I'm going to try and stay calm on the touchline.'

A trip to Leeds on Wednesday night should test Keane's new serenity to breaking point as the Elland Road fans who so despised him during his days as Manchester United's talisman are bound to give him a stormy welcome.

We will doubtless revisit this story on November 25th, the date pencilled into the diary for the meeting of McCarthy's Wolves and Keane's Sunderland. Maybe the Caesar's Palace or Bethnal Green's York Hall would be more suitable venues for a grudge match to beat them all.

That can wait for a few weeks and by then we should have a better idea of whether Keane the manager can be anywhere near as successful as Keane the player. With plenty of money to strengthen his side in what looks like a weak Championship division, it may be that he proves all of his doubters wrong.

A play-off Final between Wolves and Sunderland at Wembley Stadium in May would be the ideal conclusion to this fascinating story.

Email newsdesk@soccernet.com with your thoughts.