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Jan 14, 2008

Spending big but thinking small

Milestones are rarely less impressive.

As Sunderland swarmed all over Portsmouth to reach the 20-point landmark, it confirmed this as the best - or, more accurately, the least bad - of their three most recent Premier League campaigns. It means Roy Keane has fared better than Mick McCarthy and Kevin Ball, who mustered a meagre 15 points two seasons ago, and Peter Reid, Howard Wilkinson and McCarthy, who combined for a mere 19 three years before that.

It is, of course, easier to effect an improvement when the past was so dismal. It is less of an achievement, however, when it is accomplished with vastly superior resources. And while Kieran Richardson and Kenwyne Jones excelled in overcoming Portsmouth, it is impossible to separate Sunderland's precarious position inside the relegation zone and Keane's summer spending.

Yet his January recruitment appears likely to follow the same formula. Though the loaned Jonny Evans and confirmed target Stephen Hunt represent a higher calibre of addition than many already in Sunderland colours, they conform to a familiar pattern.

Keane's signings belong to three categories; the Irish, the former Manchester United players and those who starred against Sunderland. Some - Danny Higginbotham, Paul McShane, Liam Miller and the wanted Hunt - tick more than one box.

Yet this fondness for the familiar surprises many long-time Keane watchers; his filmed - though never televised rant - about the failings of United's underachievers pre-empted his exit from Old Trafford. Those who did not meet his exacting demands, both for club and criticism came in for the sternest possible criticism during his playing days.

If the calmer, more composed Keane is, as Clive Clarke suggested last week, an image, perhaps his famous temper should be directed at himself. Consider his summer arrivals. Craig Gordon commanded a British record for a goalkeeper but, after a promising start, has been dropped.

The disaster-prone Greg Halford has been such a liability that a succession of makeshift right-backs have been roped in. Higginbotham and McShane are honest triers, but the former's continuing inability to play offside and the latter's culpability for four of Everton's goals in their 7-1 win have exposed their limitations. Russell Anderson, like Halford, is not trusted to play. Dickson Etuhu's physicality has been an asset but his passing has not.

Michael Chopra, despite a debut winner against Tottenham, has never resembled anything other than a Championship striker while Roy O'Donovan has been ineffectual.

Ian Harte and Andy Cole, by making negligible contributions, have shown the dangers of reverting to old acquaintances. Only Jones has been a success though his wholehearted efforts in attack should not camouflage that, like many of his team-mates, he was over-priced. Only he and Richardson, with a flurry of goals after an extended spell on the sidelines, may yield a profit if sold tomorrow.

That seven of the newcomers played in the Championship last season indicates that Keane, despite a decade and a half in the top flight, underestimated the Premier League, just as Lawrie Sanchez, with a similar fondness for lower-division players, did. At least when McCarthy purchased from the second flight, he did so cheaply.

In contrast, Sunderland were among Europe's top 10 spenders in the summer - ahead of, among others, AC Milan and Inter, Arsenal and Chelsea - yet their current position suggests they will be one of 24 members of the Championship again in a few months. A question that could be posed to both Keane and Sam Allardyce is: what is it about misguided spending sprees and the North-East?

Moreover, Keane's buying betrayed either an ignorance or a distrust of European and world football. A comparison can be drawn with his former team-mate Mark Hughes, whose ability to unearth such bargains as Ryan Nelsen and Christopher Samba has enabled him to stretch a modest budget.

Yet pitched straight from playing into management, Keane had an inherent disadvantage; he did not have the contacts across Europe of Sven-Goran Eriksson, for example, and, like all too many current players, it is hard to imagine his evenings were spent, as Arsene Wenger's reportedly are, scouring numerous leagues on satellite television to further a knowledge of obscure players.

When football is increasingly becoming a global game, the benefits of a much-travelled manager are apparent; a player's closeted existence is no preparation.

Or not for the Premier League anyway. The Championship is almost a self-enclosed entity, a sphere where confidence, momentum and fervent support - three things Keane helped generate for Sunderland - can make a difference among evenly-matched sides.

In addition, raiding rivals for their players, as Sunderland did last January to bring in Carlos Edwards and Stern John, can be decisive. It is a league where, though Tony Mowbray's current West Bromwich Albion team and George Burley's Derby of 2005 provide notable exceptions by basing promotion pushes on an astute selection of imports, scouting can be restricted to watching their opponents and Premier League clubs' reserve sides.

The Premier League is a more unforgiving environment, as Keane is discovering, even if the loyalty he commands at the Stadium of Light is impressive.

Adulatory treatment of great players is not uncommon, especially those with an aura as powerful as Keane's, but it is more unusual after a succession of setbacks. Seemingly, there are some in the Sunderland boardroom, as well as in the stands, who eulogise him.

Hence, perhaps, more funds to strengthen when decisions - such as pitching in the untried teenager Martyn Waghorn against Manchester United - are effectively admissions that his buys have backfired. Because Keane's side lack quality, though spirit is often in evidence.

But then it was for McCarthy's widely-ridiculed team, and it was nowhere near enough. If the performance against Portsmouth heralds a revival, Keane's status as a managerial messiah will be reinforced.

If not, his complacent assumption that the footballers he played with and against are enough to keep Sunderland up could make them the costliest Championship side ever.


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