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By ESPN Staff

Sunderland struggle to emulate Keane


There comes a time when a journalist is forced to accept he got it wrong.

Many sports writers with a more delicate ego like to paper over such an issue and hope their readers have forgotten the doubts expressed in previous articles, but Soccernet's Insider is big enough to admit he was misguided when predicting failure for Roy Keane after his appointment as Sunderland boss.

This humble writer was not alone in questioning the wisdom of Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn's decision to hire ex-foe Keane as his manager, with the press room at Derby's Pride Park stadium on September 9th 2006 filled with less than convinced doubters on his first day in office.

We were wondering how the most fearsome footballer of his time would adapt to life as a manager at a club whose record of feeble failure was apparently set in stone, while starting out at the wrong end of the Championship hardly seemed like a suitable place for Keane to take his notorious temperament.

After winning his opening game, we then pondered if Keano would turn up for his first post match press conference and doubted whether he would he answer the sort of questions managers are expected to deal with. After years of treading carefully around this fascinating and enigmatic character, it was hard to believe he could adapt his combustible personality to tolerate the often ridiculous questions that are blurted out by the chubby folks who attend such events.

What would happen if some brave soul asked Keane how he felt after a 7-1 defeat for his pathetic team? How would he respond to a reporter wondering whether he was disappointed as his team were denied a crucial victory with a woeful refereeing decision in the final minute of a game?

Some 18 months ago, the cynics believed Keano was likely to react to a setback by head butting anyone in his path, but the new mature character has emerged to impress all observers. He has been the model manager from day one until now and his team have performed as well as he has more often than not.

As if winning the Championship wasn't impressive enough last season, he now finds himself on the brink of something even more commendable as he looks set to keep Sunderland in the Premier League against many expectations.

He may have been given plenty of money to spend in the transfer market and struggled to attract the sort of talent he would have wanted, but three successive wins against Aston Villa, West Ham and Fulham in their most recent games pushed them over what many believe to be the safety point in the Premier League.

Now you sense the long-suffering Sunderland supporters are eager to celebrate their recent successes and as their heroes indulged in their pre-match huddle, it was clear that belief is growing for a bright future.

Promotions to the top flight have often been rapidly followed by rapid relegation, but with Keane's presence giving the club a status they have rarely enjoyed down the years, 'Mackems' have every right to believe such a yo-yo existence is banished to a less glamorous past.

The side Sunderland sent into battle against Manchester City is still a long way from the sort of quality unit they want to build, yet signing top class players has proved to be a major difficulty for Keane. The money to attract the top names is in place, but persuading them to move to a North East club has, by the manager's own admission, been tough.

While Kenwyne Jones, Kieran Richardson and Michael Chopra arrived at what many believe to be inflated prices, they are not the sort of players who will propel a club into challengers for a top six finish in the Premier League; but maybe now Keane will have a chance to sell Sunderland as more than merely a fleeting Premier League visitor.

The mellow Keane has instilled a great spirit and belief in his side and they started this game with an urgency and passion that had all the hallmarks of the former firebrand midfielder. Controlled aggression has taken Sunderland a long way this season and against a Manchester City side with little to play for, the early exchanges suggested a fourth win for the Black Cats was probable.

Footballers who have played at the very highest level often struggle to manage players below them and there is little doubt that very few on the pitch in this game could be compared with Keane in his pomp; yet, in Andy Reid, he has a player with that extra touch of class.

A fine passer of the ball, the stocky Dubliner is a Premier League player in every sense of the word and surrounded by many who would not have looked out of place in the league below, he was the stand-out performer in what was a disappointing first half.

Keane made a tactical change at the break as he took off Richardson and moved Reid to the flank and his compatriot looked increasingly dangerous at the start of the second half, but the quality on show was showing no signs of improving. Indeed, those euphoric Sunderland fans who are so pleased to be staying at this level for another season must have wondered whether this Premier League lark was all they had hoped for.

Then, out of nowhere, City burst into the box and whistle happy referee Mike Riley awarded City an undeserved penalty as Daniel Sturridge tumbled over the challenge of Nyron Nosworthy. It was a harsh decision, but Elano converted with ease from the spot and with 13 minutes to go, we were left to wait for what has become the now familiar late Sunderland response.

Time and again in recent weeks, late goals have propelled Sunderland up the league and, as Reid's fine cross floated into the City box, Dean Whitehead fired home the leveller as this game burst into life late on.

With the chances suddenly beginning to flow, it was City who snatched the late winner as Darius Vassell to stun Sunderland and when news of wins for relegation rivals Fulham and Bolton filtered through, Keane reminded all concerned that his side still have a lot of work to do if they are to avoid being sucked back into the relegation scrap.

'You get what you deserve out of this game, but this result was very harsh on us,' said a bitter Keane. 'We gave away a very poor goal at the end and the penalty was obviously a mistake by the official, but this was not a great performance. Our passing and movement wasn't up to the sort of standards we expect and we didn't test their 'keeper enough. At 1-1, I would have been delighted with the draw, but we didn't get it and have to move on.

'I've been saying all week that we are not safe yet and if anyone thinks we can take our foot off the gas after three wins, the results today have shown we have a lot of work to do. Maybe the players have switched off a bit because people said we were safe, but I'm the manager and unless they listen to me, they will be in trouble.'

A clearly frustrated Keane still strikes you as something of a fearsome figure and his simmering anger may well burst back into life one day soon, but as long as he is a top flight manager next season, his target for this season will have been achieved.

There will be many better days than this for Sunderland fans to relish in the next few years and as long as they hang onto their reformed manager, those glories should be in the Premier League.

There wasn't too much quality on show in a poor Premier League game that only came to life late on, yet Reid showed the odd flash of class. He didn't deserve to finish on the losing side.

FOOD WATCH: After the lengthy train journey north, the fish and chip shop on the way to the Stadium of Light was asking to be raided.

KEANO VERDICT: This was not his finest hour as Sunderland manager, but the star name at this club proved a long time ago that he has what it takes to be a giant in his second football career. The high standards he expects will never dip, but Roy Keane has proved he can work with players who simply cannot emulate his brilliance.

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