Keane comes out fighting
As Ipswich gain momentum, fiery boss is finally on verge of winning back respect from scores of sceptics
"I don't throw teacups, it is not my style, I think I would rather throw punches."
IT was a great throwaway line from Roy Keane, but delivered without the force that once sent headline writers scurrying to reinforce the image created for him as a hard man in football boots. He hasn't quite lost his bark, but time spent working in the Championship has limited his national media exposure in the UK and perhaps given Keane some room to breathe.
It didn't stop him throwing his weight behind Manchester United to win the Premier League yesterday, though, one of Fergie's fifth columnists trying to undermine the real enemy at Stamford Bridge.
"United could win every game to the end of the season without any doubt. They are fresh, they've got good balance, great experience and top players. See Chelsea, they talk about the spirit in their camp and I'm not so sure," said Keane when asked about the Premier League title dogfight.
He's also had quite a change of heart about many of the players he once lacerated at Old Trafford and now sees them as paragons of virtue.
"I hear all the players and all the managers talking about spirit and character. Just look at United, they way they handle victories and defeats -- they are the best in the world at it," he said.
"You see other teams, they get a good result and they are taking their tops off and hugging each other. The following week and they are fighting one another.
"United are the prime example of what a good spirit is about, and that is again because of the good characters."
For a man who was talking about punch-throwing a week ago after a defeat by Watford and a performance over the 90 minutes which he summed up thus -- "Unbelievable. We kicked the ball out of play after three seconds and that set the tone for the night" -- the concept of team spirit seems incongruous.
Apparently, he locked the door on his players and spent another 90 minutes pointing out a few home truths. Nothing new there.
As a boy pugilist and a man who took a blow from Brian Clough, the notion of settling a dispute with fists is hardly novel but these days he'd be up on a charge if he laid a paw on any of his players.
Agents would reach for psychiatrists, lawyers and righteous indignation, ushering the sheepish victim into the spotlight sporting a shiner and a goofy grin.
Keane knows this and if he's learned anything since he rode into Sunderland on a white horse four years ago, he must now understand that his will alone can only bend players so far before they shrug their shoulders and look for an easier ticket.
Clearly Daryl Murphy has broad shoulders. He's following Keane around and seems only too happy to play for a man he revered as a player and respects as a manager.
Murphy's loyalty comes as much from the fact that he's getting a chance to do the job he has always believed he was best suited to -- leading the line. But he obviously doesn't subscribe to the version of life at the Stadium of Light under Keane which some of his more hysterical team-mates blurted out once the Corkman was far enough away from the club and the coast was clear.
There's no doubt that Keane in full cry as a player, a manager or an interview subject is a formidable force of nature. It is hard to imagine how that might be if such intensity had to be accommodated on a daily basis and an individual's character was, shall we say, brittle.
Many of the same players who couldn't or wouldn't do it for Keane performed like real footballers for Steve Bruce at the start of the season and banked wins over Liverpool and Arsenal in a run which promised much for the season ahead.
That, in turn, seemed to underline the criticism directed at Keane from some of the Sunderland squad and added weight to the suggestion that his greatest strength as a player would be his greatest weakness as a manager. As a player, he could give practical demonstrations of the high standards he pursued on the pitch and drag the unwilling or unable with him, but as a manager he has to rely on other people to execute his wishes.
Then Chelsea hammered Sunderland 7-2 in the FA Cup and it's been downhill all the way since -- same players (mostly), different manager.
Not long after he arrived at Portman Road, familiar murmurings arose about his driven personality and how it might clash with Ipswich's sleepy traditions, but most fans seemed to embrace the idea that Keane might wake the place up and deliver success.
An awful start to the season heaped pressure on Keane and offered his detractors an easy target. Ipswich were sinking fast and he had no real defence.
Tonight, Ipswich host Plymouth at Portman Road and a win would push them towards the top half of the table on 50 points and within striking distance of the play-offs, still a long way off but not impossible with a four or five-game winning run.
That's certainly progress and obviously enough to keep billionaire owner Marcus Evans happy without being delirious. Keane wants more money and players in the summer and that will require further investment.
Keane's reaction to the performance of some of his players in the Watford game guarantees a clear-out during the summer and given the fact that Owen Garvan lasted just 22 minutes in the offending fixture, he could be first to leave. It's not the first time he hasn't seen eye to eye with his manager.
In between, however, Keane must prove to an increasingly sceptical world that he has the ability to command the loyalty and respect of enough players at any given time to be able to manage successfully.
"I am convinced the players will enjoy working with me. I have simple demands. Be on time for training and give 100pc and you'll be fine. If they don't it will be a very brief relationship."
Those were the words Keane used at his first Ipswich press conference to answer critics who claimed he was too demanding at Sunderland and, in the end, alienated his players.
On the surface, it would seem that history is repeating and Keane's reaction to the Watford defeat mirrored similarly intemperate outbursts at the Stadium of Light.
But Ipswich dug out a 1-0 win over Barnsley on Saturday and another over Plymouth tonight would create some interesting momentum.