Keane: hopes and fears cast asunder
With Lloyd putting his feet up in advance of a television appearance this coming Thursday that will surely propel him to stardom well beyond the petty confines of this website; we are delighted to welcome another guest contributor. Gavin Barber, resident of Oxfordshire, but scion of Portman Road, turns the spotlight on events of the past few days and the dissolution of the phrase, “Roy Keane’s Ipswich”.
Take a look at these three opening paragraphs from The Guardian, all from stories published in the first week of 2011:
“Crystal Palace, currently mired in the relegation zone of the Championship, sacked their manager George Burley today”.
“Championship side Preston North End have sacked their manager Darren Ferguson”.
“Roy Keane has been sacked as manager of Ipswich Town, according to reports last night”.
Notice anything? Try this from Paul Fletcher’s blog on the BBC website:
“Barnet have sacked Mark Stimson, Crystal Palace fired George Burley, Stockport dismissed Paul Simpson, Charlton waved goodbye to Phil Parkinson and Walsall ditched Chris Hutchings. Then on Friday morning it emerged that Roy Keane had lost his job at Ipswich”.
You don’t have to be an expert in textual analysis to spot that in all of those reports of managers being sacked, the club, rather than the manager himself, is the main subject of the story — except one. Except when it’s Roy Keane.
It wasn’t Roy Keane’s fault that the dynamic was wrong. On his arrival in April 2009 we were all a bit seduced by the glamour of it all. One of the most decorated footballers of his generation coming to manage our little club in the countryside! And saying nice things like “This is a proper football club”! Well OK, the reaction wasn’t quite as forelock-tuggingly subservient as that, but you get the picture. The world’s media descended on Suffolk to film the story: we knew that ITFC was only ever going to get a Best Supporting Actor nod when the prizes were handed out, but we could handle that because — well, because it was exciting. And because we thought that those prizes would come.
It’s not like we’re not used to successful bosses: any article about Ipswich managers is obliged to mention Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson at about this point. But they became famous for what they did. With Keane, for the first time ever, our manager was of interest to the wider world because of who he was. When he was unveiled at a news conference, it was carried live not just by Sky Sports News but by the BBC News Channel. It wasn’t just the sports media who were getting into this: one of the nation’s primary news outlets had determined that Roy Keane getting a new job was the most important thing happening in the world at that point — not just the world of sport, but the world of everything.
For supporters of a club that’s used to being ignored, this was all a bit surreal. And it was quite welcome for a while because he won his first two games — away at Cardiff as Town gatecrashed the farewell party for Ninian Park, and at home to a disinterested Coventry in the last game of that 2008-09 season. Norwich went down that day, the sun shone, we applauded the new boss as he joined in the end-of-season lap of honour, and all seemed right with the world.
More pertinently for the club’s owner Marcus Evans and newly-appointed CEO Simon Clegg, all seemed pretty reasonable with season ticket sales for the 2009-10 campaign. Or at least, not as catastrophic as they might have been if nothing exciting had happened to lift the end of yet another frustrating campaign under Magilton. Roy Keane’s Ipswich — the club, the concept, the brand — was born.
And then it all went a bit stuttery, to say the least. The 14-game winless run at the start of 2009-10 is now a kind of legend in itself: notable for the extraordinary forbearance shown by Town supporters during that time. Keane’s teams showed some signs of trying to play some decent, fast-paced passing football. Just not often enough. Why wasn’t his message getting across? Was he expressing it too aggressively? Or was it that the personnel weren’t the right people to be listening to it?
To describe Keane as single-minded is something of an understatement and he made it clear that there were some players whose jib he didn’t like the cut of. Danny Haynes lost his rag in a pre-season friendly, was substituted and shipped out to Bristol City post haste. The talented Owen Garvan was selected as a last resort rather than as one of the bricks around which the rest of the team was built. All of which necessitated some immensely protracted transfer moves. Keane’s constant rearrangement of the squad began to look like someone moving around the furniture in their living room but never quite getting it right. What if we put the TV over in that corner? Should we get some more storage units? Who needs full-backs anyway?
Keane has never been renowned for the success of his transfer dealings and it’s hard to argue that his expenditure — though not as high as has been suggested in some reports — has left the squad any better than the one he inherited, though some of the scrutiny here should also fall on Clegg, a name that seems inextricably linked to betrayal of early promise. Shaun Derry was just one player who was willing to sign but “couldn’t agree terms”: there must have been others. Which isn’t to say that Clegg should be writing blank pay cheques and mortgaging the club’s future on inflated wages — we’ve been down that road before — but transfer negotiations seem to have become painfully awkward since he took over from the well-regarded Derek Bowden.
The current season started well but faded badly in November and December. It took a while for Evans to terminate the arrangement — Keane’s sacking was more lethal injection than guillotine — but the point of no return was probably reached in a dismal 3-1 home defeat to Barnsley on 13th November. The way that some Town fans reacted to that (by ironically cheering Barnsley’s passes) did them no credit, but more crucially it was a day when everything Keane did — from his initial team selection to his tinkering with the formation to his substitutions — made things worse rather than better. It’d be unfair to describe it as a microcosm of his Portman Road career but there was something indicative about the way that he constantly tried different things to make Town better, only for each to explode in his face.
A dismal run followed and when Keane was sacked on 7th January it was only confirmation of the inevitable. The brand was no more: the project had failed. Plenty of people should take responsibility for that failure but Keane was the fulcrum around which it all rotated, and not just because of his role. The club had, for want of a better word, prostituted itself (actually, given the identity of Keane’s probable successor, there probably is a better word) to someone who, through no fault or actions of their own, challenged the notion that the club is always bigger than the manager. For 20 months, the Ipswich Town manager was bigger than the club, and it turned out that we were cast into shadow rather than basking in any reflected glory.
After Keane’s sacking, Town’s centre-half Gareth McAuley — easily the team’s most impressive performer this season — gave an interesting interview to the local paper. “Some of the younger players did not respond [to Keane] so well”, he said. “Some must look at themselves and step up to the mark”. Keane’s enforced sabbatical will give him chance to reflect on why he couldn’t get his messages across to his players. Some of those players might also want to reflect on whether they were really listening.