n all the speculation linking Martin O’Neill with a string of Premier League managerial vacancies — the latest, Stoke City — it has been somewhat lost and somewhat telling how little speculation there was linking Roy Keane as a possible candidate for the recent opening at his old club Nottingham Forest.
Although in the lead-up to the play-offs against Denmark Keane batted away any talk about a return to club management — understandably so, because of the imminent Danish challenge and the prospect of a World Cup in Russia — he has generally made no secret of his desire to again be trusted with a gig as a number one.
His 2014 book, The Second Half, was as much an advertorial as a self-reflective memoir of an aspiring manager, his willingness to act upon the lessons of his mistakes at Sunderland and especially Ipswich as impressive as his admission of them.
The updated version of the book, which included a review of his brief stint as an assistant to Paul Lambert at Aston Villa as well as the first qualifying campaign as O’Neill’s second-hand man, reinforced that perception.
Villa had taught him that if he was to go back to a club, it would have to be as a manager. At international level, he found it easier to be an assistant because there was less time and fewer things to differ with the manager.
Although he had good time for Lambert, Keane felt there were just too many decisions with which he didn’t agree. At the time, the club were struggling for goals but while Keane rated Darren Bent, Lambert continued to leave him out of the starting 11.
“When you’re not the manager,” surmised Keane, “you don’t get to make those final decisions. The next time, I’ll be wanting to make those crunch decisions.”
In that update for the paperback edition, Keane also wrote about how he was now a better and wiser manager for serving an apprenticeship under O’Neill, having essentially had none anywhere else as a coach.
“There’s a balancing act, which Martin O’Neill does brilliantly. You can have a dig at the players but without losing them… I think that some of my bollockings when I was a manager were probably a bit too nasty, a bit too critical and personal.
“The big word for me is ‘experience’. You’ve got to make the mistakes to learn from them. I look at Martin and he knows management. It’s about balance… managing the media, managing expectations, managing the FAI or your bosses, managing your staff. The manager gets some of the applause and all of the criticism. He’s the leading actor. I’m not put off.”
It was now a matter of the right opportunity. He had previously been offered the Celtic job and felt it “would have suited my personality” but ultimately decided it was “the right job at the wrong time”.
He just had to be patient, as much as he felt the Ipswich job had “tainted” him.
“Other managers have had disappointing experiences and bounced back. I do think I’ll get the opportunity, when the time is right.”
When Mark Warburton was fired by Nottingham Forest on New Year’s Eve, that opportunity seemed to have finally presented itself.
Here was a club that he had a deep personal connection with: The one that gave him his chance in the pro game. A sleeping giant, only 90 minutes away from his Manchester home, just waiting to be awoken by a lifeforce: It seemed perfect for his personality and he seemed perfect for it. Under the previous owner, the volatile Fawaz al Hasawi, Forest wouldn’t have offered the culture or stability Keane as well as the supporters would have yearned; after Ipswich, Keane wasn’t going to be burned on that score again.
But last summer al Hasawi was bought out by Evangelos Marinakis, owner of Greece’s perennial champions Olympiakos. Although Marinakas has been charged with match-fixing in Greece — which he denies — he’s a figure of almost Obama-like tranquillity and sense compared to the Trump-like previous regime.
Over the last six months, a chief executive, financial officer, marketing manager, commercial officer and a head of football operations — mid-80s favourite Johnny Metgod — have all been appointed. As The Guardian’s Nick Miller commented at the weekend, that most of those positions had previously been vacant gave an idea of just how chaotic it had been before.
Yet when it came to the quest for a football manager, Keane didn’t seem to be on the radar.
Few fans touted his name. In a poll taken in the wake of Warburton’s dismissal, O’Neill — a two-time European Cup winner with the club — was the standout choice among supporters (23%). Failing that, supporters were in favour of Billy Davies (17%) returning for a third stint in the hotchair, the eventual incumbent Aitor Karanka (17%), or Nigel Clough (12%). Keane didn’t even muster 2% of the votes.
Among bookies, he wasn’t even the highest-placed former Republic of Ireland player. David O’Leary, who has no connection with the club and whose last coaching post in England was 12 years ago at Aston Villa and his last job anywhere at all was in Dubai over six years ago, was priced at 25-1, with Keane out at 33-1.
And most crucial of all, among the club chairman and his board, he was overlooked, Karanka getting the nod.
It raises all sorts of questions about Roy Keane’s managerial future.
f Keane can’t get a job with Forest — a club that has appointed 11 different managers since he was fired at Ipswich — where will he ever again get a job in the Championship, let alone one in the Premier League?
In ways, Keane’s record is similar to Karanka’s.
They both have won promotion out of the Championship – Karanka with Middlesbrough in 2015-16, Keane with Sunderland in 2006-07.
They both have served as assistants to hugely experienced, talented, and charismatic managers who were involved in the epic 2003 Uefa Cup final — Keane to O’Neill, Karanka to Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid.
And they’ve each had the kind of “disappointing experiences” Keane referred to in his book: Middlesbrough being relegated last season with Karanka at the helm for most of the campaign, and Keane with his ignominious end at Sunderland and unable to get Ipswich to challenge for promotion.
In fact Keane’s list of achievements as a number one are probably the more impressive.
After all, he helped his north-east club stay up in their first year in the Premier League. And the previous year they had gone up as champions, not just runners-up as Boro did under Karanka.
“People often say the Championship is one of the toughest leagues in the world,” Keane remarked in The Second Half, a sentiment Forest would echo, having failed to get out of it the last 18 seasons. “I have to say that. No one else ever does.”
But while Keane’s achievements might be more impressive, Karanka’s are more recent, which is one of the reasons why he’s the one that has got the chance to “bounce back”.
Maybe Keane’s time at both Ipswich and Sunderland hasn’t been so much tainted as forgotten.
Or maybe he has been tainted, or at least typecast.
In Karanka, Forest see a coach with continental sophistication. What do they see when they see Keane? A former player who was undoubtedly great with an astonishing aura, for sure, but an aura that perhaps wouldn’t now have the currency it would have had in Sunderland back in 2007, as his time and frustrations at Villa showed.
Or maybe he’s now been typecast as an assistant manager. It’s seven years this week since he was fired at Ipswich. Seven years since he was last a number one.
What would a Forest have seen since, outside his caustic remarks at an Irish press conference or o UTV? Does he really just make cups of tea, as he quipped last November? Previously when the Forest position would have become vacant, Keane would have looked at it and gone: Nah, too unstable, not worth the risk. This time they probably took a quick look at him and went: Nah, too unstable, too unbalanced, too unknown a quantity, not worth the risk.
There is, though, one potential head coaching job where he is less of an unknown quantity, at least among the players and staff and FAI. With Ireland, they know him and he knows them.
If O’Neill does get and take a job like Stoke, then Keane becomes the favourite to succeed him. With Ireland, his aura still counts for something.
“He brings that stature to the team,” O’Neill said about him 18 months ago. “He’s an iconic figure to the younger players but that respect will only last 19 minutes if you’re not delivering. And he delivers.”
Maybe that’s why Keane didn’t have his name put out there for the Forest job while O’Neill has been happy for his to be linked with every job going in the Premier League.
For the last while, he and Ireland may have been each other’s great back-up plan. If O’Neill stays on with Ireland, great for Roy and great for the FAI. If O’Neill goes and Keane takes over, well, that would probably be fine for the FAI and even better for Roy.
Throughout his time with Ireland and the FAI, Keane has been known to quote some lyrics. Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’ in the McCarthy years. Soul Asylum’s ‘Runaway Train’ at the very end of The Second Half after a logistics cock-up in the US.
Now it might be a bit of Huey Lewis.
Yes, John, it’s true. Roy could be happy to be stuck with you.