At the weekend it was announced that former Sunderland manager Roy Keane has left Nottingham Forest, and it’s believed he wants to return to football management. For five and a half years Keane has worked under another former Black Cats boss, Martin O’Neill, as his assistant manager. The two men first assumed their respective roles as manager and assistant for the Republic of Ireland back in November 2013.
After five years at the helm they stepped down before reprising their partnership with Championship side Nottingham Forest back in January.
Both men arrived on Wearside as managers with overwhelming plaudits from fans but ultimately left with their early potential unfulfilled, and there are so many reasons their tenures truly failed to bear fruit. Looking back now, those times still fill fans with positive memories. But one great downfall of Sunderland’s best managers of the past decade or so appears to be the lack of a good assistant manager.
When Niall Quinn was still chairman he acknowledged that fact, certainly about Roy Keane. But the tantalising idea of Martin O’Neill being joined by a young Roy Keane in 2006 as his assistant would have addressed that problem - a Martin O’Neill at the height of his powers, and with a point to prove to those at the FA who had passed him over for Steve McClaren for the England. Couple that with a fresh Roy Keane ready to learn from another master of the game, and the prospects are limitless.
Keane’s record in his first season in charge, taking Sunderland to promotion as Champions of the Championship was almost faultless. However, imagine the 2007/08 season under O’Neill’s stewardship instead, with Keane as his number two. With a pot of £40m to spend it probably would have led to a more forceful assault on the Premier League and a much higher finish.
That could have really been the Back to the Future moment that made all the difference. A higher finish in the Premier League would have pushed the club’s price and profile up.
At that point the Drumaville Consortium had been forced to sell their share in the club to release funds. With a higher profile, the then Sunderland Chairman Niall Quinn may have been able to get his initial investors a better price while attracting someone with the right capital and wisdom to run the club (someone other than Ellis Short).
From his time at Aston Villa, Martin O’Neill ensured there was a steady building process, with the club gradually getting stronger with some exciting young British talent. However, as another American owner in Randy Lerner began to lose interest the funds required to push the club into the top six were denied, with O’Neill becoming frustrated. To pundits it appeared that Villa were only missing one final part of the jigsaw to push the club onto the next level - ironically, a talisman like Darren Bent.
It’s easy to say, and many would already point to the fact that O’Neill had his chance at Sunderland. But the argument would be that the rot was starting to set in when O’Neill finally got the Sunderland job.
Had Sunderland attached both O’Neill and Keane to the club together their styles would have complemented each other. O’Neill has the motivation, experience, connections and managerial knowledge. Keane instills passion, a discipline, a drive, the will to win and an attacking philosophy in his players. Imagine Sunderland vying for the top six, and as a result being able to build around players like Jordan Henderson.
It wouldn’t have all been plain sailing, but when the tide was against the team and manager, a good assistant manager and sounding board could be a saving grace. There is one thing guaranteed from Roy Keane – a brutally honest answer. With these two at the helm it’s hard to see them not at least equalling what Reidy achieved or, as the earlier comparison drew, what O’Neill managed with Aston Villa or at Leicester – winning silverware. Perhaps.
It never happened, but it would have made that magic carpet ride a bit headier. Even if their magic’s not quite what it was, we’ve certainly seen over the last few years O’Neill and Keane working well in tandem.