One of the game’s biggest characters, Roy Keane’s first managerial role was always going to be big news and so it proved. Sunderland became one of the most talked about teams in football following his arrival in 2006, and under the constant gaze of the media the Irishman set about installing some seriously high standards at a club still reeling from two horrific relegations in four seasons.
His critics claimed that it would end in tears, and whilst Keane did indeed leave in slightly acrimonious circumstances it was hardly a searingly insightful prediction seeing as that happens in most instances of a manager going. The speed however at which things turned sour did take supporters a little by surprise, and although there had already been whispers of a fall out with new shareholder Ellis Short the lunchtime confirmation on this date that Keane had stepped down was as startling as the thick blanket of snow that had just settled across the region.
Up until a few weeks before that, the overwhelming majority of Sunderland fans were pleased with the progress being made. After his whirlwind arrival and the subsequent August transfer deadline day bonanza, Keane and his players slowly but surely built up the momentum that would take the side away from near the bottom of the table to the Championship title.
It meant he became the first Sunderland manager to ever achieve an immediate top-flight return following relegation, and the next season saw him back that up by making the club a capable Premier League side that were able to secure safety with games to spare. The team finished 2007-08 with 39 points – not bad considering they only managed 34 combined during their previous two seasons at that level.
The Lads also enjoyed a reasonable start to the 2008-09 campaign and when the 28 year wait for a home win over Newcastle United finally ended in the October, few leaving the ground that day could have envisaged that the man orchestrating it would resign a little over five weeks later. A run of six defeats in the next seven league and cup matches following the derby changed the situation dramatically though and even chairman Niall Quinn, the man that initially charmed Keane to Sunderland, couldn’t convince him to stay.
During a press conference held to announce the news, Quinn explained that the pair had been in talks since a heavy home defeat to Bolton Wanderers the Saturday before and that Keane had expressed a feeling that he couldn’t take the club any further. Ever the statesman, Quinn made no mention of the strained relationship between Short and Keane, who for his part did later admit that it was a large factor in his desire to go.
The decision was understandable to a point, if perhaps a little hasty. To make the team more streetwise Keane had brought one or two players in that could best be described as ‘workie tickets’ and that had caused further tension behind the scenes.
Short was justifiable in asking questions of Keane, his methods and his plans, but the suggestion has always been that it was the way they were asked. A man of Keane’s temperament was never going to appreciate what he felt was a lack of respect from Short, and he may have had genuine doubts about whether he could do anything else with the squad he had put together, but with discussions ongoing at that point regarding a new contract it was clear that the club still believed in him.
Willing to admit to making mistakes whilst at Sunderland, Keane has since stated that he regretted no longer being at a club he clearly still has a lot of affection for. Things may have turned out differently for all parties had he and Short been able to strike up a working relationship, and even now, whenever a few results don’t go Sunderland’s way, there are calls for him to make a return.
It could be argued that too much water has passed under the bridge for that to happen, and that Lee Johnson’s character is better suited to the current model anyway. If Keane didn’t like having total control in 2008 it is doubtful he would want to work under the current structure either, but 13 years after his departure the last man to build a promotion-winning team at Sunderland is still revered by some of those he left behind at the Stadium of Light.