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Comparing Roy Keane and Alex Neil: Did Sunderland (eventually) end up with the right man?

Andrew White compares Alex Neil and Roy Keane, and ultimately believes that despite all the back and forth, we ended up with the right man in charge. What do you think?

Now that we finally have a new Head Coach in place, the elephant in the room is Roy Keane.

For reasons that I can only assume are purely nostalgic and emotional, many fans wanted to see a return of Roy Keane. As he led us to our last significant success, that may be perfectly understandable, but such fervent support is also dangerous for where we are now, because skimming through social media and fan forums, many people seem to be dismissing Neil before he’s even started.

Comments like:

‘just another Poorkinson’
‘utterly underwhelming’
‘shows just how far we’ve fallen’
‘complete lack of ambition’

We’ve all probably seen comments like this and many more, but this irrational negativity isn’t going to help the club at all. Furthermore, these comments are so wildly inaccurate they’d be comical if they didn’t pose a serious threat of derailing Neil’s tenure before he’s been given a fair chance.

As a result, I think we should take some time to reflect on just why Neil is not only a very good appointment, but also a massive improvement on the revered Roy Keane.

First of all, I agree that the management of the club since the Bolton fiasco has been utterly shambolic. KLD was naïve in the extreme in liking social media posts that linked Keane with the role of Head Coach.

Speakman has also totally mismanaged the transfer of power and any semblance of a long-term plan was completely discarded while they foolishly courted a possible return of Roy Keane. He also managed to make a complete pig’s breakfast of the last transfer window.

That being said, I don’t think we should simply disregard all the other work that has been done by this pair, because the club is in a much stronger position now compared to when they arrived.

We have a clear philosophy, a plan (barring the last couple of weeks) and data-led recruitment that, for the most part, has delivered us some very good players for very little cash. This is all very positive and we need to remember that.

So why is Neil so much more desirable as Head Coach than Keane?

I think that to answer that, we need to look at both personality and statistics.

I really don’t think we should abandon our long term plan, new structure, or philosophy because I genuinely believe it is the way forward if we are to be a sustainable and successful club. Would Keane really have fit into that model? I really don’t think so. By his own admission, he’s not a coach and prefers to manage, but that simply isn’t what Sunderland want or need. He would also have had to work under a Sporting Director and I can find nothing in Keane’s past to suggest that he would, or even could, do that.

In comparison, Neil very definitely IS a good coach, seems to work well with others and is clearly perfectly happy to work under our current structure. Neil certainly fits our requirements in this regard far better than Keane and is therefore also a better long term proposition.

Middlesbrough v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

We can’t ignore the fact that Keane has a promotion to the Premiership under his belt and that is certainly to his credit, but Neil also has that, as well as a promotion to the Scottish Premiership. Furthermore, Neil’s promotions have been far more recent and achieved without spending anything like the money spent by Keane, so in this regard, Neil looks even better than Keane.

I’ve seen some fans commenting that Neil’s record is less than impressive, which they then argue means he’s just a cheap appointment and Keane would have been far better. The thing is, I don’t think that stands up to scrutiny. Neil’s win percentage as a manager is 42.65% whereas Keane boasts a win percentage of just 38.29%. Even if you totally ignore his time at Ipswich, his win rate at Sunderland was just 42%, so still marginally lower than Neil has managed in his whole career!

We could also argue that not only does Neil have a better win rate than Keane, he’s done it more recently, at more clubs and over more matches than Keane. He’s also generally achieved his success at far smaller clubs, with a fraction of the budget Keane enjoyed. All in all, these statistics suggest that Neil is simply a better manager than Keane.

What about this claim that Neil is ‘just another Poorkinson’?

Parkinson always seemed to me to be a manager who wanted to punt the ball up the park and hope for the best, and that certainly isn’t the sort of football we’re trying to play at Sunderland now because we want to play attacking football with a high press. If this is the case and we want to keep to this, the last thing we need is another manager like Parkinson, so would Keane have been a better fit?

Keane doesn’t seem to have a particular tactical approach, and this might be interpreted as tactical flexibility. That is clearly a laudable quality in a Head Coach if that’s what it is, but it might equally be argued that he has no definite tactical approach and would struggle to stick to the style we have adopted as a club. I think the jury’s out on how Keane would have adapted to our preferred style.

Ipswich Town v Sunderland Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside via Getty Images

Neil, on the other hand, is an entirely different proposition. Far from being the hoofball merchant some have claimed, he is known for his desire to implement attacking football with a high press. In short, his managerial career to date is basically exactly what we’re wanting to do at Sunderland. Far from being just another Parkinson, Neil is actually a perfect fit for the sort of football we want to play at Sunderland.

The other bizarre thing I’ve read is that Neil can’t be that good because he was sacked from his previous clubs.


How many managers can you think of who haven’t been sacked at some point in their careers, including Roy Keane? Even if you can think of some, do you think they’re remotely likely to come to League One?

It might be more useful to look at why Neil was sacked and in the case of Norwich and Preston, it seems to have been much the same. Yes, they were losing, but they were losing because his best players were sold from under him and he was at clubs with little or no financial backing and without the kind of modern recruitment team that we currently enjoy at Sunderland. Significantly, fans from both clubs, who appreciate what was going on that was out of Neil’s control, all speak of him in very favourable terms.

I think that any sort of objective look at Keane and Neil tells us that Neil is clearly the better appointment for us by a country mile. In everything I’ve considered here, Neil is a better appointment and Keane was a totally unsuitable candidate unless you base everything on a rose-tinted view of our dim and distant past.

Preston North End v Norwich City - FA Cup Third Round Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Finally, I want to talk about motivation. By all accounts, the Board at Sunderland took complete leave of their senses and offered Keane the job as Head Coach. After over a decade away from management, there are no longer clubs beating a path to his door, especially with his relatively poor record. Being offered the job at Sunderland must have been a rare opportunity to get back into the dugout with a good club and if it’s really what he wanted, he should have jumped at the chance before they came to their senses. This is doubly the case because we are supposed to be the club he loves and where he feels he had unfinished business. Despite all this, he walked away.

We’ll probably never know why he didn’t take the job, if indeed it was ever offered to him. Perhaps he wanted Premiership wages or he wanted to tear up our long-term plan and new structure. Either way, the Board would be right not to give way to such unrealistic demands. Keane is NOT a top manager, his record isn’t very impressive and he’s been out of the game for far too long. I suspect that if he didn’t want to come back to Sunderland, he’s probably kissed goodbye to any chance of a half-decent job in management.

What about Neil? He is a man who has always worked at a higher level than where we are currently and would undoubtedly have received decent Championship offers because he is clearly at least Championship quality. He has also been faced with the Herculean task of getting Sunderland promoted this season, even after the fiasco of the last two weeks. On paper, other than the fact Sunderland is a ‘big club’ and the proverbial ‘sleeping giant’ there is little reason for Neil to take the risk of dropping down to League One, yet he has done just that. This is clearly a job he wants and he clearly has a lot of faith in his ability to bring us success. I like that, and that alone makes him a better candidate than Keane to me.

I sympathise with all those Sunderland fans who wanted Keane back at the club for purely nostalgic reasons. I get it, even if I don’t agree, but I think it’s time to forget about Keane and move on in a positive manner. Alex Neil is our manager now, he’s a very strong candidate and objectively, a far better option than Keane ever was. I suspect we have almost certainly dodged a bullet in not getting Keane, but the important thing is that we need to all get behind Alex Neil and the team. Neil IS a good appointment and is almost certainly an improvement on LJ as well as being a better Head Coach than a League One club should reasonably expect. Automatic promotion may now almost certainly be gone, but we can make the play-offs and we can win them.

Let’s give Neil a bit of time to turn things around, give him our full support, and for his first game at the Stadium of Light, make sure he is deafened by that Roker Roar from start to finish.


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