Roy Keane, Man United manager?

So, Roy Keane is in his last season as a Manchester United player. Given that he is 35 next birthday, that hardly counts as a surprise and, given that he has his heart set on a career in management, it will be no great surprise either if he turns up on the Old Trafford payroll again at some date in the future.

The only real surprise is that he appears to have opted to put some distance between himself and United, to take a break and check the view from outside rather than hang around and wait to be groomed as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor.

That may appear to be the route of least resistance, although Keane, as we all know, has never been one to go with the flow. On closer inspection, his decision to make a clean break—assuming he goes through with it and it is not just a ploy to land a new contract—could be a typically wise one.

For a start, a club such as United might not be the best place to start a management career.
Kenny Dalglish took over Liverpool, Ruud Gullit did the same at Chelsea and Bryan Robson went straight in at Middlesbrough, but where are they now? Only Glenn Hoddle made a swift transformation from player to top-flight manager and he did it via Swindon.

In side-stepping the immediate succession, Keane will also avoid the obvious pitfall of being the manager to follow Fergie. The longer United go on being unsuccessful under Ferguson, the less his replacement need worry about standing in his shadow. But following a bloke who stayed for 20 years and brought in nearly as many major trophies is still a tall order for most managers.

The Ferguson succession is messier than ever at the moment because of the Glazer takeover and Keane may well have concluded that the best position to await further developments is across the border with Celtic.

Keane is a hero to the United supporters just as Alan Shearer is to the Newcastle faithful. There is a crucial difference between the two prospective managers, though. Newcastle are still waiting for a messiah, someone who can lead them to the promised land instead of just giving them a distant sight of it, and Shearer can fill that role.

Keane cannot easily promise to make Manchester United a whole lot better than they recently have been and the great danger for a player taking over a club where he has enjoyed success is that failure as a manager clouds the issue.

That is what happened to Graeme Souness at Liverpool, where he is rightly remembered as a great player but no longer recalled with any great affection.

Perhaps the overriding consideration for Keane, however, is that he simply does not know whether he will be any good as a manager. Hardly anyone does - look at the respective managerial experiences of Jack and Bobby Charlton - but if it is largely a process of trial and error then Old Trafford is probably not the ideal setting, even for someone as fearsomely confrontational as Keane.

That aspect of his character might actually be part of the problem. While Keane is likely to have enough determination and drive to succeed as a manager, he will be aware that his tireless exhortations on the pitch and in the MUTV studio have not had the desired effect in recent seasons and he may now be starting to understand that leading by example is only part of the job. At least as great a part is finding a way to bring the best out of players who may not be able to approach your high expectations.

Obvious as this may sound, it offers an explanation as to why so few top-class players successfully convert to management, while ordinary players, second-rate players and even non-players such as Jose Mourinho make it all the way to the top.

The second group never experience the panic of realising that what has up to now been instinctive might not be explainable, transmissible or even possible. They start off with what is possible and work upwards. They begin with a team ethic rather than having to relearn one. The Keane who rants on about Rolex culture, comfort zones and occasionally includes prawn-sandwich-eating spectators within the scope of his scorn is going to have to tone down his act to be a successful manager.

You would not bet against his doing it, but doing it at Manchester United right now may be too much to ask of anyone.—Â

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