Roy Keane: Shades of Brian Clough

So what exactly did Keano say to his players in the Inaugural Roy Keane Motivation Lecture? His Sunderland team were 1-0 down against Derby County at half-time.

Was it something as suggestive as, “I know a couple of fellas…”? Or as simple as, “Nice kneecaps”? If we’re going by past form, perhaps he pinned the entire team against the wall with one hand and slapped them with the other while dishing out the traditional verbals.

Whatever he did say last Saturday, it did the trick. Sunderland scored twice and won.
The players knew it made sense. Perhaps the most amazing thing was that they braved the dressing room at all. It must have been tempting to stay out and practise throw-ins, or dig a tunnel to Australia.

Has there ever been a manager so scary as Keane? Fergie? By comparison, a socialist pussycat. Shankly? Lisping ballerina. Psycho Pearce? Sheep in wolf’s clothing. Mourinho? Multilingual art-house poser.

Which leaves us with Cloughie. The ghost of Brian Clough can be seen dancing along the touchline this season, raising a tumbler or 10 to protégés past.

There’s Stuart Pearce at Manchester City, doing a decent Johnny Rotten impression but generally dithering—Cloughie won’t be over-impressed with that particular young man. But the levitating wonder that is Martin O’Neill at Villa will be getting the thumb of approval.

Clough always liked O’Neill—“a good player but a pain in the arse”, which was high praise in his book. As a manager he rated him even more highly. “If he’d been English or Swedish, he’d have walked the England job.”

Of all Clough’s former boys, though, he’ll be casting the closest and proudest eye over Keano. It always seemed so unlikely that the polite, restrained Nigel Clough was Old Big ‘Ed’s son. His spiritual heir was Keane.

When he brought Keane into the Forest side, they shared so much - desperation to succeed, intolerance of failure, fondness for a drink, a capacity for aggression, a love of dogs named after Only Fools and Horses characters (Clough had Del Boy, Keane now has Trigger), pig-headed self-belief, a troubled soul, dry wit and the ability to inspire loyalty and fear in equal doses. Like Clough, Keane has an almost pathological need to tell it how he sees it.

Cloughie might be best remembered for his humour—“I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one”—but he was equally adept at handing out physical punishment.

Think of the time he ran on to the pitch to crack one of the fans. He is also the only living person known to have chinned Roy Keane, and made a joke of it. “I only ever hit Roy the once. He got up, so I couldn’t have hit him very hard.” Clough resorted to violence after Keane needlessly passed the ball back to the goalkeeper instead of playing the game as it should be played—get it, pass it, move.

Keano is best known for handing it out—his admission of deliberately injuring Alf Inge Haaland was as foolish as the act was malicious—but he also has a rare eloquence.

“A superiority complex is the mark of a sound Cork man,” he announced in his autobiography. He named his current Sunderland chairperson Niall Quinn “Mother Teresa”, encapsulated a new breed of football fan by christening Old Trafford’s prawn-sandwich brigade and told Rio Ferdinand: “Just because you are paid £120 000 a week and play well for 20 minutes against Tottenham, you think you are a superstar.” Brilliant.

Despite his personal combustibility, there was a surprising stability to his playing career. Apart from the fag end at Celtic, he played for two clubs under two of Britain’s greatest managers—Clough and Sir Alex Ferguson. It’s hard to imagine that some of their obdurate genius has not rubbed off.

Of course, it’s ridiculously early to assess Keane as a manager, but what the hell? It’s either going to end in a couple of months with a walkout and him being charged with GBH-ing the whole team, or he could be on the first rung to immortality—and fighting it out with O’Neill to run Old Trafford.

I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be the latter. He might end up as a Cloughie for the 21st century. Just as abrasive, just as inspirational, the only difference being that he’s swapped the tracksuit for the more formal clobber. Like Mourinho, Wenger, Benitez and Ferguson, he knows today’s winners wear suits. And for a man one game into managerial life, he wears his with eerie confidence.—Â

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