Phil Smith: Roy Keane nostalgia no surprise after season of such passivity from Sunderland

Roy Keane on his unveiling as manager
Roy Keane on his unveiling as manager
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When Roy Keane left, the shock in the A Level English class I was in at the time was such that the teacher, bewildered at the utter hysterics unfolding, had little choice but to bring the lesson to an early end.

The collapse in his Sunderland tenure was dizzying and dramatic. When Kieran Richardson ended decades of derby hurt at the Stadium of Light, it felt as if a profound power shift in North East football was taking place.

Roy Keane showed passion at Sunderland

Roy Keane showed passion at Sunderland

It was, to an extent, Newcastle and Boro relegated that season, Sunderland surviving.

Yet they did so by the skin of their teeth, the season drifting after the Irishman departed, a city and a club coming to terms with the end of a journey that had been in equal parts exhilarating and utterly exhausting.

That 2-1 win was the high watermark, the cracks quickly emerged and he never threatened to get to grips with them.

The decline was dramatic. No half measures. There never was with Keane.

When it was good it was magnificent, but there were times when it felt wildly out of control. When he left bridges were comprehensively burned, a point of no return unquestionably reached.

So it has been interesting to see a rehabilitation of his reputation, culminating in his name being chanted from the Riverside terraces a week ago. Keane, it seems, had been in attendance on scouting duty, which perhaps was not particularly good news for the Irish players on show.

It seems somewhat far fetched to suggest that it was an audible expression of a desire for his return to the Stadium of Light. Many would take him ahead of the current incumbent, but that says more about David Moyes than Roy Keane.

Still, it is not a great surprise that Keane is more fondly remembered than many of the recent managers, and it goes well beyond the sheer number of games won in that first Championship season.

There was a clip being shared recently on social media platforms of a famous Keane press conference after a particularly poor performance. The players are blasted, as are the ‘abysmal’ fans. In response to a particularly anodyne and placid question, whether lessons had been learned, he curtly responded he ‘couldn’t care less’.

What is perhaps missed more than anything about that world class midfielder is the utter refusal to accept anything but the highest of standards, the insatiable hunger and the refusal to descend into passivity.

It may have been his undoing in the end, a refusal to compromise and accept the limitations of players lesser than himself.

Seek out a famous teamtalk as recalled by Danny Higginbotham, and it becomes clear why the mood collapsed so dramatically.

Compare Keane’s approach to the conveyer belt of managers since then, however, who have been happy to present themselves as helpless, amid bizarre talk of ‘curses’ and such like.

This season has been a particularly passive surrender, and it is impossible not feel a pang of longing for a time when, even accounting for poor signings and multiple away day drubbings, the club felt so alive.

The contrast between the plethora of grandstand finishes at the Stadium of Light, late winners and equalisers, and the closing stages of home games this campaign, when the prospect of a stirring comeback has seemed so fanciful many have simply left, is stark.

Keane’s reputation in these parts was further enhanced in his quite superb book with Roddy Doyle, released in 2014.

What had been billed as a controversial, no holds barred look at the game in keeping with his caricature actually transpired to be an intensely reflective and times quite moving account of his time in the North East.

In the way he recalls his torrid time at Ipswich, there was more than a sense of regret at an opportunity missed on Wearside.

The point of no return was comprehensively passed, and most recognised that even at the time of his tumultuous departure.

Yet for that class of 2008, my generation of supporters, Keane had become something of an iconic figure, his departure if not quite a Princess Di moment certainly a day of genuine sadness.

Utterly spoilt by the fact that our initiation was Quinn, Phillips, Bould, Sorenson and Schwarz, utterly shocked that it so quickly could descend into a washed up Tore Andre Flo and Howard Wilkinson.

Keane made so many feel part of something again. Keane, for all his flaws, got it. So many have claimed to, so few have put it into action.

In these times it has been hard not to long for it, whether it be particularly rational or otherwise.