Roy Keane’s 7.5 million fatal flaws
The image that marked the end was not especially becoming. Ipswich’s efforts hadn’t quite merited defeat to Nottingham Forest and, heckled by supporters whose patience had expired halfway through the Autumn, something small but significant snapped inside Roy Keane. Perfect hearing isn’t required as you trudge towards the Portman Road tunnel, hemmed into a tight corner between the south and west stands, but Keane’s antennae were on overdrive in any case. Singling out a particular barracker, he closed his right hand into a ‘chatterbox’ shape. “You’re all talk”, the motion said – and with that, the mime funnelled away one last time.
He was right to a degree, because there should have been little left for anybody to say. Keane’s soliloquies had done it all in the few weeks prior, intense mea culpas being interchanged with overly deliberate suggestions that he’d not been adequately supported in landing targets. The chair in Keane’s office that sat almost-signing Sean Derry during the summer can rightly claim a place in the club’s museum, so often did it get summoned to the defence – but for all his unquestionably fine intentions the fact was that, even back then, Keane had been undone by his own ambition.
“I’ve signed a two-year contract but I’d like to try and do it [get promotion] in one year,” Keane had told the media on April 23, 2009. What he didn’t mention then, but gradually became more eager to note, was that he’d originally been offered three – and that the 24-month deal was brokered by his high, but complex, set of standards.
Talk to any manager in the Championship’s middle reaches or below, and they’ll be “only two or three players away from the play-offs”. That felt like the Ipswich of 2009 – albeit their ninth-place finish felt slightly artificial, augmented as it had been by the late-season (and rather pointless) wiles of Giovani Dos Santos. Keane’s perception, not an entirely unfair one, was that the squad contained too many nearly men, too many Alex Bruces and Owen Garvans – decent enough Championship footballers who wouldn’t turn far from the middle of the road. Milling around these nearly men were too many familiar faces, too many old friends of the club popping in for a cup of tea, too many soft furnishings in a place that had never been ruled by decrees of steel. The noises were that to give Ipswich the hard edge required of a modern, promotion winning side, teeth might have to be pulled – but that, despite the pain, the perfect overbite that resulted would prove well worth it.
Which is why the 14 league matches that drifted by without a win in Keane’s first season passed to something more akin to bafflement than anger. There was still reason to expect jam tomorrow – money totalling roughly £7.5 million in transfer fees had, by the end of August, been spent on Tamas Priskin, Lee Martin, Grant Leadbitter and Carlos Edwards, with little immediate sign that the coffers would run bare if the manager fancied a January trolley dash. Liam Rosenior, of credible Premier League pedigree at right-back, arrived on a pricey season-long loan from Reading. If these transfers felt slightly gung-ho, most fans were happy to go along with the ride. Nobody could have known then that Keane had, for all the other factors behind his troubled tenure, signed his own death warrant through these deals.
Leadbitter remains an above-par Championship midfielder, but £2.6m was far too much to spend on a player who could not turn games – especially in a squad crying out for such characters. Edwards’ star had been on the wane for two years and his signing, for £1.35m, never looked right. Priskin’s signing for £1.7 million felt badly researched. A talent, but a brittle one, he didn’t settle until a year later when countryman Marton Fulop pitched up. It was little surprise when, after some months of reasonable form, he became the final subject of a whimsical Keane ostracism after a lax cameo at Preston last month. Acquiring the lightweight Martin, a serial loanee whose confidence seemed oddly shot from the start, on a five-year contract for something around £1.5 million was hideous business even by modern standards.
All but Leadbitter floundered from the start. Keane never recovered from that 14-game spell; it had rattled and, in all likelihood, confused him. On a good day – and there were a number of false dawns as a solidified unit edged creditably clear of danger – you’d still encourage yourself to believe that the agony had indeed been part of the process. But for a muddled and directionless season and a half Keane would patch, mend, chop, change and firefight to nothing more than short-term avail. No combination, particularly in the attacking third, truly worked – players finding themselves in favour one week and, as Priskin would discover, out of the matchday squad the next. Only when loanee Daryl Murphy and 17 year-old Connor Wickham dovetailed nicely towards the end of the season did a pair of forwards approach the exacting, frustrating standards set by their manager, whose willingness to ditch nascent partnerships after a matter of minutes said plenty about the lack of time on his own side – as well as a lack of natural ease harnessing players of relatively moderate talent.
Analyses of Keane’s hamartia are many, varied and not always on the mark – although his time at Ipswich did tick plenty of presupposed behavioural boxes. To these eyes, though, everything kept coming back to that £7.5 million. In the 16 months after that ill-starred first transfer deadline, invisible owner Marcus Evans committed just £1.5 million in further transfer fees for permanent deals (spent on the competent Fulop, an injured Mark Kennedy and another declining Trinidadian, Jason Scotland). Sales yielded around £4m, primarily through the departures of captain Jon Walters – for a good fee in shoddy circumstances – and the never-quite-wanted Jon Stead. Garvan, Bruce and David Wright were among those to join them. The message was increasingly clear (“you’ve made your investment and we’d still like a return”), although whether it was ever expressly communicated to Keane seems moot.
A spiky, up-tempo start to 2010/11 could never be sustained – not after the last of the departures. Ipswich fell away, too many gaps plugged by young loanees and callow Academy products. How it had come to this was, and is, the most important question of all – followed closely by enquiries as to how a Championship club with designs on promotion could not have a specialist right-back on its books. As a telling by-product of a confused, woolly summer – in which Keane batted responsibility for player sales back and forth between himself and the board – the latter issue could not have been more piquant.
The ‘Ipswich Way’ – an overly valorised concept in some corners of Suffolk, but still to be held close – had long since departed in favour of a reactionary, scrapping, robust style with little coherency. Sides comprising four recognised centre-backs and four traditionally conservative central midfielders would take to the field, Keane still not being convinced that he had enough of a bedrock to try a more expansive front few. He began to speak of hoping for an extended stay, to sort out a mess that he and all manner of others had conspired to create, at around the time that fans turned suddenly and spectacularly.
This occurred on a dank November afternoon against Barnsley, who coursed through Keane’s defence three times with a lone reply. Early in the second half, the manager had replaced Andros Townsend and Priskin, the two sharpest players in a now typically drab performance. All hell broke loose. Barnsley players were cheered en masse after another lengthy spell of possession; Ipswich’s young side was jeered when it attempted the same. There’d be further insults to add to this considerable injury, notably at Carrow Road two weeks later, but there was no going back for Keane from the moment he made his substitutions against Barnsley.
From this angle, there is no pleasure at Keane’s departure; there’s simply disappointment, with a lurking acknowledgement that many of us invested more excitement and expectation in his two-year plan, and perhaps his very presence, than any of it had perhaps deserved. Roy Keane’s Ipswich is no longer, and the slightly defensive, touchy, proud attitude that his tenure had provoked in many supporters – something that probably contributed to their relative patience – can be dulled. The club has bigger problems than Keane, some of which can’t have helped him. The careful Evans has cost-cut dramatically, to the extent that barely any scouting network now exists. The matchday experience is little more than a husk, with few sincere attempts made to engage supporters and most trappings bearing the hallmarks of mere lip service.
In another time, at a club not readjusting to a new and aloof form of ownership, you wonder if a more vibrant and less cynical background dynamic might have helped Keane – who genuinely loves the area and quickly grew very fond of the club. You also wonder whether, with this breakneck experience of the Championship behind him, he might prove more receptive in future to operating within a longer-term plan. At the end, though, there are £7.5 million good reasons for why those of us who spoke loud and long of a glittering new epoch in April 2009 really were, in the end, all talk.