Thursday, April 7, 2011

Roy Keane for Victory

After firing the most successful manager in A-League history, Ernie Merrick, the Melbourne Victory are in need of a new manager to strategize their Asian Champions' League cause and begin the inevitable rebuilding. The biggest name linked with the job is Roy Keane, late of Sunderland and Ipswich Town.

Local candidates are few: the A-League tends to opt either for recycled coaches or big-name import signings, so unless Melbourne opt to employ a retread, likely their arch-nemesis John Kosmina, their next boss is likely to come from overseas. The list of retread managers reads as long as Kevin Muscat's rap-sheet: Branko Culina (famous mostly for being Jason's dad), Miron Bleiberg, Kosmina and Graeme Arnold. Furthermore, both current and former Roar bosses (Ange Postecoglu and Frank Farina) are made up of old tin cans to resemble old NSL managers.

This points to an obvious leadership vacuum in the top tier of Australian domestic football. Within the past five years, only Aurelio Vidmar has successfully transitioned from player to top-flight coach. A few of the former Adelaide boss's compatriots - Muscat and our former centre-back Tonys (Vidmar and Popovic) most notably - have dabbled in management, becoming the next generation as they were members of the Golden Generation. The absence of young managerial talent means the league relies on imports.

So-called glamour team Sydney FC has opted most often for imports: first Pierre Littbarski, then England hero Terry Butcher. After Butcher, they went the recycled route with Culina and Kosmina before searching overseas for current coach Czech Vitezslav Lavicka, who brought the A-League Championship back to Sydney in 2010.

After a torrid campaign which will see the retirement of Muscat and Merrick losing his "walks on water" status, the Victory appear close to signing Roy Keane to lead them for season 2011-12. It would be a relative coup, given the stature of the club and the massive reputation Keane brings with him and as such would provide a massive publicity boost for the nascent competition. Apparently - unsurprisingly - Keane's reported $1 million per year wage demands are proving a stumbling block but he hasn't dismissed a move which could revitalise his management career, currently stalled after walking out on Sunderland and departing Ipswich Town.

It certainly seems like a good match - a high-profile coach needing to rebuild his reputation, willing to do so out of the spotlight in Australia for a couple of years and bringing a blend of toughness and experience no-one in Australia can match. After he departs, the Victory could then hand the reins over to manager-in-waiting Muscat. It's also a big gamble by both coach and club.

An intense - perhaps even bordering on sociopathic - character, Keane has two great strengths - his experience and reputation. His experience should allow him to gleam both tactically and as a teacher without spending large sums of money. During his initial stint in management, he transformed Sunderland, languishing at the bottom of the Championship, into runaway competition winners within six months without any expense. The Mackems then established themselves in the Premiership with a number of adept signings. His reputation should help attract better calibre players to the club and league: youngsters will flock to learn from him, older stars looking for one last pay cheque will see him legitimise the six-year old league.

He'll also be inspired to coach, given he's running out of managerial chances. It's not his last chance to be sure, but his stock has fallen enormously since touted as a possible Fergie replacement at United. If he is half the teacher and tactician he was as a field-general, he will be a success in Melbourne, and will be able to take a middling job in club management back in Europe within three years. Melbourne would land on their feet, as this would allow Muscat a chance to complete his coaching badges and cut his teeth in the front office before being thrown to the wolves.

There are plenty of downsides, too. The intensity that Keane is famous for worked against him on Wearside as players tired of his abrasive nature. He reportedly took steps to curb that side of his nature when in charge of Ipswich, but questions must be asked as to his ability to control both his temper and body language. The same passion which would demand exacting skill, tactical obedience and professionalism could also be used to intimidate players out of performing - in Australia, the most successful coaches tend to be those who follow the "Softly, Softly" approach.

Though apparently a more restrained character than during his time at United, it's almost never been a failing of the brain which has curtailed his career, but of his temper. If he had the stones to publicly question the standard of United trainees (current Red Devil stalwarts Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea the subject of his ire), he is likely to be supremely disappointed in Australia's youth, obviously of a standard far below any Carrington washout. It's becoming clear that what makes Roy Keane such a formidable competitor is also his greatest downfall.

Add to these factors his curious penchant for signing washouts - El Hadji Diouf, anyone? - which made his transfer record in England break-even at best. In Australia, transfer budgets are a fraction of what they are overseas, suggesting Keane will have to reinvent himself as a teacher, a boss who focuses on coaching and man-management rather than squad refreshment. This could be a real positive for the club and indeed for Keane himself. Like it or not, European bosses are graded on two factors - their deftness in the transfer market and their ability to get the most from their charges. If he can firmly prove his credentials as a man-manager, his stock will rise again.

Victory CEO Gary Cole must balance Roy's pros and cons very carefully before committing to the Irishman. As much as Keane is running out of legitimate management chances, it's not like he needs this to work - should the team fail with him in charge, he can discredit the A-League as a "bush-league" and walk away. For a man with his reputation, there will always be more chances, but as his magical 06-07 with Sunderland fades into the background, they are likely to be in locations more and more remote. Take for example Tony Adams, currently rippin' it up in Azerbaijan. The A-League would be happy with one season, the Victory with two.

Ultimately, should Keane and the Victory come to an arrangement which sees him lead the club, it must be taken with a grain of salt. Roy Keane is in this for one reason - the finance and time to overhaul his coaching image - and that's OK. That's no different to any other coaches. But his reputation comes at such a heavy financial cost that it must be labelled a gamble. Questions remain as to whether the A-League's financial climate is suited to such an expensive roll of the dice.

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