Sunderland face an uphill struggle – Roy Keane, success or failure?

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Sunderland have led something of a yo-yo existance over the past few years. Promotion to the Premier League with a record points total in 1999 was followed by two successful years in the top flight with consecutive 7th place finishes. The next season was less successful and relegation with a record low number of points followed in 2003. 2004 saw play-off failure, but promotion followed in 2005 as champions. Relegation with a new record low number of points came in the first season, but a Roy Keane inspired team bounced straight back last season as champions again.

For a long while it looked as though Keane would guide his side to mid-table and end this run of ups and downs. It looked as though he would establish Sunderland as a Premiership side. He still might do that, but it’s going to be mighty close.

A look at the bottom nine in the Premier League shows just how close it is. Sunderland are right in there and with a home game against Chelsea to come on Saturday things could look even worse after the weekend.

12 Middlesbrough 29 -17 30
13 Wigan 29 -16 28
14 Reading 29 -21 28
15 Newcastle 29 -26 28
16 Sunderland 29 -21 27
17 Birmingham 29 -12 26
18 Bolton 28 -14 25
19 Fulham 29 -23 20
20 Derby 29 -49 10

Roy Keane said last week that he fully expected the relegation battle to go to the last game of the season. Sunderland will playing Arsenal so I hope for his sake that he’s wrong!

The Black Cat’s last nine fixtures do not look easy at all;

Chelsea, West Ham, Manchester City, Middlesbrough, Arsenal.

Aston Villa, Fulham, Newcastle, Bolton.

In those games, only West Ham and Manchester City will potentially have nothing to play for. Chelsea, Arsenal and Villa will all have title/european ambitions and Middlesbrough, Fulham, Newcastle and Bolton are likely to be fighting for their lives. What worse place could Sunderland have to go to needing points other than their massive rivals Newcastle? Mind you, the opportunity for either side to put a nail in the coffin of the other will make that a local derby worth watching.

Sunderland have not won in their last three games including a trip to everybody’s whipping boys Derby County. The failure to win that game could come back to haunt them. In fact, Sunderland have taken just ten points from their last nine games. A repeat of that would give them 37 points. Would that be enough to survive?

Sunderland have not performed well enough in the twelve games they have played so far against the other teams in the bottom nine. Although they have only been beaten three times, they have only managed four victories in those games. A total of 17 points from those 12 games at an average of 1.4 points per game is not enough to stay up. In the four more games they have against teams at the bottom, 5 or 6 points are unlikely to guarantee survival.

With a poor run of form and the looming prospect of yet another relegation I scoured the fans forums and websites expecting to find pessimistic and angry Sunderland fans. The first thing I found was that the Fans Forum on the official club website has been shut down. ‘A ha’ I thought, the criticism of the manager and the team must be getting too much.

I was very wrong. It is difficult to find a single dissenting voice aganst Keano. The fans seem to be fully behind the team and the manager. Even attempts at criticism don’t appear to find much support.

When Watford were in the Premier League last season I got heartily fed up of hearing ‘how unlucky’ we were in so many games that we lost by the odd goal. Roy Keane is beginning to sound like the same broken record that Aidy Boothroyd did last season. At least Keano recognises the fact.

So is Roy Keane the manager living up to the reputation and magnificent standards he set as Roy Keane the player?

That would always be difficult to achieve;

“He has been one of their greatest players and one of the greatest captains the game has seen. I have massive respect for Roy Keane. He was tough, he was hard but I loved our rivalry. I have a big respect for him as a player.” – Patrick Vieira.

“Roy Keane is Damien, the devil incarnate of the film The Omen. He’s evil. Even in training.” – Ryan Giggs

“Manchester United were a different side when he was in the team. Coming up against him was awesome. Everything he did seemed to come so easily to him. When you speak to fellow professionals about Keane they hold him in the most incredible regard. He was a pure winner.” – Kevin Nolan, Bolton Wanderers captain.

Well, Roy Keane couldn’t have started any better than he did. Taking Sunderland out of the relegation zone and leading them to the Championship title in his first season was a spectacular beginning to his managerial career. He wasn’t afraid to bring in new faces, and in August 2006 he immediately signed six new players. He added a further five more in the January transfer window.

Interestingly, only two of those eleven new players were in the starting line-up against Everton last Saturday. Carlos Edwards would almost certainly have made it three if he wasn’t injured. (Good news for Black Cats fans is that Edwards came through a reserve game last night.)

On winning promotion, Keano brought in another twelve new players, spending £35 Million. As an outsider, I would question whether Sundeland have performed well enough, having spent that sort of money?

As a manager Kean has shown the same ruthless streak as he did as a player. Three players late for the team bus were simply left behind, and Liam Miller was transfer listed because he was regularly late for training.

He has made Sunderland a hard side to beat. They have only lost 16 of the 85 games he has taken charge of, but a remarkable 35 of those have been drawn. Although Kenwynne Jones has looked to be a decent signing, Keane hasn’t managed to fashion a side where goals are easily come by. He has bought Jones, Michael Chopra, David Connelly and Ross Wallace. The five goals from Jones, three from Chopra, two from Ross Wallace and none from Connolly tell a sorry tale. Between them that amounts to ten goals in sixty-two appearances.

So I would say that ‘the jury is still out’ on whether Roy Keane is being successful. Having made a total of twenty-three new signings and spent £35 million, I would have expected the Sunderland fans to have wanted more. Perhaps they have been numbed by the previous relegations and expected the worse?

Keano does not look to have bought well, and he is going to need every single last piece of his will to win and motivational skills to keep the Black Cats up. I’m surprised that I can’t find a Sunderland fan to say a bad word about him.

Mind you, nor would I… to his face!

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