This will be the real litmus test for manager Keane
SIDELINE CUT:With the money available, it is not inconceivable Keane can work his own magic with the club. He won’t be shy about hauling himself over the coals if he fails
SPARE A thought for Jim Magilton. Back when Ipswich Town were last a fashionable club, John Wark wore a handlebar moustache and the famous catchphrase in football was, “It’s a funny old game, Saint”. But Greavsie knew it never was and never would be.
Magilton’s quick and inglorious exit from Ipswich Town has been little more than a hastily mentioned aside in the excitement caused by Roy Keane’s characteristically abrupt and sensational return to football life. When Keane stepped into the Gaffer’s office at Portman Road, he might well have caught the lingering eau of Magilton’s aftershave – not to mention his crushing disappointment. It is not difficult to imagine Roy’s nostrils quivering keenly, a la Anthony Hopkins’ most famous creation, at the faintest hint of a foreign scent.
But the powerbrokers at Ipswich made sure the condemned man had already gone when Keane arrived. In the brutal fashion of modern football, the midfielder from the Wee Six had packed and disappeared overnight.
Magilton’s success rate this season was hardly disastrous, but with Ipswich the latest respectable, traditional club to be flooded with new money and ambition, he paid the price for not delivering the Tractor Boys to the bright lights of the Premier league. And you can bet it hurt, for Magilton was, after all, of Ipswich. He played out the last six years of a respectable career spent on the darker edges of football’s big stage and enjoyed arguably his finest football hour in blue, delivering a hat-trick against Bolton Wanderers back in 1999 that brought Ipswich to the play-offs.
He made the transition to management when he was still a player, and, if the investment of faith Ipswich showed in him was a gamble, it looked like a shrewd one, with Magilton managing the team to 14th in the Championship table in his first season and missing out by a single point on the cherished play-offs last year.
This year, however, the team did not make the transformation into promotional material and Magilton has paid the ultimate price.
In the excitement of the past 48 hours, Keane probably did not have time to dwell on the lonely exit his predecessor made. He would empathise, of course, having departed Sunderland in similarly sudden fashion – albeit after calling time on himself. Magilton had no such luxury, and with Ipswich’s last hopes of promotion already faded, the board took the decision to bump him off immediately rather than afford him the luxury – and dignity – of seeing out the season and then quietly going about the business of giving him the heave.
Instead, Keane comes in to survey the state of Magilton’s operation as the season runs its course, to decide which players are dispensable and to try to entice free agents to come and join him on Ipswich’s assault on the Championship next season.
For Magilton, there was, presumably, a handsome purse included with the paper cup of coffee and container of sandwiches to keep him going on the drive home. Still, given the scarcity of jobs in the top two flights of English football and the number of Gaffers on the hunt for work, it represents a huge setback.
And it seemed apt to consider Magilton’s unemployed status when listening to Keane’s opening address as Ipswich Town’s boss, when he dissected the theory that Manchester United’s old guard was producing a crop of good managers. Keane’s argument – that potential is all very well but that it would take a significant achievement before Steve Bruce or Mark Hughes or any of his pals from 15 years ago could be classed as “good managers” – made sense.
And it illustrated the conflict he faces in his bid to make it in a league where, for most clubs, significant achievement is not really an option. “Getting up” is an achievement.
“Staying up” – just surviving in the most lucrative and heavily promoted football league in the planet – is the yardstick by which most managers judge themselves. The reason men like Roy Hodgson and Big Sam Allardyce have been around for so long is that they are specialists in eking out the grim 1-1 draws and 2-1 home victories that keep clubs afloat. It is unlikely Keane can ever find peace of mind foraging around for mid-table respectability.
Immediately and as ever, the talk has been of going places and achieving things, of winning. He had the same dream at Sunderland until, as he hinted heavily on Thursday, interference with team affairs rendered the situation intolerable for him.
“Never do anything in your life you can’t walk away from in 30 seconds if you see heat around the corner,” Robert De Niro says in Heat. Keano followed that advice to the last in his leaving of Sunderland.
If Sunderland seemed a strange fit for Keane, then Ipswich suggests a pattern of being attracted to old-fashioned, traditional clubs in towns whose best football years seemed consigned to the past. Ever entertaining, the Cork man revealed he had been skiing for the first time during his first real break from football. But much as he enjoyed slaloming down Europe’s slopes, football would not let him be. And so he is set to become the saviour of Suffolk.
Portman Road used to be just another of those interminable provincial grounds Keane occasionally visited in his glittering career. Had he been told during those frenetic, roaring years when he captained Manchester United he would one day be sitting in the manager’s office there, he would surely have doubted it. Yet he is walking in some famous footsteps, not least those of Alf Ramsey, who left Ipswich to take charge of the England national team in the mid-1960s.
With the money available to Ipswich, it is not inconceivable Keane can work his own brand of magic with the club. He won’t be shy about hauling himself over the coals if he fails.
The appointment of Keane is a dream for Ipswich and for football in general: it will generate forgotten levels of excitement when next season approaches and will guarantee the kind of media attention that will make them the envy of many Premier League clubs.
It should be fun and nerve-racking for the players – although Tommy Miller may come to feel that the Cork man is stalking his career.
But for Keane himself, this is the litmus test of whether he wants prowl the sidelines and live the manager’s life. For all its rewards, it can be savage in its judgment, as Jim Magilton found out this week.