Van Nistelrooy and Keane

What on earth’s happened to Ruud van Nistelrooy? And can Keane make it as a manager? Can these two be discussed without a charge through the tall grass of cliche? (No, to the last at least).

These are days when a move to Real Madrid can tell a tale of retreat and defeat. Ruud’s there now, doing well, scoring goals and challenging Ronaldo for a starting spot. Keane might have been there with him, had things gone a little differently amid the Christmas chaos at Manchester United. The two men are close, and one suspects that Ruud saw Keane’s ejection in the same light as Beckham’s, as a kind of little suicide.

It’s easy to forget just how little Ruud won at Manchester United. One Premiership title, one FA Cup, one Community Shield. When he joined, United were a side who won the league most years, had had two doubles and a treble (despite the end of the drinking culture of the Atkinson years) and were strengthening further. What followed must have been a very substantial disappointment.

Ruud, like Keane, is not a celebrity footballer. I’d say he’s not a “bling” player, but I refuse to use the word “bling” on this site. His attitude to training is Beckham’s: his attitude to lifestyle Paul Scholes’s. Scoring goals and achieving success is his sole purpose beyond his family, and it’s something he has pursued singlemindedly. He has succeeded completely, insofar as he has done all that could be expected of him in his position on the field, scoring goals regularly whatever else might have been going on behind him. He knows his goals can do a great deal to bring trophies back to his club, and therefore wants matters to be arranged so that he can score as often as possible. His career at Manchester United has been a story of the opposite happening. The great midfield that provided him with so many scoring opportunities in his first two seasons crumbled or was pointlessly dismantled. We know that Beckham’s departure was a particularly sore point with him.

Ruud has already suffered one career-threatening injury, and ever since has been a man in a hurry, eager to collect medals and honors before some other misfortune can overtake him and take his chance away. How he’d have loved being five years older, and arriving at Manchester United in 1995 or 1996. Imagine all of those 1990s Champions League semi finals and quarter finals, with Ruud there instead of Andy Cole… Cole was – is – a fine player, but no Ruud. And Cole played with men at their peak, a peak of determination as well as energy and skill. Ruud, by contrast, saw Manchester United turn from a hungry young club into the footballing equivalent of a steam preservation railway.

Imagine starting out with Beckham, Keane, and Scholes behind you, and ending up with Ronaldo, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher. Imagine knowing just how good you are, and how, if the team can only play to your strengths, the Arsenals, Chelseas, Barcelonas and Madrids can be beaten. Imagine knowing that that just isn’t happening, and time is running short on you. Perhaps you too would become impatient with your wealthy young colleagues who simply aren’t up to your ambitions.

I suspect Ruud’s departure from the international scene has a different backdrop to it. He’s still the best Dutch striker – having seen off Patrick Kluivert through singlemindedness. Ruud, like Keane, won’t respond to a bad coach. Van Basten might not be a bad coach, but the straightforward facts of the matter are that he has little right to be in his job. After retiring early through injury, Van Basten showed no further interest in coaching or in the game, and one suspects that his surprise appointment as national coach was made in the same spirit as Keegan’s for England. When Van Basten got the Dutch job, Germany had just appointed Jurgen Klinsmann, and the feeling was that this was the former great powers of European football appointing their old heroes in the hope that they could inspire their sides. But Klinsmann was no celebrity appointment: he’d spent his retirement qualifying as a coach, researching the problems of leadership, teambuilding, dealing with stars, tactics.. and he brought with him such a raft of new ideas that it took his young side a long time to acclimatise to his demands. When they did, that talentless team overperformed to an absolutely astonishing degree, and although they fell short of the World Cup itself, they fulfilled every last drop of their own potential. That can’t be said for the Dutch. And I expect Ruud made his feelings clear.

Unless he can win with Madrid, where, of course, he’s reunited with Beckham, then Ruud will end his career having been a constant victim of bad timing. Like George Best, he’ll have spent his peak years in teams unworthy of his talent and unable to use it, and his trophy cabinet will be unfairly sparse. Such an intelligent, determined and unmoneyminded man may then find himself, like that other frustrated centre forward, Alex Ferguson, in a management role. Where his friend Roy Keane looks to have gone before him.

If the rumours are true, and Keane really is going to become Sunderland manager, the obvious question is, will he succeed?

I think the answer has to be “no”. All of the precedents point towards failure.

Successful managers all start at small clubs. I can think of only one exception in the post-War era – Matt Busby, at Manchester United, although United were a bombed-out ruin when he arrived there in 1945. Sunderland are not small enough. Successful managers start at small clubs who are then taken by the scruff of the neck by their hugely ambitious new staff member. Sunderland’s view of themselves as deserving to be in the Premiership because of their history and status is dangerous for a new coach. They need someone mediocre to hold the line for a year or two, before bringing in the firebrand and going for promotion. They need a Trevor Francis figure, but they’ve gone directly for a Steve Bruce. It’s the wrong time.

Successful managers always organise things so that they have their own way, so that they can act essentially as autocrats. That’s why they usually revive unfashionable, ailing clubs. I note that Martin O’Neill turned down Sunderland in favour of a far more desperate club, Aston Villa. Villa will do almost anything he asks – they’ll get out of his way. Sunderland aren’t quite humble enough yet – Niall Quinn has his own ideas, albeit boardroom ones.

It’s the wrong club, at the wrong time, in the wrong situation. Keane needs a Burton Albion, not a club that calls their ground “The Stadium of Light”. But is he the wrong man?

That’s far more interesting, and very hard to predict.

Keane has strong views on management – his autobiography is full of reflections about the various coaches he’s worked with, and about the things that worked, the things that didn’t. He keeps coming back to one factor that he has recognised that is there in the make up of all great managers – strong attention to detail. That Keane is even aware of that puts him in good stead – many managers are essentially lazy in this respect (the core of his surgical rant against Mick McCarthy). And he’s not going to be one of those managers who, like Keegan, try to be friends with their players. Again, he sees the distance betweeen manager and players as essential, and has noticed that in the specific context of management.

There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of days about Keane’s insatiable will to win, and how that might “inspire” his players were he to become a manager. That’s psychobabble, coming from the very typewriters that are so eager to pin the title onto others, others who’ve done more thinking on the issue than the typewriters could possibly imagine. In the classic, clanging phrase, managers have to know when to put an arm around a player, and when to kick him up the backside. In practice, they have to be able to recognise how individuals different from themselves and with different priorities from each other tick, and must know how to behave effectively in accordance with that. That combination of talents – instinctive psychologist, consummate actor and purveyor of pretend consistency – is rare in any walk of life.

If Keane has it, there’s been relatively little sign of it so far. The people who walk in and out of his autobiography are analysed purely on Keane’s terms and according to his values. That may simply be a matter of context. A playing career doesn’t generally use many of the talents called for in managers, and they may simply be lying dormant. Where they aren’t dormant, because they simply aren’t there, the results can be good for a while. Graham Souness ticks every box in the British journalist’s book of good managers: he’s passionate, unimpressed by reputations, he has an astonishing will to win, he’s active on the touchline, he hates what I’d call “bling” footballers were I to use the word, and he has the medals necessary to gain his players’ respect.

My gut instinct about Keane, my hunch, is that he is more Ferguson than Souness. It’s a hunch laden with misgivings – because I think taking on Sunderland would be the first major misjudgement of a new managerial career. If he does bring it off, I’ll be delighted to have been wrong. But even with Brian Kidd at his side, there’s nothing to suggest that he will. He’ll do well in future, even if he turns out not to be the next Stein. Just not this time.

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2 responses to “Van Nistelrooy and Keane

  1. I am still puzzled by the Nistelrooy saga. The way United have been scoring without him – as they did a couple of seasons ago when he was absent – suggests, albeit faintly, that the team might work better without a target man, especially if they don’t have a Beckham to target him, so it might not have been an altogether irrational move to let him go and find a couple of good midfielders instead.

    But that’s not quite the point.

    I very much liked Nistelrooy as a player and thought well of his character, especially in light of his serious injury before he joined United. I was all the more surprised then by the keen hostility shown to him by Arsenal players such as Vieira. There was clearly something else going on there, something beyond a mere common or garden dive or two. He had riled them in some other way.

    I have been wondering whether that hostility was related to the problems he has recently had with both Ferguson and van Basten. (I have more faith in Ferguson than I think you have.)

    No idea what the root of that hostility might be, but it seems less to do with football than with an aspect of personality – things said, things done off field, that led to a total fouling of two nests in quick succession. To lose one manager may be a misfortune, to lose two like that looks like what Lady Bracknell said: carelessness.

  2. fot all that in depth analysis of Keane and Sunderland, you were wrong. I do not blame you though, you just can never predict what will happen in the beautiful world of football!