Championship analysis

Following in the footsteps of McCarthy

April 30, 2009
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

''I didn't rate you as a player, I don't rate you as a manager, and I don't rate you as a person.''

It is just as well Roy Keane has returned to football. He was never likely to find employment in the diplomatic service. Typically, he did not sneak back unnoticed. In one afternoon, Ipswich's new manager brought the club more publicity outside Suffolk than they had received in years.

GettyImagesMick McCarthy and Roy Keane have previous

Ever the perfectionist, Keane's stringent definition of managerial success seemed to exclude his former Manchester United team-mates. His opinions of Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes, however, were still more complimentary than the infamous outburst towards Mick McCarthy that precluded his participation in the 2002 World Cup.

Now, for the second time, his task is to prove McCarthy's successor. Excluding Kevin Ball's temporary regime, Keane replaced his old adversary at the Stadium of Light and, like the elder man, took Sunderland up to the Premier League. With Wolves winning the Championship this season, Keane's self-imposed demand - though he has a two-year contract - will be to follow them as the division's finest team.

He has already replaced his former foe as the Championship's most charismatic and quotable manager. While, from bobbins to diddlysquat, McCarthy has a vocabulary all of his own, Keane's searing honesty is both unnerving and unforgettable. The Wolves boss has a preference for eloquent bluntness though, combative central defender as he was, he lacks the Ipswich manager's aura.

If the Ipswich team reported on time and performed with renewed determination in Keane's first match - a 3-0 win at Cardiff - it is scarcely surprising. He retains a fear factor. That, coupled with frantic trading, helped transform Sunderland.

It will be instructive if a revolving door has been fitted at Portman Road, traditionally such a tranquil place, because 13 of Keane's new charges are out of contract in the summer. He began by giving one player - Jaime Peters - a first start in a year and another - Matt Richards - a first in two.

Jim Magilton has bequeathed him a squad that contains a sizeable contingent of fine players, but too few who could be regarded among the best in the division in their position. The initial focus, understandably, was on Jon Stead and Tommy Miller, who both departed the Stadium of Light during Keane's time there. In Richard Wright, Gareth McAuley, Owen Garvan and Stead, however, there is a respectable spine to the side.

Succeed or fail, the players are doomed to operate in Keane's considerable shadow. It can obscure the achievements of others. Outside the clubs where he has maximised meagre resources and the division where he has managed marvellously, it is McCarthy's misfortune that he is best known for infuriating Keane and overseeing a Sunderland side who were, before Derby contrived to surpass them, the worst the Premier League had ever seen.

Such a one-dimensional portrayal is unfair. McCarthy has proved he is an outstanding manager at Championship level. His may be old-fashioned attributes - forging a team spirit, trawling the lower league for bargains and possessing a thorough knowledge of opponents - but they have been equally valuable at Sunderland and Wolves. While the owner, Steve Morgan, made his millions in the building trade, McCarthy has constructed his side comparatively cheaply.

Wolves recorded a transfer-market profit last summer and their manager's flagship signing, Michael Kightly, cost a mere £25,000 from Grays Athletic. In that context, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, twice the Championship's top scorer, seems expensive, but his return of 37 goals in 60 games has produced a dramatic change in Wolves; once a team noted for their goalkeeper (Wayne Hennessey), they are now known more for their premier goalscorer.

If signing the division's most prolific forward sounds the simplest step for promotion, following the rest of McCarthy's template could prove a novel experience for Keane.

GettyImagesKeane is targeting promotion within two seasons

The Wolves players' CVs - containing Gillingham, Scunthorpe, Luton, Colchester and Grays Athletic - read like a wonderful week's holiday for a particularly dedicated ground-hopper. Yet, aided by McCarthy's ability to identify potential, Wolves have formed the division's best side. Swansea and Burnley may have displayed a greater devotion to a short passing game, but Wolves offered width - courtesy of Kightly and Matt Jarvis - and scored frequently, through Ebanks-Blake and Chris Iwelumo. In contrast, Birmingham, with greater pedigree and a far higher wage bill, have laboured on in uninspired fashion.

All of which could be forgotten in four months time, should Blues join Wolves in the top flight. Elevation can backfire. McCarthy's exit from Sunderland was a direct consequence of earning promotion for a team composed of undistinguished but industrious individuals. Players such as Stephen Wright, Chris Brown, Stephen Elliott, Stephen Caldwell, Kevin Kyle and Carl Robinson all contributed, but that did not equip them for survival.

How many of McCarthy's current charges, the majority of whom qualify as bargains for the second tier, could prosper as Premier League players? Kightly, Ebanks-Blake and Hennessey, without doubt. Probably Kevin Foley and, given his ability, Richard Stearman.

Maybe Jarvis and Karl Henry but definitely not some of their colleagues, from whom McCarthy has conjured fine seasons. Now, for a second time, the perils of promotion may be illustrated, and his standing could suffer in the eyes of those who rarely witness football outside the top flight.

Because judgments tend to be made on the basis of performances in the Premier League, as Keane's comments last week show. There is no doubt his long-term objectives extend beyond the Championship. Success, Keane-style, means more than finishing ahead of Plymouth and Doncaster in 12 months' time. But in the short term, he could do worse than emulate McCarthy.