Irish Examiner Sports Column, December 5 2008

December 5, 2008

Roy: what
it’s all about

ON the basis that any newspaper article
benefits from an
infusion of sub-Saharan creation myth, we thought we’d give the place a bit of a shake-up this morning.

Any of you familiar with the work of Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s magazine, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, etc) will know where the title of his latest novel comes from. What Is The What? tells the story of Sudanese teenagers who,
displaced by the civil war in their own country, travel to the United States, bringing their creation myth with them.

According to Sudanese tribes, mankind was originally offered a choice of two gifts by God — the Cow or the What. The Cow was a practical and useful gift, while the What was mysterious and unknown. A gamble.

Man chose the Cow, but ever since he has been tortured by the obvious question: what is the What, and if he’d left the cow behind and chosen that instead, then what would have happened?

This morning the good people of Sunderland are in a position to answer that question. When the club was foundering in the Championship back in August 2006 they had two options — to cast around for one of the
identikit second-tier British managers (the Cow, for our purposes) or to step outside the box — well outside the box, let’s be honest — and make an imaginative appointment. The What, if you like.

That they did. When the Deal They Said Couldn’t Be Done was brokered, we had the extraordinary sight of Roy Keane and Niall Quinn joining forces to try to save Sunderland. It was successful at first — Keane turned the team around that season and drove them from the possibility of relegation to Division One all the way to the Premier League itself.

Sunderland survived the Premier League last year, but this term has been difficult from the start. Second-
season syndrome isn’t uncommon among clubs promoted to the top flight — Reading’s second-year slump is the classic example — but Sunderland’s 4-1 thumping by Bolton
Wanderers last weekend appears to have been the last straw.

Eggers’ novel features a scene with two of those Sudanese orphans hiding as they watch their village being destroyed by enemy troops: one of them points at the carnage and asks the other: “Do you think that is the What?”

A fair question, because that’s the risk you take with the What: nobody knows where it’ll take you.

Reasonable questions remain about Keane the manager. Purchases like El Hadji Diouf and Anthony Stokes don’t appear to have worked out, while a much-trumpeted keenness on off-field time-keeping didn’t translate into efficiency during games. The sheer bewildering variety of line-ups in red-and-white stripes suggested there was no first-choice XI either.

In addition, Keane’s readiness to deal with different topics at his weekly press conferences, while hugely entertaining, has also been instanced as evidence that his focus on management has been blurred. His longtime supporter, Eamon Dunphy, said the Black Cats boss was “pontificating on everything” and was “beginning to believe the Roy Keane mythology”. (Of course, given Dunphy’s role as mythologiser-in-chief… well, it’s fair to say a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a simple mind).

The immediate consequence of Keane’s departure for most observers will be a tidal wave of speculation, among the media and public, centring on the Cork man’s state of mind. Stand by for reams of opinion on Keane’s motivation, his thought process, his reasons for acting the way he has, his deep-seated hopes and fears — with 99% of that speculation based on foolproof clinical conditions.

Namely, observing Keane on Match of the Day, chewing his beard on the sideline of the Stadium of Light.

For nigh on 15 years, it’s been the most popular parlour game in Ireland, with everybody feeling a spurious entitlement to state their five cents’ worth on the Keane mentality. Those views range from boozy opinion to pseudo-academic justification, with stops at every intermediate station.

Now, with Keane gone from the public eye for the foreseeable future, armchair psychologists will be bereft. Even as the economy plummets and we face a future of brown-outs and busted pensions, it looks like the last free entertainment has gone west.

A bleak outlook, but they were still right to go for the What.



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