Roy Keene: Great player, charismatic but vulnerable leader


Roy Keene walks out as manager at Sunderland. It was always a possibility that the dream would end that way

‘Told you he would, didn’t I? ’

Hindsight is great isn’t it? But I didn’t write that prediction about the rise and fall of Roy Keene as a football manager. If I had misgivings over the last two years, they were based on the earlier cases of Kevin Keegan, and to some extent of that of Kenny Dalglish. The points of similarity are the vulnerability of each of these three great footballers in face of subsequent leadership challenges.

The differences

Let’s get the differences out of the way first. Keegan and Keene score highly on the charismatic stakes. Kenny was magical on the pitch, but far from charismatic in public appearances off it. Keene was regarded at Old Trafford as one of the most inspirational of team leaders. A violent edge to his game was largely accepted, perhaps on the grounds that ‘it’s what makes him the great player his is’. Keegan and Dalglish were also highly rated international players. It would probably be agreed that on important dimensions of courage and skill, all three would be up there among the best players of their time.

Each had a footballing reputation which went before them, in a positive way, as they began their managerial careers.

But temperamentally, all three were volatile and prone to radical actions. Keegan had form for walking away before he left Newcastle recently. Dalglish, almost certainly deeply affected by the Hillsborough disaster abruptly resigned from Liverpool. Subsequent involvement and departures from football suggested a similar volatility.

Then there’s Roy

Then there’s Roy, bristling with an aggression that prompted comments on his dark and frightening presence in the stands, a smouldering appearance suggesting a violent way of dealing with problems.

One of his most famous outbursts was against the hapless Mick McCarthy who had the unenviable task of managing Ireland when Keene was team captain. Keene had serious problems over training conditions for the team

The dressing room battle

The expurgated version of the dressing room explosion [courtesy of reliable sources you can find through Googling Wikipedia] goes something like

Mick, you’re a liar… you’re a ******* *******. 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. You’re a ******* *******. and you can stick your World Cup up your ****. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country! You can stick it up your ********

Keene quits the squad. Irish Fans mostly supported Keene. McCarthy’s days were numbered without a great World Cup performance by the Irish team.

Another figure who earned Keene’s wrath at the time was the would-be peace maker Niall Quinn, who was to figure significantly in the story subsequently.

Even as a player, Roy was an iconic figure, already talked about as an inspirational (if difficult) leader.

One man who weighed up his potential was Niall Quinn, who had moved on to success as a football entrepreneur, before hitting problems at Sunderland. In a remarkable act of leadership he set out to get someone who could deal with a club in near criis. Someone who remained implacable and dismissive about Quinn ever since the McCarthy fracas.

Quinn got his man, and proceeded to build bridges with his volatile rescuer, who at the time was largely untested as a manager. Keene seemed aware of the risks of the situation, and on accepting the job at Sunderland stated that he had learned from his mistakes in the past, although he still had a lot to learn…

What happened to Sundrland through Keene’s intervention will make for interesting reading when it comes out with some ghostly help from the story tellers.

To the football public, Keene worked his charismatic magic on the players. As Quinn told the BBC this week

Roy deserves huge respect for his contribution and the manner in which he guided the club from the depths of the Championship back to the Premier League. His winning mentality and singled mindedness were just what this club needed. Even in his departure he has been more concerned for the welfare of the players and his staff than himself. The board has reluctantly accepted his decision and wish him and his family well for the future.

Leadership Lessons

A gripping story raising important leadership questions. Can some general conclusions be drawn about the decision to bring a charismatic figure in to a football club in near crisis? What credence can be placed on the documented evidence that charismatics are more likely to be accepted in such times, and are able to mobilize the fears of others to achieve radical short-term actions?

How should we assess the leadership contributions of Naill Quinn, the quiet but influential figure who influenced Keene to form an alliance with someone Keene claimed to despise? This was, it seems, a calculated risk on the part of Quinn. A risk which was worth taking as a fix for the short-term crisis. His valedictory comments this week suggest he had foreseen the eventual outcome of the drama which he had helped come about.

One Response to Roy Keene: Great player, charismatic but vulnerable leader

  1. Tudor says:

    Keene hits headlines this week [April 23rd 2009] as he takes over at Ipswich Town. I don’y know much about the tractor boys but will probably learn a bit more as I keep an eye on what happens for my cases of charismatic leaders.

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