After well over a week of negotiations Roy Keane has rejected the chance to make an emotional return to Sunderland.
On Wednesday executives at the Stadium of Light had been cautiously optimistic that Keane would be in charge for the League One game at AFC Wimbledon on Saturday but by Thursday it became clear that contractual difficulties could not be ironed out.
With their first choice having opted to remain in his role as a television pundit and the team in disarray after losing their past three league games, Sunderland reconsidered the other names on their shortlist and are in advanced talks with the former Norwich and Preston manager Alex Neil.
Keane, Neil, Grant McCann and Sabri Lamouchi had second interviews for a post vacant since Lee Johnson’s sacking just under two weeks ago in the wake of a 6-0 thrashing at Bolton. Neil, who left Preston just under a year ago and has also managed in Scotland with Hamilton, was preferred to McCann.
Many Sunderland fans were dismayed by Keane’s decision not to make an evocative comeback at the club he managed from 2006-08. Back then the former Manchester United midfielder galvanised Sunderland, winning promotion to the Premier League and keeping the team in it before falling out with the then owner, Ellis Short.
While working for ITV as part of its coverage of the FA Cup tie between Manchester United and Middlesbrough last Friday Keane made clear he was attracted by the idea of returning the frontline. “I’d like to go back in as a manager,” he said. “But of course a club has to want you and you have to want to go to the club. And, just as importantly, the contract has to be right.”
Despite his enduring affection for Sunderland – a club he has told friends he would consider managing even if they dropped out of the Football League – and popularity on Wearside, Keane would have been a high-risk appointment. The 50-year-old has not worked as a manager since his sacking by Ipswich in 2011 and is an established football analyst with ITV and Sky Sports.
Admittedly there have been coaching roles with the Republic of Ireland and, more briefly, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest but Keane has been employed solely in television since 2019. Perhaps equally importantly, he signed a raft of experienced players including Dwight Yorke and Andy Reid during his Sunderland tenure but would have been expected to work with the largely young team nurtured by Johnson. Meanwhile there were concerns as to how a sometimes infamously contrary and volatile character might have coped when confronted by League One referees, pitches and club facilities.
Although Sunderland – who spoke to multiple managerial candidates after Johnson’s sacking – attracted a crowd of more than 38,000 for last Saturday’s home defeat to Doncaster, another loss, at Cheltenham, on Tuesday has seen them drop to fourth.
In less than a fortnight they have gone from being regarded as automatic promotion contenders to play-off challengers and are in desperate need of identifying the correct manager to end their four-season exile in League One.