Roy Keane has emerged as Sunderland’s first choice to fill their managerial vacancy and could be set to make an emotional return to the Stadium of Light. Keane, who managed Sunderland from 2006 to 2008, looks likely to be offered the manager’s job at the League One club after they sacked Lee Johnson on Sunday.
The former Manchester United midfielder led Sunderland into the Premier League in 2007 and kept them in the top flight before resigning following a disagreement with the former owner, Ellis Short.
Although he subsequently assisted Martin O’Neill in coaching the Republic of Ireland, Keane has not been a club manager since his sacking by Ipswich in 2011. However the 50-year-old feels he has unfinished business at Sunderland and retains a deep affection for the club.
Now he must decide whether to relinquish his role as an acerbic pundit with Sky Sports and ITV in order to return to the dugout, possibly in time for a third-tier match at home to Doncaster on Saturday.
The prospect of Keane making a comeback more than 13 years after walking out on Sunderland would be guaranteed to fill the Stadium of Light to its near 50,000 capacity.
How the infamously prickly former Manchester United captain might find working alongside Kristjaan Speakman, Sunderland’s sporting director, in the mud-on-boots environs of League One is anyone’s guess. But Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, Sunderland’s 25-year-old billionaire owner, wants to try.
Louis-Dreyfus is determined to restore a club already capable of attracting 30,000-plus gates in League One to the Premier League but first he must find a manager to end their four-year stay in the third tier, preferably by securing automatic promotion. After talks with Keane in the last 48 hours proved positive there is a sense he may have identified the right man to breathe new life into Sunderland.
Although the team are currently third in the table, Johnson was sacked on Sunday in the wake of a 6-0 defeat at Bolton 24 hours earlier. Louis-Dreyfus has said he has received applications from “all over the world” but seems minded to tempt Keane by offering him an initial short-term deal until the end of the season which would leave open the option of returning to television should things not work out as planned.
If Keane decides against such an experiment and opts to remain in the studio, Louis-Dreyfus has strong backup options, most notably the former Middlesbrough managers Neil Warnock and Jonathan Woodgate, and Grant McCann, recently dismissed by Hull. Sunderland were impressed by McCann’s achievement in leading the Yorkshire team out of League One last season.
Woodgate, too, did well as as caretaker manager at Championship Bournemouth last season and the former England defender has the added advantage of a friendship with Sunderland’s returning striker Jermaine Defoe.
The 39-year-old Defoe re-signed for Sunderland from Rangers on transfer deadline day and would enjoy working with Woodgate as the team endeavour to secure promotion to the Championship.
While Keane ponders what would represent a sensational return to this former habitat, a coaching team lead by Mike Dodds has been placed in temporary charge at the Stadium of Light.