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Hair today, off the next

Observations on football ... and facial hair

So, it came down to the facial hair. With the benefit of hindsight, we should have seen Roy Keane’s impending departure as Sunderland manager in his face. Or, rather, in his beard. There is a general consensus that the unruly growth engulfing Keano’s chin, giving him the look of an old seadog, was the sign of a man losing control of his team and who was retreating into a mental hinterland. Although three points in nine games and a transfer policy that looked like a drop-in centre for troublesome teenagers were also fairly good indicators.

Did the beard talk? For whatever reason – hygiene, presentation, hidden razor clauses in their contracts – football managers do not do face furniture. Presumably they like to be clean-shaven because the language barriers at a club are difficult enough these days without a winter warmer muffling half your expletives. Beards do suggest a certain amount of personal crisis: take Rafa Benítez’s goatee experiment, which emerged last year around the time of the Liverpool manager’s great stress over his good friends Gillett, Hicks and Parry. Certainly, that Keane’s effort seemed whiter every week Sunderland lost might be put down to the strains of the job, even though it could look more as if he’d sneezed near some icing sugar.

In reality, the Ancient Mariner look – for which he already, fortuitously, had the requisite “glittering eye” – was not a metaphor, just another example of how Keane loves to be obstinate to the point of perversity. Last month he told the press he would get it shaved “when we win”, adding: “The more people ask me about it, the longer it stays. Ask me to leave it and I’ll shave it off.” After all, it’s hardly the maddest thing he has offered the public.

And in that sense, the pundits have overlooked the biggest clue – what this means for Keane’s future. It was all there when Niall Quinn talked of the end of Roy’s “journey” with the club. There’s only one realm where a “journey” is high currency, and Roy has all the credentials: wilful stubbornness, redemptive backstory, explosive temper, and the fearlessness to tell pampered, overpaid superstars what he really thinks of them. He’s a reality TV star in the making; a future King of the Jungle. And the ability to grow an extraordinary beard won’t hurt either.

Emma John is a sports journalist and deputy editor of Observer Sport Monthly magazine. She writes on the arts for The Guardian and is a former Time Out theatre critic.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech