Keane follows in Fergie's footsteps

Roy Keane was once described by the man who employed him as the causer of "great controversy in Irish society." But having witnessed Keane's unique captaincy of Manchester United and Republic of Ireland, a leadership driven by an unwavering desire to succeed and fronted by the most ferocious of glares, Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn had no qualms about handing the former midfielder his first managerial role in August 2006.

Then, the Wearsiders were second-bottom of the English second tier. Keane, however, swiftly imposed his will on the side and at the end of his maiden season in the dugout they were celebrating the Championship title.

Regardless, few predicted Sunderland would achieve Premier League survival going into the 2007/08 season. They had, after all, failed in their two previous attempts to remain among the elite, recording a record-low points return of 19 in 2003 and going four points worse three years later.

But with just five rounds remaining this term, Sunderland, in 13th, are on the cusp of preserving their Premier League status. Ten points clear of the drop zone, they could even realise their pre-season objective this weekend if they beat Manchester City and other results go their way.

We're not safe yet, we need to get over the finishing line
Roy Keane dismisses talk that Sunderland are already safe

Keane is, nevertheless, leaving nothing to chance. " ," he warned, urging his charges to make it four wins on the bounce at the Stadium of Light.

Fighting spirit
Although Sunderland revelled in a dream return to the Premier League - an injury-time goal from substitute Michael Chopra snatching them a 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur - they were quickly reintroduced to the rigours of the English top-flight. A mere 11 points in their ensuing 18 matches left them second-bottom on Boxing Day, seemingly destined to slide through a familiar trap door.

But Keane, a promising boxer in his youth, has always been loathe to the thought of surrender, as consistently evidenced during his days at Manchester United, especially on one unforgettable night in Turin. Then, in a 1998/99 UEFA Champions League semi-final, Sir Alex Ferguson's side trailed Juventus by two goals.

Keane, unfazed, played like a man possessed, scoring his side's first and performing heroically throughout, despite a booking that ultimately ruled him out of the final, as United roared to a 4-3 aggregate win. "It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field," said Ferguson of his skipper. "Pounding over every blade of grass, competing if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him."

This innate never-say-die attitude was infectious in the Sunderland dressing room and, with Craig Gordon and Kenwyne Jones starring, four victories from their next seven outings hauled their noses above water, before their current three-game winning powered them clear of danger.

If we don't finish the season well, it'll spoil my summer. We need to finish the season strongly, look at the teams ahead of us and try to catch them
Roy Keane insists that beating the drop is not his only goal this season

And while, principally, Keane is determined to ensure his team's survival, the 36-year-old's ambitions for the season do not end there. "We're in no position to chill out and enjoy a holiday before we're entitled to it," he said. " ."

Tenth-placed West Ham United are eight points above Sunderland, who will also be eager to secure local bragging rights by finishing as the north-east's highest club. It is a testament to Keane that, sandwiched between regional rivals Newcastle United and Middlesbrough, they are in with a chance of this.

"Roy is a fantastic manager," said Quinn. "He has instilled belief here. When there is belief in the air, you have a chance and Roy is largely responsible for that. He is so compelling, so driven and the fans respect that. He's box office."

There's no point saying it's not going to happen - somebody will try to take Roy from us at some point
Niall Quinn accepts the big clubs will be eyeing up Roy Keane

Inevitably, Keane's impressive adaptation to management has led to rumours that he will succeed his former boss Ferguson when he vacates the Old Trafford hot-seat. "There will be top clubs who have looked at what is happening at Sunderland. ," Quinn admitted recently.

Sunderland will initiate contract talks aimed at getting Keane to commit his future to the club over the summer. Wherever that future takes him, it appears to be a very bright one.