Keane extols virtues of short-term thinking
Sunderland 3 Middlesbrough 2
There was neither a sense of relief nor a feeling of disbelief as Roy Keane's cold eyes carefully studied his copy of Saturday evening's Premier League table. In fact there was nothing.
For a manager who had just guided one of England's least stable clubs towards a second successive season of top-flight football there was no flicker of pride and no desire to celebrate. For Keane, a revealing league table confirmed one thing and one thing only; Sunderland are not where he wants them to be.
It is unlikely an individual famously indifferent to contracts will take the time to study any new deal quite so carefully and yet this is the biggest challenge facing chairman Niall Quinn and his board between now and next season. Securing safety was the easy part. Securing the long-term services of Keane could prove far more difficult.
With one year remaining on his existing agreement there is no need to panic, but until that extension is signed Wearside will not rest easy. "I can't guarantee anything," said Keane, with refreshing honesty.
"But if I've said it once, if I've said it 10 million times, I'm very, very happy here. If you have to sign a contract to confirm that then that's not my cup of tea. But I can understand the club's point of view because they're looking for stability. If I'm asking for a few bob to spend this summer they maybe want that commitment. If the contract is right we'll have a look at it. If not, I've got another year left anyway.
"Is it important for me to be signing contracts when I know there is that full support in terms of are we going to go to the next level? If not, there are obviously question marks."
Of course certain question marks remain over Keane's ability to manage a Premier League club but a performance oozing passion and determination against a Middlesbrough team fighting for its own top-flight future went some way towards silencing the critics. For the second successive week Sunderland found themselves trailing a North-east derby after just four minutes, the Turkey forward Tuncay Sanli finishing with aplomb.
However, the home team hit back immediately through Danny Higginbotham and when Michael Chopra capped a mighty performance with a goal on the stroke of half-time, a 2-1 interval lead was what Keane's players deserved.
Nerves set in 17 minutes from time when Middlesbrough's Brazilian forward, Afonso Alves, prodded home a deflected equaliser but substitute Daryl Murphy headed in the winner deep into injury time.
"We are not safe," said Middlesbrough's Julio Arca, in the wake of a defeat which keeps the Teessiders in the thick of the relegation mix. "We need to win against Portsmouth next Saturday. We can't worry about everyone else. This is the point where we have to show how strong we are."
Keane has never lacked strength and he will stay firm in the face of mounting pressure to commit his future to Sunderland. "I would tell supporters who might be slightly worried to chill out," he added. "Niall knows the score with me. He knows I'm quite happy to let my contract run out. I did that as a player many a time because I wanted to wait and see what the club is doing.
"If a contract is put to me next week, with certain assurances, I'd take a look. Another three-year deal would be appealing. I'd sign three now. Three years keeps me on my toes, without a doubt. But as things stand it could all go pear-shaped next year, I could get sacked and they wouldn't have to pay me too much. If I had a five-year deal they'd have to get me a big wheelbarrow!"
Goals: Tuncay (4) 0-1; Higginbotham (6) 1-1; Chopra (45) 2-1; Alves (73) 2-2; Murphy (90) 3-2.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Whitehead, Nosworthy, Higginbotham, Collins; Edwards (Leadbitter, 57), Miller, Richardson, Reid; Chopra (Murphy, 85), Jones. Substitutes not used: Fulop (gk), Harte, Prica.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Jones; Young, Wheater, Pogatetz, Taylor; Cattermole (Rochemback, 60), Boateng, Arca, Downing; Tuncay, Alves. Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Shawky, Johnson, Grounds.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Sunderland Richardson, Chopra, Whitehead; Middlesbrough Wheater, Pogatetz.
Man of the match: Michael Chopra.