Good old Bob Stokoe. By some quirk of engineering, the statue of Sunderland's FA Cup-winning manager in the Stadium of Light car park was the only blemish on a blanket of white covering the ground's environs on Thursday night. Even that famous hat of his remained unharmed by Wednesday's snowfall, an idiosyncrasy that drew the mirth of some of the couple of hundred people that crunched past him towards Gate One a few minutes before seven o'clock.
Yes, as hard as it might have been to believe from tuning into your Des Cahill, or watching that Sky Sports News ticker roll across for hours on end, or perusing one of the many sanctuaries of the coward on the web, not seven hours after the club officially confirmed that Roy Keane had left his post at the Sunderland AFC, life in the city, and more pertinently, at the club, carried on as normal. That 253 people turned up to witness the FA Youth Cup third round tie against Cirencester Town may not be significant in its own right, but the sheer normality of the occasion was. There was no sense of hysteria.
No dancing in front of cameras like their rivals from up the road. No threats of violence against anybody, or boycotts or such trivial pursuits. The overall mood from those supporters present, the club officials, the stewards, the non-playing members of the academy, even down to those serving up teas and coffees from the Charlie Hurley Diner under the main stand, was that this is what we do and just because the boy from Cork decided that he couldn't be coping anymore, that wasn't going to change a damn thing.
After all, no man is bigger than the football club. Not this football club, anyway.
• • •
As football-mad cities go, Sunderland deserves to be certified. It is often difficult to get across the depth of feeling people have for their local football club in England, particularly the one-team cities like Hull, Blackburn, Middlesbrough and Portsmouth, to name but a few. To say that these clubs are central to their respective communities is missing the point a little. In some ways the people in these cities no nothing of community aside from supporting their local football club. That is why most Sunderland natives aren't feeling the loss of Keane in quite the manner that, from the outside, you'd probably have expected.
Physically, they've lost nothing. The stadium still stands, the club shop remains open, the first team will continue to fulfil their fixtures. And anyway, it's not as though they're going to physically miss their manager. Keane was rarely present in the city, preferring to commute from his home in the Manchester suburbs over the past few years. That fact is now being used as a stick to beat him with.
"The first six months he was here," says one local, "he was seen out for dinner with some of his coaching staff and around the place at a few other events. But since then, nobody has seen him anywhere bar the stadium or the training ground. It may not sound important but it matters to us. Say, if Roy went to a restaurant on a Wednesday night and was seen by 40 other people, then by the following morning 200 people would know about it and they would tell someone else and by the weekend half of Sunderland would know he had dinner in the restaurant.
"And that would be a good thing. It would give people a connection to him and that's how relationships are built. Look at that Irish lad [Anthony Stokes]. He was dropped for spending too much time in The Glass Spider but you know what, that was never a problem for supporters. It mightn't be the type of place where your average Sunderland fan would go but we all knew where it was and it was easier to relate to the guy. With Roy, no such link ever existed."
That has been a common theme these past few days. Peter Reid was mentioned by a number of people, quite seriously, as a replacement for Keane due to his popularity on Wearside. He wasn't just manager of Sunderland AFC, he acted as a figurehead for the whole city. Likewise Niall Quinn, who unlike Keane, has contributed much more to the people, more to the city, than his basic job description decreed, firstly as a player, and now as chairman. "I mean, Keane was complaining about players not wanting to move to Sunderland," says Peter Moore, "but he wouldn't live here himself. What kind of an example was that to a player he wanted?" The same man was shocked to learn this week that Keane might go between Saturday and the following Thursday without spending any time with his team. "How on earth could the man be doing his job properly? I respect the guy but he walked out on us because things got too hard. What does that say about him? People are calm enough about the whole thing now but if we struggle in the next few weeks or months Keane will become a hate figure."
The last few days, though, make it easy to pick Cork's finest apart.
Talk to the very same supporters two weeks back and the suspicion is you'd have got a different answer. They would, perhaps, have spoken lyrically about the manner in which Keane raised expectation levels on his arrival at the club and by the end of the season, fulfilled them. Or about how the manager's profile succeeded in giving the club national and even international exposure that it had never before experienced. Yet the locals still insist that the worries and doubts that are now being expressed were always there.
In Fitzgerald's, a cosy little pub three doors down from Stokes's old haunt, the regulars talk tactics. "He switched things around so much it stopped making any sense," says George Wilson. "Supporters of most clubs would make a decent stab at the starting 11 on their walk to the ground. You couldn't do that with Roy. Never. Some of the changes were crazy. A few weeks ago at Chelsea he played [Martyn] Waghorn ahead of Cisse. I know Cisse is supposed to have been out late in Newcastle a few days before the game but so what? He should have played."
His mate comes in with a few empirical points. "The one thing I could never get around is how he never really got excited when we scored a goal. I mean if you can't get excited about that, then what's the point of the game? It always seemed as though he was holding something back. If we had ever won the FA Cup or something he probably would have shook hands with his assistant and walked down the tunnel. And that's another thing. I don't sit too far from the dug-out and I swear, since he came to the club, I've never seen any of his assistants walk out and make a point. A few weeks ago [Chris] Hughton was up every two minutes pointing out something and Joe Kinnear had no problem with that."
His flaws, though, should not have come as a surprise. According to one dedicated clubman present in sub-zero temperatures for that FA Youth Cup game, supporters were always aware – or at least should have been – of what they were getting themselves into when they appointed the former Irish captain. "The way I saw it, this whole thing was a compromise. We only got a figure of the stature of Keane because he was inexperienced and he only came because he wanted to get experience. A lot have been giving out about him over the past few weeks but he was only learning and he was only going to get better. But now that he's gone, maybe we can get an experienced manager on our own merits."
Underneath the stands, clutching a cup of something hot, a man accompanied by his wife expresses a view that gets to the nub of the issue. "Niall Quinn is the heart and soul of this football club. He has its best interests at heart. Managers and players will change over time but as long as Niall is here, everything will be alright."
It is a sentiment that has been expressed right the way across the city.
• • •
Poor Scott Lee. The Sunderland fan had Keane's face tattooed on his shoulder 13 months ago. This week, despite several invitations, the 36-year-old was too embarrassed to talk about it. You can understand why. If he wanted an artistic memento of his club, all he needed was to take a stroll down the Park Lane interchange in the city centre. In the window of the City Art Shop sit a dozen or so paintings related in some way to Sunderland AFC.
There's a water colour entitled "Roker's Last Roar", a tribute to the club's original home. Beside it hangs a sketching of its sleek and modern successor, while close by a framed front page of the Sunderland Echo from the evening the club won the FA Cup back in May 1973 is on sale for the bargain price of £7.99. The artworks are reminders of places, events and memories that have shaped the club's past. Keane's 27 months in charge at the Stadium of Light are now part of this heritage but all things considered, his tenure in the north-east represents but a speck of the club's 129-year history. That's why the good people of Sunderland have been so calm and mature this week.
Managers will come and go. But their football club will go on and on.