IT was a crisp December evening, and Roy had nothing to do. He had spent the afternoon in the fields, walking Triggs alone, and as the clock ticked to 5.30pm, he thought about flicking on the television to watch the football.

He could have been there of course, leading out Sunderland to the acclaim of Old Trafford.

But why should he suffer criticism and doubt just for that?

Why should he listen to supporters booing him, players grumbling about not being picked and new American owners suggesting he start to watch the pennies in January?

This is Roy Keane we’re talking about here, and no one tells Roy Keane what to do. No.

There’d be no football this evening. Instead, he’d have a nice cup of green tea and take himself off to bed.

And never mind the countless phone calls and texts from people wanting to know he was okay. Roy Keane doesn’t need help or assistance. Stand on your own two feet, and you’ll make your own way in this world.

Washed and ready for bed, Roy was just about to doze off when he heard a knock at the door. “Triggs, is that you?” No, of course it wasn’t, Triggs was a dog after all.

Rising, Roy opened the door to be met by a ghostly apparition.

“Greetings,” said the ghost. “Roy, you are a good man, but you have made mistakes.

I am here to show you the error of your ways. This evening, you will be visited by three spirits. They will teach you a lot about yourself, and help to save you from your fate.” And with that, he was gone.MOMENTS later, Roy rolled over in his bed and noticed a figure standing in the corner of the room. “I am the ghost of Sunderland past,” said the apparition.

“And I am going to take you on a journey.”

Suddenly, Roy was transported to the Stadium of Light. It was the previous Saturday, and Sunderland were about to play against Bolton.

“I know what happens here, I don’t want to see this again,”

Roy argued. But as the afternoon drew on, and a 4-1 defeat unfolded, a very strange thing occurred. He watched the old Roy Keane in the dug-out and began to wonder if some of the things people had said about him were right.

Why was he standing alone all the time? Tony Loughlan was there, right enough. But when things were falling apart in the second half, why didn’t he have experienced assistants who could talk and come up with ideas of their own?

Why was he so distant from his players? He had always thought it was important to show them who was boss, but with morale seeping away in the second half, maybe some of the players no longer wanted to play for him. Maybe he had yelled and dropped them one too many times.

And at the final whistle, why was he so tortured about what was happening? Yes, Sunderland were on a bad run. But he had inherited a side that was in the relegation zone of the Championship. He had turned them into pedigree Premier League performers, and enjoyed some magnificent times along the way. Maybe this was a temporary blip, rather than a terminal decline.

Leaving with the rest of the Sunderland support, Roy was uneasy with what he had seen.

WAKING again at two, Roy sensed somebody else in his room. “I am the ghost of Sunderland present,”

said the spectre. “And I am also going to take you on a journey.”

This time, Roy found himself at Old Trafford watching the Black Cats lose 1-0 to Manchester United.

This was a different game entirely.

Yes, Sunderland lost again. But playing against arguably the best team in the country, the same players who had crumpled the weekend before produced a performance of commendable character and resolve.

For 90 brave minutes, they held out against wave after wave of United attacks. Danny Collins and Anton Ferdinand were solid at the heart of defence.

Phil Bardsley was commitment personified at fullback, never allowing World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo to break free. And skipper Dean Whitehead was the Man of the Match at the heart of midfield.

Nemanja Vidic might have scored a stoppage-time winner – driving home a rebound after Michael Carrick’s deflected effort had hit the post – but at the end of a difficult week, Sunderland’s pride had been restored.

So what had changed? Roy listened to Ricky Sbragia’s postmatch press conference and tried to work out if anything was different.

“Maybe in the last few weeks, the players weren’t as disciplined as we would have wanted,”

said Sbragia. “Disciplined in the sense of playing in a certain area. There are certain areas we want players to be playing in, but recently we’ve maybe roved a little bit.

“We haven’t always been getting back into position.”

Nodding quietly, Roy found that he had to agree.

“And I think the switch from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 suited us. Kenwyne (Jones) has come in so we’ve started playing 4-4-2, but Kenwyne’s been out for six months and it’s going to take him a bit of time to get match fit. We’ve thrown him in, but maybe we should have introduced him more slowly into games.” Again Roy nodded, but why hadn’t people told him that before. Perhaps they had, perhaps he just hadn’t listened.

“To be honest, we changed a couple of little things. We changed the way we look at the IT side of it.

“We didn’t want to bog them down with it, but we showed them a video of the Arsenal game at home. The discipline within the players was excellent in that game.”

Little things, but Roy had to concede they had made a difference.

Maybe his way wasn’t the only way after all.

THREE hours later, Roy awoke yet again. “I am the ghost of Sunderland future,” said another phantom.

“And I am going to take you on your final trip.”

It was May 2009, and Sunderland were hosting Chelsea on the final weekend of the season.

Glimpsing a newspaper, Roy saw they were safe from relegation. In fact, they were 14th, one place higher than he had achieved in the previous campaign.

He strained to see who was sitting in the dug-out, but he couldn’t make them out. Perhaps it was Sam Allardyce?

Maybe it was Gordon Strachan?

Unfortunately, they were too far away for him to see.

What he could make out was a Sunderland side playing with unity and purpose. It was still comprised of his players, but there were subtle differences.

The tactics had changed slightly, and the attitude of some of his players was markedly altered from his own days in charge.

This was the club he came close to building, but that was ultimately out of reach because of flaws in his managerial method.

The fans continued to sing his name, and hadn’t forgotten what he had done in his 27- month reign. But most of their chants were directed at their new manager.

Roy was no longer the centre of the universe. Always a winner as a player, if he was going to achieve similar success as a manager, he accepted his outlook was going to have to change.