In my formative years growing up I spent a great deal of time, like many a boy, searching desperately for an idol to emulate, or people from whom to gain guidance on how to behave and act in certain situations. One of my heroes was a fictional one, a superhero “Captain Crimson” who came to life from a comic book writer’s strip and who embodied the ideals of heroism in an altogether educational form as BBC’s Look and Read was at the time. Another was our very own Captain Crimson superhero, Roy Keane, for me, still the best captain that Manchester United have ever had, in my lifetime. As a youth, I watched him and adored the way that he led the team, he was tenacious, fearless and incredibly talented. As I grew older, I grew to appreciate and love Keane more as I saw that no one embodied desire and passion better than he did. Keane had a multitude of impressive skills amongst which tremendous tackling, fearsome shooting and excellent passing were his most renowned assets.
Keane had an unremitting fire in his belly; he wanted to fight everybody who stood in the way of him winning. He is the most successful Manchester United Captain of all time for good reason; his drive carried the others forward. Perhaps the greatest example of Keane’s self-sacrifice was the infamous 1999 Champions League Semi Final against Juventus. In the match, which I watched live at the tender age of 8, Keane was absolutely peerless, it was a stunningly exceptional performance especially given the circumstances that his yellow meant being suspended for the Champions League Final. The entire team were on their game, so razor sharp; willing to fight for every ball and Keane was at the heart of it, cajoling the players, making interceptions, threading intricate passes. In short doing what Roy Keane does, leading by example and competing to win every ball and working harder than anybody to win the game. You can see him harrying the Juventus players like a terrier and winning the ball through sheer grit, determination and hard work. The Juventus star studded line up couldn’t get anywhere near Keane, as the UEFA.com official website describes it in their match report:
“Such was the Republic of Ireland midfielder’s influence in Turin, United may as well have had an extra player; there was one Keane to supplement their attack, and another Keane to stifle Juve. He was immense.”
Sir Alex Ferguson is a legendary figure with the club but there are certain things which he has said or done which seem illogical or erroneous. When he listed his four world class players he omitted Roy Keane which immediately raised the eyebrows of the majority of the football community. So the player who possessed every conceivable asset you would want in a midfielder is not world class? The player who exuded confidence, leadership, passion, dedication isn’t world class? Quite frankly, in my book, that is absolutely laughable. When you’re world class you turn up in the big games and Roy Keane made sure he turned up, even in the 1999 UCL semi final when he knew he wasn’t going to make the final, for Roy the team came first and he was incredibly professional and resolute in ensuring United’s safe passage. As Sir Alex Ferguson commented on that performance:
“It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”
I still get the shivers as I watch Roy Keane’s goal against Juventus and the commentary fills my ears, it is the pure brilliance of Keane. As the commentator says about Keane’s textbook header “Roy Keane with a Captain’s goal”. My brother and I will often use this line to one another when a captain scores an important goal for his team in a match. It is in homage to Roy Keane, the Captain who scored the most important Captain’s goal of our lifetimes, as Manchester United fans.
Keane captained Manchester United to nine major honours, which makes him the most successful captain in the club’s history. He also won, overall, 7 Premier League Titles, 4 FA Cups, 4 Community Shields, 1 Champions League and 1 Intercontinental Cup, the last of these won by his winning goal. He was also named in the PFA Team of The Year 5 Times, the PFA Team of the Century (1907-2007) and was the Football Writers and Players’ Player of the Year, both in 2000. These are just a smattering of the team and personal prizes which Keane picked up for Manchester United during a time of unparalleled glory in our club’s history. Furthermore, Keane scored 51 goals in his Manchester United career, the majority of which were extremely important and were at times where Manchester United needed him to step up and finish when the strikers couldn’t. Amazingly, in all of the matches in which Keane scored, Manchester United never lost, showing how his goals were always integral in winning games for the club. The players knew how much Keane meant to the team, in particular summed up amongst the myriad of glowing quotes from team mates, I felt, by this:
“If I could pick one player in my team, I would always pick Roy Keane, in front of any other players I’ve played with. Keano had everything; he was a leader, a great player, and probably the best I ever played with.” — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Manchester United, during Keane’s time, were serial winners. Driven on by Keane and Sir Alex’s mirroring insatiable thirst for silverware, United plundered trophy after trophy. During Keane’s time at United, we often defended our Premier League title, or quickly snatched it back if Blackburn or Arsenal managed to secure one. It is testament to Keane’s winning influence and how difficult it is to retain the Premier League that only one side (United apart) have managed to retain the Premier league, Chelsea in 04/05 and 05/06, which coincides nicely with Keane’s departure from United. In fact, at the height of Keane’s powers at the turn of the Millennium, United won three league titles in a row, a feat only achieved thrice since World War 2. In the year, Keane picked up his individual Player awards, Manchester United also secured the biggest title winning margin of the Premier League (18 points) which remains a record to this day. All of these statistics reinforce the assertion that Keane was absolutely vital to United’s extraordinary performances over his playing years for them.
One of the aspects of Roy Keane’s character that defined him was his inability to accept slights. It was to be perhaps the worst and most inglorious moment, which epitomised this, when he flew in with a completely unacceptable and outrageous tackle on Manchester City’s Alfe-Inge Haaland. In Keane’s autobiography he revealed that it had been premeditated and was a consequence of Haaland mocking Keane for feigning injury in an earlier encounter. For someone like Keane, a man who prided himself on honour and integrity, this seemed a grievous barb which demanded requisite retribution. A significant proportion of the best footballers’ share this side to them, a characteristic which is best summed up by the one word which Keane uses to describe Sir Alex Ferguson, “ruthless”. In another interview with Kevin Kilbane, Keane admitted that this reputation and persona was something of an “act” and that he felt footballers, like other sports people, had to go into a zone to perform at their best. As with a lot of what the fiercely intelligent and articulate Keane says, there is more than a grain of truth in that admission.
Another fascinating nugget of Keane’s character and his football career at Manchester United can be found in how he confronted injuries, head on and like a man. However, as he often points out he could have been more careful and conscientious in how he dealt with these kinds of physical setbacks. The hip injury that he had and which still affects him, is further confirmation that Keane never accepted lower standards and of the tremendous strain that his constant, relentless, over exertion in pursuit of victory took on his body.
One of the incidents which occurred late in Keane’s United career was that of the infamous Highbury Tunnel incident of 2005. When Gary Neville seemed to be under attack, Keane emerged from the back of the tunnel, as the fiercely protective leader he had so often been, vehemently defending Neville and insisting assertively “We’ll see you out there” to the Arsenal ringleaders. United ran out 4-2 winners confirming that Arsenal were beginning to lose some of the edge and lustre that they had had at the turn of the millennium. This was further reinforced by the 2005 FA Cup Final, a match that having watched myself, I still remain flabbergasted that United failed to win such was our overall dominance over the 120 minutes before we lost the shootout to the Gunners.
Possibly, the primary reason why Roy Keane doesn’t get as much respect or love as he might have done was the nature of his departure from the club. The impossibly high regard that Sir Alex Ferguson is held in by the Manchester United fan base means that anyone who dares to question or contest him is fighting a losing battle. Keane, typically, doesn’t know a battle he can’t win and won’t concede defeat whatever the cost to his reputation with the United fans. The catalyst for Keane’s departure was his interview with MUTV where he was asked his thoughts and feedback after a 4-1 loss. Ever the pragmatist Keane outlined exactly where he felt that United players could have improved and that certain aspects of their performance had been unacceptable.
All in all, the way Keane portrays his exit from Old Trafford, paints the Manchester United hierarchy in a pretty unflattering light. Even on the prepared statement for his exit, the wording of the eleven and a half years tenure was a year short of the actual length of service given. Keane points this out as a particular flaring point, as we know with the Republic of Ireland in World Cup 2002, another issue which really infuriates Keane is unprofessionalism. Understandably, Keane was incredibly emotional at leaving the club into which he had poured so much of his heart and soul, the club where he had realised so many of his dreams and spearheaded so many indelible successes. He admits to crying in the car following the decision but resolutely retaining the belief that the club had lost respect for him, forcing his decision to accept their concerted efforts to eject him from the club.
It’s obvious that Keane doesn’t bear too much of a simmering grudge towards his treatment and that Manchester United still remains firmly ensconced in the Irishman’s heart. He goes on in his book to say that he “loved everything about United”.
However fabulous Roy Keane was as a footballer, it was his honest, down to earth character which got him into trouble and made him an indefatigable driving force in Manchester United’s engine room as Captain. As Roy Keane said of Sir Alex’s particular praise over his incredible performance against Juventus to him “it’s like praising the postman for delivering letters”. It is a line that reminds me of my other childhood hero Captain Crimson who used to say “It’s all in a day’s work” after whichever act of heroism and courage that he performed. Keane, like Captain Crimson, was a superhero who epitomised so many values of bravery and tenacity, yet never took the credit he deserved. Of course, like Captain Crimson, that doesn’t stop him being idolised and venerated for the inspirational leader and hero that he was. As when Captain Crimson was sent back to the comic world and Keane retired, their names and deeds will never be forgotten nor the legendary status that they richly and fully deserve.
“Roy’s obsession with winning and the demands he put on others made him the most influential player in the dressing room. He became a great captain through that and, to my mind; he is the best player I have had in all of my time here. Over the years when they start picking the best teams of all time, he will be in there.” — Sir Alex Ferguson (on Keane’s retirement in 2006)