Was this the greatest individual United display?

Sunday 21 April 2019 01:00

It is a story that has been told many times. Booked for a late challenge on Zinedine Zidane, Roy Keane knows he will miss the greatest night of his footballing life – the 1999 Champions League final, regardless of the result in Turin against Juventus.

Nine years earlier, Paul Gascoigne had instantly struggled to come to terms with a similar realisation. He did attempt to maintain a high level of influence on the World Cup semi-final but, despite being originally on the first five penalty-takers, was unable to take one in England’s defeat to West Germany.

Keane reacted altogether differently, probably in a manner Manchester United desperately needed from our captain. However, there is a side to the tale that might have been mythologised a little bit over the years. Yes, Sir Alex Ferguson was moved to comment in his autobiography: "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.” 

Yet, years later, the Irishman was typically dismissive of any praise, even hostile towards it.

Every touch from Keano's finest hour Video

Every touch from Keano's finest hour

Watch every touch from Roy's greatest United performance, in Turin during the famous 1998/99 season...

”I get offended when people give quotes like that about me,” he retorted. “It’s like praising the postman for delivering letters.” What Keane did deliver on that glorious night 20 years ago was a performance that is always forwarded as one of the greatest individual displays in the club’s long and illustrious history.

Possibly in the same category as George Best’s coming of age against Benfica in Lisbon in 1966, Bryan Robson’s inspirational promptings in the comeback over Barcelona in 1984 and Peter Schmeichel’s goalkeeping heroics at Newcastle United in 1996.

Keane would argue he had better games. Certainly, as a fan and observer, he was sensational in scoring both goals in the 2-1 victory over Arsenal at Highbury later in 1999, and there were two fine showings in the 1995/96 season against Newcastle and the FA Cup final win over Liverpool. His imposing showing in a crunch World Cup qualifier against Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands in 2001, when Republic of Ireland were reduced to 10 men, is arguably just as revered by some people in his homeland.

First and foremost, it is worth pointing out that Keane’s near-post header against Juventus, which reduced the deficit after a shocking start by the Reds, came before he picked up the yellow card. It is also worth stressing here that his display for the remainder of the match was absolutely outstanding but, in defence of his own argument, this was pretty much par for the course for our brilliant skipper in his peak years.

Whatever the romantic notion of a man selflessly dragging his team back from the brink to achieve glory that he would not be able to be part of himself, Keane was simply a phenomenal footballer, born winner and courageous leader. If you speak to any of his team-mates, they will detail the way in which his authority spurred everybody else on.

Highlights: Juventus 2 United 3 in 1999 Video

Highlights: Juventus 2 United 3 in 1999

On 21 April 1999, United came from behind to earn an iconic 3-2 win over Juventus in Turin...

”I was impressed how, instead of being depressed, he used that booking as motivation because he wanted to make sure we got to the final,” said Jesper Blomqvist. “I think that underlines his leadership and the way he was, thinking of playing for the team all the time.

"The way he played, flying into tackles, made it easier as, if he was not the first one doing that, you can’t really ask anyone else to do it. But the way he played it inspired you as well and meant you were ready to do the same yourself.”

Wes Brown did not feature in the tie but remembers it well. “It was probably one of the best performances I have ever seen,” he enthused. “The way he continued playing, maybe even better, was something you don’t see every day. You know he was a man on a mission that day. When you see some of the clips now, you can tell he was not going to let anything stop us getting to the final.”

Roy Keane thunders into another challenge at the Stadio delle Alpi.

He might not like it at times but the praise for Keane as a captain in that period is always justifiably fulsome. Tottenham winger David Ginola may have controversially won both the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ award in the Treble campaign but, a year later, justice was done when the United man scooped both trophies.

”We were very lucky, well not very lucky as Sir Alex picked that particular person, but to have Roy Keane as captain,” said Teddy Sheringham, who also played with him at Nottingham Forest. “He was a driving force on the pitch. I don’t think you get those captains very often in your career. He certainly carried out the authority on the pitch that was told to him by the manager. He led by example and just carried us more often than not.”

He may have been booked but Roy Keane was still brilliant on the night.

Dwight Yorke told us recently: “I would say he’s the best player I played with, because of his leadership quality.”

So was it the best individual display in a United shirt? Or was Keane right to play down its significance. The truth is Roy Keane was the heartbeat of that great United team and was consistently excellent. Anything else is simply up for debate.

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