The greats are never truly satisfied.
It is a quarter of a century since Manchester United bought the 21-year-old Irishman Roy Keane from Nottingham Forest, for a then-British record fee. Over the ensuing dozen years, he played an incomparable role in hauling this club to new frontiers; driving and maintaining the highest standards imaginable. Anything but your best was failure.
It’s that unyielding candour in his approach to life that made him stand out as part of ITV’s World Cup punditry panel this summer, courting the wrath of a nation (and fellow pundits) with his unforgiving critique of England’s semi-final exit. At times Keane came across as being edgier than a switchblade, just a jape away from immolating co-pundits – even viewers – with a glare. Millions watching from living rooms and pubs took the bait, frothing with rage, but Roy was simply telling the truth as he saw it: a semi-final defeat in any competition is no cause for celebration where the legendary midfielder is concerned, and his autopsy of England’s shortcomings against Croatia merely identified where they had been found wanting. They lost, here’s why. That unyielding approach to standards defines Keane. It always has.
When the Irishman retired in 2006, Sir Alex Ferguson responded:
“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.”
Therein lies the one of the key truths about Keane. Desire alone does not make a great player. Though whittled down to will and fury by time and YouTube, he was fundamentally a near-flawless footballer who could have fitted into any United team in any era; hard enough for the past, adroit enough for the present. His skillset was built on intelligence, drive and functionality. Knowing what to do, how to do it and when to do it. Famed for his means of recovering the ball, his subsequent usage of it was a criminally underrated facet to his game. Keane’s array, direction and intent of passing seldom dipped below supreme. Not only could he see a game for what it was; he could shape it according to his wishes.
The kicking and screaming were merely aspects of a career built on a wealth of intellect and ability. He was at once the concrete wall for United’s defence, the bedrock of midfield and the whetstone for attack. No player influenced games to the same level or effect over such a sustained period.
He was everything Ferguson thought he was buying, and more, on 19 July, 1993.
A son of Cork – Ireland’s Rebel County – Keane’s relentlessness distinguished him in his early years.
“Maybe even as a young kid I took sport too seriously,” he later reflected.
“Even from eight years of age I was very driven which helped me a lot later in my career, but really when you are eight, nine, 10 years of age you should be trying to enjoy the game, but even at that age I was all about winning.”
Through the disappointment of missing the cut for Ireland’s under-15s team, through failing his crucial school exams, through rejection letter after rejection letter from English clubs, he endured. After securing a place at Cobh Ramblers in Ireland’s second tier, the 17-year-old also took the club’s berth on a government-backed training course, aimed at developing 24 of the country’s top young talents. Given the chance to impress, Keane set about dominating his peers on the proving ground.
“I knew that if I could push myself through the mental barriers that others baulked at, it would be an important victory,” he recalled.
That victory manifested itself in a transfer to Nottingham Forest. Arriving in the professional game just before his 19th birthday spared Keane any mollycoddling or sense of entitlement. Everything then, as it always had been, had to be fought for. That spirit quickly came to Brian Clough’s attention and yielded a senior bow just 10 weeks after leaving Ireland. He never looked back.
Less than a year later, firmly established in Clough’s midfield, he was lining up at Wembley in Forest’s FA Cup final defeat to Tottenham. Within another 12 months, he endured the same outcome in a League Cup final loss against United. The patience displayed throughout his teens had prompted a career seemingly stuck on fast-forward. When Forest were relegated at the end of the inaugural Premier League campaign, the youngster picked up the club’s Player of the Year award for his efforts. Still aged just 21, Keane was the hottest property in the Premier League.
United Icons Gallery
16 #TBT images of the uncompromising club legend Roy Keane.
Bryan Robson, one of Keane’s boyhood heroes, recalled joining a conversation in the summer of 1993 between Ferguson and his coaching staff, about the hefty prospective cost of recruiting the Irishman.
“I just joined in with the conversation and I went: ‘Look, gaffer, I’ve played against him quite a few times and I’d definitely pay that price for him,” revealed the United legend.
Keane was soon persuaded to renege on a verbal agreement to join Blackburn Rovers, even though he would earn less at Old Trafford than at Ewood Park, for a then-British record £3.75million. What unfolded over the ensuing dozen years was nothing short of greatness.
As Keane himself put it:
“It’s not just about playing for a club. It’s about having an effect on the club, having a big influence.” That mindset ensured a smooth transition through a two-year period in which midfield mainstays Robson and Paul Ince both departed Old Trafford. Keane’s first season ended with United’s first Double. A second almost followed immediately, and duly did in his third campaign – the latter capped by a flawless FA Cup final performance against Liverpool to rival any of his greatest individual displays.
At the end of 1996/97, following Eric Cantona’s retirement, Ferguson considered the experienced duo of Peter Schmeichel and Gary Pallister as his next club captain, but instead went for 26-year-old Keane and admitted:
“When it came down to it, there was really only one logical choice. He's one of the greatest players of all time at United and he can make a great captain as well.
“He is a great competitor and a tremendous footballing talent, and assuming the captaincy role will add a new dimension to his game. I think he needs to experience the responsibility of being captain and, when he is able to do that, the better he will become.”
Ferguson was, as usual, right – though not immediately. In the second month of his first season as club captain, Keane had a quickfire trio of indiscretions in the space of four days. A half-time punch-up with Chelsea’s Andy Myers preceded a bar brawl involving punters in Manchester, just over 48 hours before a trip to face Leeds at Elland Road, where he snapped cruciate knee ligaments while trying to trip Alf-Inge Haaland.
“I was in no shape at all,” Keane later reflected, of an afternoon which would have seismic repercussions.
Sidelined for the season in his 11th game as skipper, the Irishman’s behaviour had cost him. There is no contesting that Keane’s career was punctuated by avoidable indiscretions of that nature. He racked up 11 red cards during 12-and-a-half years at Old Trafford – more than any other United player in our history – including the infamous revenge meted out on Haaland during 2001’s Manchester derby at Old Trafford. The darker side of Keano is impossible to overlook during any examination of his career.
Fundamentally driven by fear of letting anybody down, from friends and family to supporters and the club itself, Keane gave everything he had in pursuit of success; good and bad. While he is undoubtedly a fascinating character – in the words of Roddy Doyle, ghost writer of the midfielder’s most recent book:
“The only person who knows Roy is Roy,” – pidgin psychology is, ultimately, trifling when it comes to assessing his contribution to Manchester United.
Former Middlesbrough striker Jan Aage Fjortoft saw both sides of Keane up close during his playing career, copping a barely-provoked punch for tugging the Irishman’s shirt at Old Trafford in October 1995. Despite the nature of the incident, Fjortoft’s opinion of his opponent remains undimmed.
“The following summer after our thing at Old Trafford, by chance, we were both at the same holiday resort in Sardinia and we ended up laughing about what had happened,” smiles Fjortjoft.
“At the time of the incident, we actually wrote to the FA to reduce his punishment. I was just glad that I didn’t roll around and that I came away with all my teeth intact!
“Don’t get me wrong, what he did to Alfie Haaland crossed the line and was stupid, but Roy didn’t scare me. Roy sometimes lost his cool, but I always felt that there was some level of control with him. It was part of his character. So many teams need that kind of player, particularly in the dressing room.”
Like Keane, Fjortoft is now a major figure in football coverage on television, as a presenter and analyst with Norway’s Viasat.
“I would absolutely love to work with him on TV,” says Fjortoft.
“I love listening to him. I love that personality – it’s what made him the player he was.
“Great teams always have that kind of player who’s never satisfied. For Manchester United, that was Roy Keane. He was a brilliant player. The part he played in that Manchester United team cannot be underestimated. Giggs, Beckham, Cantona, Scholes… United had all these fantastic players, but they needed someone who was a conductor for all of them, and that was Roy Keane.
”I would put Cantona in a my all-time top XI of players that I played against, but Cantona’s game lived and died on having Roy Keane behind him. Roy created more going forward than people give him credit for as well, but primarily he brought balance. Fantastic wingers either side of him, forwards in front of him, defenders behind him, but he always made sure the balance was right. Keane was United’s manager out on the pitch.”
This is why we all loved Keano!Video
While concerns were harboured internally that the Treble had proved damaging for the collective desire of United’s squad, Keane doubled down his displays. The greatest players are those whose performance level remains high, even at its lowest, and Keane’s levels soared even through the distraction of his own protracted contract negotiations. Either side of the millennium, he established himself as Europe’s best central midfielder, earning the respect of his counterparts across the continent.
“He has the stature at United that Paolo Maldini has at Milan,“ marvelled Gennaro Gattuso, while Daniele De Rossi later confided:“Keane is my absolute hero.”Longtime adversary Patrick Vieira also let slip his lasting admiration, conceding:“He is my favourite enemy. I loved every aspect of his game.”
Over time, the rampaging, box-to-box Keane evolved into orchestration. Where once he had been a one-man stampede, the Irishman – often playing through the pain barrier – became more calculated in his movements. The fresher legs of junior midfield cohorts like Darren Fletcher were utilised for momentum while the captain provided a steadying influence. This did not, however, spell the end of Keane’s attacking threat. Early in his 11th season at the club, two pinpoint assists turned a deficit at Newcastle into a hard-fought away win. The following term, he surpassed 50 United goals with a deadlock-breaker against Birmingham. When circumstances decreed, he could still boss matters further up the field.
All along the way, the United dressing room looked to him as a beacon of standards. Established players knew to follow his lead, while newcomers quickly caught on. Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo only played alongside Keane for one and two full seasons respectively, but both learnt much about the requirements of being a Manchester United player.
Countless former team-mates trot out tales of Keane welcoming them to training at United either with verbal flagellations or the subtler use of his acerbic wit. One coach recalls that, within days of his arrival from Holland’s Eredivisie, Jaap Stam was implored during a session:“Come on, this isn’t f****** Willem II.”
While a caustic means of making a point, that tale also reveals the lighter side of Keane. In his ITV capacity, his descent into laughter at his co-pundits’ capering during the World Cup provoked a raft of reaction stories disbelieving that EVEN Roy Keane found things funny. However, in his playing days he was always central to the lighter side of the job; was always atop the celebratory pile, always a key figure in team bonding.
First and foremost, he was bought by United to do a job, but this was not blind, joyless endeavour. In his relentless quest to ensure that his club was the best it could be, Keane enjoyed himself, savoured his time working with fellow greats and making their club greater.
“The lads at Man United were absolutely fantastic,” he said after the launch of his second book.
“They were great, great lads. The days I had with them lads at United were probably the best days of my life. They were absolutely fantastic lads and we were winning trophies.”
He may be uninclined towards many of football’s superfluities, but Keane is tolerant of them, so long as the job is done. After France’s World Cup final victory over Croatia, prodded for a reaction to Paul Pogba’s celebratory jigs and dabs, he shrugged:
“I don't mind Pogba dancing now. He's entitled to have a dance now he's won the World Cup. He can do whatever the hell he wants with his hair.”
The Irishman’s mantra – work hard, play hard – preceded football’s age of razzamatazz, yet is as applicable now as it was then. They may never have shared a dressing room, but the standards to which Pogba and his colleagues aspire, which United fans are entitled to demand, were set in a time dominated by Roy Keane.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.