There’s Only One Keano


By Ashwin

Born: 10/8/1971
Joined Manchester United: 22/7/1993, from Nottingham Forest for £3.75m
Left Man United: 18/11/2005, by mutual consent
Appearances: 480 (5 sub)
Goals: 51
Debut: 7/8/1993, v Arsenal in the Charity Shield
Last game: 18/9/2005, v Liverpool in the Barclays Premiership
Other clubs: Cobh Ramblers, Nottingham Forest, Celtic
Clubs managed: Sunderland, Ipswich Town

In early 2003, Phil “The Power” Taylor found his run of 8 successive PDC World Titles ended by John Part in an epic final which has gone down as one of the greatest games in the history of darts. Not long afterwards, Taylor went to Carrington, Manchester United’s training ground as a visitor (no doubt delighted at the namedropping opportunities it would afford him in the months to come). When he was introduced to the players by Sir Alex Ferguson, it was as “the world champion”. One player on his exercise bike bit back “ex-world champion you mean”. The eight successive titles, combined with the two BDO titles Taylor won before darts split so acrimoniously, mattered little to Roy Keane. What does your past matter if you’re not backing it up in the present, came the argument. That was Roy Keane all over.

The young Roy Keane was a skilled sportsman in more than one area. Despite having been rejected by the Ireland youth football team, he excelled at Gaelic football and boxing, two sports which helped toughen him up into the monster he became. During his teens he wrote to several clubs within the English league system, but never to Manchester United, because he did not believe he was good enough. It was only playing for his local club, the semi professional Cobh Ramblers, that he was eventually spotted by a club from across the water, namely Nottingham Forest.

After a short trial at Forest, their legendary manager Brian Clough forked out an amount largely reported to be £47000 for the young midfielder. He made his debut against Liverpool at Anfield, where he sensationally asked John Barnes “what he fornicate [he was]looking at”. Up against English football’s most decorated club, at their so called fortress, Keane showed no fear, and his performance that day convinced Clough that he could handle regular football, which he was given, to good effect. There was one incident that suggested the two would not get on however. After Keane made an awful error to give away a soft goal, Clough punched him in the face after the match. Were that to happen now, to any of the modern game’s so called “stars”, they would undoubtedly have been straight on to their agents and out of the door. Not Keane, he simply resolved not to make that mistake again.

He had joined Forest at a time when the team and their manager in particular, were in sharp decline however. At the end of the inaugural season of the Premiership, Forest found themselves relegated to the First Division, and Keane was to be the first in the exit boat. Having been linked to Arsenal regularly, the main two teams interested were Blackburn and Manchester United, the new champions. Blackburn believed that they had secured the player after he gave his word to them (Forest had continued to reject United’s bids, as they did when Clough had still been at the club) that he would be joining Kenny Dalglish’s side. Alex Ferguson was not to be done however, and after upping his bid and persuading Forest that United’s long term interest should give them a say in where Keane moved, he moved on to persuading Keane that his future lay at Old Trafford. He didn’t take much persuading, and joined United for a then British record fee of £3.75m.

Keane’s first games for United came in the pre-season of that year, when he achieved the surely unique distinction of wearing 4 different kits in his first 4 games. He slotted into the spot which Bryan Robson was increasingly vacating with ease, scoring twice on his home debut against Sheffield United (who, coincidentally, had been on the end of his first ever goal in professional football) and becoming an integral part of United’s double winning season, wearing the number 16 shirt which he was to make so iconic. His partnership with Paul Ince continued into the 94/95 season, although as Nicky Butt got games Keane found himself at right back on more than one occasion (scoring in the 9-0 win over Ipswich from that position). Keane’s infamous temper showed that season however, as he was sent off for a violent stamp on Gareth Southgate during the FA Cup semi-final replay with Crystal Palace (one of eleven sending’s off during his spell at Old Trafford). The departure of Ince saw Keane become United’s main man in midfield – despite only being 24, Ferguson had decided that the young Irishman could be relied upon to hold the midfield together, as he did to great effect, his season culminating with the man of the match award in the FA Cup Final win over Liverpool.

Keane’s new importance to the team was showed further in the 96/97 season, as Ferguson entrusted him with the captain’s armband in the games Eric Cantona missed, including the crucial away win at then closest challengers Arsenal. Keane’s ability to get into trouble continued however, as he missed the second leg of the Champions League semi final with Dortmund through suspension. Cantona’s retirement saw Keane named club captain, but, as with all truly great captains, he didn’t change his game because of it. His first season with the armband did not last long however, as he damaged his knee ligaments in a challenge with Alf Inge Haaland in a defeat to Leeds United, and was ruled out for the rest of the season.

While United made a game attempt at the title in Keane’s absence, it was lost to Arsenal, and Keane returned to the team desperate to bring it back. With Paul Scholes as his new partner in crime, he set about bringing the title back to Old Trafford, which through a series of fine displays he helped to do. Arguably Keane’s finest hour at United came in the Champions League semi final with the then dominant force in European football, Juventus. At 3-1 down on aggregate, it looked like the Italians would once again get the better of United, but Keane refused to give in, pulling a goal back from a corner, before picking up the yellow card which ruled him out of the final should United get there. His first act afterwards was to bollock Scholes for giving the ball away so cheaply, before inspiring United to a 3-2 win on the night, meaning that, in the words of ITV commentator Clive Tyldsley that night, it was “full speed Barcelona!” As it worked out, an ankle injury picked up in the FA Cup Final against Newcastle would’ve kept Keane in the stands anyway, but it was missing the European Cup victory that was to drive Keane on for the rest of his career; his medal that season was meaningless given he hadn’t played in the final, and he resolved to pick up a “real” one before his career was out.

His performances in the opening part of the next season, in which he was to win both main player of the year awards, were outstanding, but they were under a cloud. At the end of that season, his contract was up, and under the new contract rules, he would have been eligible to head off for pastures new on a free transfer. Juventus, Lazio and Bayern Munich were very interested, and prepared to pay far more than United could offer. It was only when United agreed to break their long established wage structure that Keane agreed to stay (it was later hinted at that the increase in season ticket prices that season was motivated by the need to meet Keane’s new wages) and sign on the dotted line. His quest for European success failed against Real Madrid however, as he of all people scored the own goal which set Real Madrid on their way to a 3-2 victory at Old Trafford, and ultimately, the trophy.

It was in Europe the following season that Keane unleashed two of his most explosive rants. The first was after a narrow victory over Dynamo Kyiv put United through the first group phase, after which he criticised the crowd for being too quiet, his “prawn sandwich” comments becoming famous across football, even though United did not actually serve them in hospitality suites at this time. His second, not as well documented but perhaps more significant, rant was at the team in general after Bayern Munich comfortably gained revenge for the 99 Final in the quarter finals. He claimed that United were an “average side” who had had their edge taken off them by having it too easily domestically, and that they just weren’t good enough to win in Europe, pointing to the defeats against Anderlecht and PSV Eindhoven, as well as the draws against Panathanaikos and Dynamo Kyiv as evidence.

Despite this he started the next season well, until he was sent off for punching Alan Shearer in a defeat against Newcastle, the first of many incidents which would involve him missing games that season. All in all Keane missed 10 league games, though injury and suspension, in which United dropped 13 points, and his absence was suggested as a possible reason why United’s standards slipped so badly – so much so in fact, that Keane was prepared to retire at one point, and Ferguson only just managed to talk him out of it. The European campaign also ended in disappointment, with an away goals defeat to Bayer Leverkusen, which led Keane to question the hunger of his fellow players, before the most well publicised incident of his career.

What happened in Saipan in 2002 is a tale that needs little retelling – Keane was increasingly annoyed at the amateur approach of the FAI to the tournament, and his manager Mick McCarthy, and as he became increasingly convinced that his team-mates were content to simply play in the World Cup rather than try to win it, his frustrations with their poor training facilities eventually led to Keane boiling over. A long, expletive filled rant at McCarthy saw him sent home, where he proceeded to walk his dogs 4 or 5 times a day for the duration of the tournament and put the finishing touches on his autobiography.

It was this autobiography that led to Keane having a long spell on the sidelines at the start of the 02/03 season. The first incident was when Jason McAteer, never Keane’s favourite player, made derogatory comments about it to Keane during a game at Sunderland, to which Keane responded with an elbow, which could only be met with a red card and a suspension. A longer one came when Keane revealed that his horrific challenge on Halaand during a Manchester derby in 2001 had been deliberate and that he had intended to injure him, as revenge for Halaand accusing Keane of faking his knee injury a few years previously. Keane was given a further 5 match ban for this (although the comments from many that Keane had ended Halaand’s career were inaccurate, given it was a problem with the Norwegian’s other knee that forced his retirement). With this in mind, United booked him in for a long needed hip operation, taking him out of the equation for the first half of the season. After a poor start United fought their way back into the title race in time for Keane’s arrival, and nicked their way past Arsenal to regain the title.

03/04 proved to be a frustrating season however, as the title once again headed to Highbury, this time to an unbeaten Arsenal team, and Europe continued to be a frustration. Frustration which Keane took out on Porto goalkeeper Vitor Baia with a petulant stamp at the end of the first leg of the last 16 match. In his absence, United couldn’t turn the 2-1 deficit around and headed out. That summer Keane turned 33, and Ferguson redesigned the team in a 4-3-3 formation, with the intention of keeping Keane in the team for his leadership qualities, as Keane’s once energetic frame found age catch up with it. Many fans were critical of these new tactics, especially given United played them when Keane was absent, and especially given United had a rare trophyless season in 04/05. Keane’s highlight that year surely came in the game at Highbury. United had ended Arsenal’s 49 game unbeaten run at Old Trafford in October, with many in the Arsenal camp claiming that United had kicked them out of the game. Patrick Vieira, long Keane’s nemesis, tried to intimidate Gary Neville by telling him not to kick them so much this time. Keane responded by storming into the tunnel and telling the Frenchman to “pick on someone his own size” and that he’d “see you (Vieira) out there”. A 4-2 victory, with Keane instrumental, later and Arsenal were well and truly silenced. A few days later he hit his long awaited 50th goal for United against Birmingham. Surely nobody would have thought, at this point, that Keane would only have a few months left at United.

The process began during pre-season. Ferguson took United’s players on a training camp to Portugal before they started playing matches, and encouraged the players to bring their families. Keane argued with Ferguson that the trip was a waste of time, as well as questioning the quality of the facilities at the hotel. An injury prevented Keane from going on the Far East tour, and he played a couple of reserve games for the sake of his fitness in the meantime (which the press loved). Both then claimed that the row had been nothing and that things were still fine between them. The next incident came when Keane claimed in an interview that he might not renew his contract, and that he was prepared to play elsewhere the following season (some interpreted this as a plea for a new deal, although anybody who knew anything about Roy Keane would surely know that he was the last person to hint in such a fashion). An injury to his metatarsal (whatever happened to the days where you just broke your toe?) saw him limp out of English football where it began for him, at Anfield.

While Keane was recuperating from this injury, he saw United’s 4-1 thrashing at Middlesbrough from a bar in Dubai, and was incensed, especially given the defeat had clearly been coming for some time. Upon his return he discovered that young winger Kieran Richardson had ordered a Bentley, and it was the red rag to a bull. He had been booked in to “Play the Pundit” for the Middlesbrough game, and he did just that. He laid into every aspect of United, questioning the commitment of several players (mainly Rio Ferdinand), wondering whether the trappings of fame were enough for some players (i.e. that the money was all that mattered, not trophies) and questioning why Ferguson was using Alan Smith in midfield, before claiming that Liam Miller and Darren Fletcher just weren’t good enough. The program was blocked and a crisis meeting called. The squad were shown the video, and accepted the criticism, but things would only get worse. Ferguson may have used Keane to say what he really felt, but he felt that Keane had gone too far in saying it publically. The divide quickly emerged, with Keane calling Ferguson’s assistant Carlos Quieroz a “fornicate waste of space”. A few days later Ferguson pulled Keane out of the reserve game he’d been pencilled in for, and told Keane he’d be stripped of the captaincy. Keane responded by calling his lawyers, and the next day his contract was cancelled. Many fans felt that Keane had been right, and chanted his name during the 0-0 draw with Villarreal the next time United played at home.

Keane then chose to head for Celtic, his boyhood team, and saw out his career there by winning the SPL title and the Scottish League Cup. There was one last thing to do at United however. With (officialy) 26000 Celtic fans in tow, he returned to Old Trafford for his testimonial (plans for a game against the Irish national team were shelved in 2002 for obvious reasons), when 72000 adoring fans paid tribute to one of the best players of his era. A tear in Keane’s eye as he gave his acceptance speech (having played a half for each side) revealed that anger was not his only emotion, and a few days later he confirmed his retirement from the game.

He was not out of football for long however, and returned as manager of Sunderland in August 2006. The team were bottom when he arrived, but he won promotion as champions, before keeping Sunderland up, a fine achievement which was forgotten in the wake of what happened the next season. Sunderland found themselves sliding down the table at an alarming rate, and Keane eventually left by mutual consent. He has more recently resurfaced as manager of Ipswich Town, with whom he had a disappointing first season, hoping to make a better promotion charge in the current campaign. Recently he shocked some United fans with his claim that he’d “wiped United from his history”, but if he did not have that attitude he would not have been the player who was so great for United, and who the adoring thousands (including yours truly) welcomed back to Old Trafford so rapturously when he returned with Sunderland. Whatever he achieves in management, Roy Keane will always be remembered as one of United’s greatest players first and foremost.

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  1. Roy Keane's Gum on

    A great read! Thanks for bringing back some good (and some not so good memories). My favourite player ever and someone whose career I still follow with immense interest.

  2. keane is legend we would not have the terrble if it wasnt for him the ganme against juve class pure class perfanmce . no one has close to him sence he has left love him to be united manger one day great ganme between stoke and villa should signed ashely young in the summer

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