Saturday 21 October 2017

Alpha midfielders reveal much in mature recollections

The Couch

Roy Keane in his days at Manchester United
Roy Keane in his days at Manchester United

Tommy Conlon

A few days before going into battle against the Arsenal, Roy Keane's old injuries would start to flare up, like flashing red lights warning of imminent danger.

A few days before going into battle against the Arsenal, Ashley Cole went partying with them.

Tomorrow evening Chelsea will face them at the Emirates. Last Wednesday, Cole joined them at their Christmas bash in a London nightclub.

In that enthralling ITV documentary, which went out on RTE last week, Keane and Patrick Vieira spent some time regretting the current state of affairs. Well, Keane did anyway. Where was the spite gone, and the bitterness and the hatred?

"They're almost too nice to each other," said Keane. "Yeah, yeah," nodded Vieira. "Too much respect for each other," added Keane.

It is the prerogative of every generation to claim that the next lot have it easy. They're soft, pampered, spoiled: not like in our day. Old football pros are no different, even those who were still playing less than a decade ago.

But because sport lives in an eternal present tense, even the recent past quickly acquires the sepia hues of history. The abiding imperative is today's game, today's result, today's news. When it's over it is instantly forgotten; the next game is all that matters. The sporting universe is a sort of Neverland, a world of perpetual nows and abandoned yesterdays. It has an infantile impulse for the next drama, the next excitement, the next suspension of reality. And once gone, it is in turn discarded for the next attraction, like a child's unwanted Christmas toy.

It is merely eight-and-a-half years since Vieira and Keane last went head to head in Arsenal and Manchester United jerseys. But the excavated footage chosen for broadcast triggered memories that had lain dormant since May 2005.

The documentary was a thoroughly pleasurable excursion through a historical chapter that is really too young to be called history. So let's call it nostalgia -- for that is what it was.

But it was a very stylish, sharply-edited piece of work. Written and produced by ITV's veteran football reporter Gabriel Clarke, it helped greatly that the two protagonists seem to have escaped the institutionalised immaturity that befalls most adult males in a team dressing room environment.

There was little by way of the dreaded banter, forced laughter and chronic shallowness that plague any TV set where two or more footballers are gathered together.

Keane and Vieira spoke like grown-ups. And part of this was admitting that they hadn't always behaved like grown-ups on the field, or even in the tunnel.

Keane spoke of his "hatred" for Arsenal back then. The injured hip and knee, repaired but never right, would become inflamed in the days before battle as he stoked up the furnace in his head. Basically the mind was sending signals to the body. And a strange place it was, that mind of his, as we all know.

In there, a voice was telling him he needed to dominate, not just opponents like Vieira, but "even the players at Man United, my own midfielders." It told him that he needed to be "at my angriest" when playing Arsenal. It told him it was "my job to hurt players". The funny thing is, he's a funny man too, as in ha ha. His wit flashed in shards during their conversations, and Vieira laughed because he was genuinely amused.

The Frenchman was the cooler citizen. A more elegant ball player then, and more comfortable in his own skin now, he was the soothing foil to a player he admired unconditionally. "I loved every aspect of his game," he said of Keane.

It could've become a bit of an old pals' act, as the meetings of former sporting enemies often do, when staged for television. But there was too much intelligence and self-awareness on both sides.

Still, they sorted out a few incidents anyway, like the spat in the tunnel at Highbury in February 2005. We were familiar with Keane's version. He'd threatened violence on Vieira when he saw him having a go at Gary Neville. "You were picking on Gary," accused Keane. (We often wondered how Neville felt about someone else fighting his fights for him.)

No, Vieira replied, he was just fed up with Neville kicking Robert Pires at Old Trafford. "And I said

to him (Neville), 'Listen, we are not at Old Trafford here. This is Highbury. If you touch Robert I will come after you'."

Keane straight away understood. "(You were) protecting one of your team-mates." There was honour in that, as far as the Cork man was concerned.

Vieira's last act as an Arsenal player was to strike the winning penalty in the 2005 FA Cup final, against United. A few weeks later he was sold to Juventus, even though "I wanted to finish my career at Arsenal". And six months later Keane was turfed out of United.

United survived without Keane. Arsenal haven't won a trophy since. They aren't capable, says Vieira, of winning games while playing badly. And they don't have leaders like Adams or Keown or Campbell anymore. Or himself, of course, though he didn't say it.

This ongoing Achilles heel could come back to haunt them again this season, and maybe as soon as Chelsea at the Emirates tomorrow. He is still missed. But he'll always have Roy now, and vice versa: best of enemies, best of friends.

thecouch@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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