Is Keane right about United's decline?
Published 09/12/2011 | 05:00
James Lawton: Yes - Corkman’s assessment cuts to bone of Old Trafford woes
Of course Alex Ferguson turned on Roy Keane in the first rush of his anger over Manchester United's humiliating ejection from the Champions League. Of course he sneered at his former field general's critical credentials. Wasn't he, after all, a failed manager?
That was the predictable public expression of deep private angst, but it also displayed the degree of Ferguson's agitation over the meaning of that stunning, destabilising defeat by Basel. It showed a man who knew the truth of Keane's blunt claim that United had simply deserved their fate.
And who was better qualified to say it? Ferguson might question Keane's managerial record, as almost everyone else does, but if his relationship with the player ended sourly -- and ironically around the time United were last dismissed from the Champions League at the group stage -- no one knows better than the Old Trafford boss quite what Keane, the player, the supreme enforcer of a manager's will, had always represented.
It is something beyond the successful organising and building of a winning team from the manager's office. It is an understanding of when a team is functioning properly, when it has put itself in position to win, and when, and why, this is not the case.
Keane aimed his blows at what he believed was unacceptable levels of complacency in the team heading for Switzerland. No doubt his assertion that United "got what they deserved" had a much wider application.
Surely it touched the fact that many of Ferguson's recent announcements have suggested that he was entering a period of denial. Before the game, he mocked suggestions that United had to survive a crisis.
"What kind of crisis was this?" he asked with an edge of scorn in his voice before listing all the reasons the question was nonsense.
He had players who lived with pressure every week of their professional lives. It was their second nature. They understood what was required of them in Switzerland and it simply wasn't an issue. Then the roof fell in.
Why? Because there was no one like Roy Keane in the dressing-room, not one ready to wage a one-man war against the idea that anything less than a total effort would carry the team through.
Before and during Wednesday's game, Keane saw warning signs that he had recognised at least 100 times while playing for United. But then he had the power to shape events, to roar and to cajole and, most of all, lead by superb example.
For many, including the great Bobby Charlton, the supreme expression of this capacity of Keane's came in Turin 12 years ago when he almost single-handedly led his team back from a two-goal deficit in the Champions League against Juventus.
In the course of a quite extraordinary individual effort, Keane picked up the yellow card that ruled him out of the final against Bayern Munich. The personal disaster did not, however, glance against the surface of an astonishing commitment.
What would Ferguson have given for such a contribution as his troops wilted against ill-considered Basel? Rather more, you have to believe, than his £35m-plus overture for Internazionale's hugely influential Dutchman Wesley Sneijder in the summer.
Those who believed that Ferguson sooner or later would be haunted by his failure to persuade the United ownership to part with the money that would have delivered Sneijder's signature could not have expected such swift vindication. Maybe it was this, as much as the manager's foul mood of bitter disappointment, that provoked the savage dismissal of Keane's observations.
Interestingly, Keane's former team-mate Gary Neville did not on this occasion risk the ire of Ferguson. Since his retirement from playing, Neville has earned good notices and in some cases rave reviews for his work as a TV analyst. This week, though, Neville settled for a workaday defence of his old mentor.
Ferguson, said Neville, would assess the position carefully and would not rush into panic buys. He would have his list of preferences and if the top one or two were not available, he would not lunge down the list. He would not panic.
But then some sources close to the Old Trafford hierarchy might react with the question, why not? Certainly there is a growing sense that United, having been banished from Europe, might be in danger of facing the kind of quick and demoralising regression which had been unthinkable ever since Ferguson made his first breakthrough in the early '90s. The third round of the FA Cup at the home of fellow Champions League casualties Manchester City became huge at the moment of the final whistle in Switzerland.
In the league there might even be a threat to United's presumption of automatic qualification for the Champions League, a fear compounded by the stirrings of Chelsea and Arsenal and the momentum of Tottenham. United do have a cushion at present but it has hardly looked secure for some time.
In the wake of the Basel defeat, Patrice Evra talked about living in a dream. Others might be more inclined to speak of nightmare. Rio Ferdinand confessed to being a man separated from one of the certainties of his professional life and could only shake his head at the new regime of Thursday night Europa League action.
For some at Old Trafford, last week's Carling Cup defeat by Crystal Palace was just as devastating as the fall in Basel. Champions League defeat cost £20m but the failure of United's much heralded battalion of prospective stars went to the very heart of the club's hopes for the future.
Certainly, it was no doubt a contributing factor to Ferguson's bleak mood. Having been forced into a midfield combination of the venerable Ryan Giggs and the extremely promising but still callow Phil Jones, his case to the owners will have to be insistent.
The United manager needs a significant reinforcement in the middle of the team, someone of the quality of Sneijder. He needs the Dutchman for his tough understanding of how it is you shape a team on the field, how you set the kind of competitive standards that went missing so disastrously this week.
No one ever did this for Ferguson quite as consistently as Keane, which is probably why Ferguson greeted his voice as rather more than a provocation. You have to believe it was a reproach that went straight to the bone.
Paul Hayward: No - Heaping blame on young players shows why he failed as manager
A clue as to why Roy Keane has failed in management could be heard in his pontificating from the touchline in Basel on Wednesday night. The self-appointed barrack-room conscience of Manchester United has a habit of selecting the wrong target.
United's problem, Keane diagnosed in the mortifying Champions League defeat, was the youngsters. He told ITV viewers: "I'd be getting hold of some of those lads and saying, 'You'd better buck your ideas up'." Except that this will never happen because the clenched-face warrior flamed-out in Alex Ferguson's profession after a promising start.
"Roy had an opportunity to prove himself as a manager and it's a hard job," Ferguson responded, applying disdain as cold as the winter night to his description of Keane as "a TV critic" now.
There were echoes in old Roy's prognosis of the MUTV outburst that hastened his departure in November 2005. Then, too, he played the role of alternative manager, dismayed by the inadequacies of younger men lucky enough to share his air space.
The big problem with this swipe at the team who crashed out at the group stage in Switzerland, it seems to me, is that it merely offered the accuser a chance to fantasise about lost power. Ten years ago, Keane could have barged through that dressing-room, indulging his tendency to belittle and to blame.
Ferguson would make no claim to have been in Keane's class as a footballer, but as a psychologist, team-builder, supporter of youth and clan loyalist, the "TV critic" would not be within emailing distance of his old mentor.
Keane knows more about football than most of us, but surely he can see that United's weaknesses have stemmed from the more senior pros and not Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Danny Welbeck or David de Gea, who are in no need of a lecture from the former Ipswich Town manager.
On the retreat from Basel, depressed United fans talked most critically of players they considered to have regressed, or who were "not good enough in the first place". On a 7.0am flight back to London that was hardly an airborne comedy club, I heard no mention of Ferguson's bright young things.
The hardcore will say Patrice Evra has ceased to defend his channel, that Ji-Sung Park is ineffective or that Ashley Young's good start at United has fizzled out. They wonder why Antonio Valencia has been subdued this term and kick around the mystery that is Dimitar Berbatov.
The youngster most often mentioned, Tom Cleverley, is talked about in yearning tones. They miss his enterprise and thrust. But for Keane to infer that 'big-time-charlieism' has infected the stars of the future suggests an inability to work out what might be wrong with a team. Always, with him, it comes back to an obsession with true grit.
Which brings us nicely to Ferguson and how he will respond to this setback. Not, you can be sure, by giving up on the next generation. In United's preoccupation with gilded youth, some detect a smokescreen for the debt-laden Glazers to hide behind. They suspect the owners of pursuing an upmarket Moneyball approach where age and resale value is everything.
To say United have stopped spending is not accurate. Jones, Young and De Gea cost more than £50m in the summer.
Where the screw is tighter is on wages. Wayne Rooney's new deal, struck a year ago, shook the club's whole pay structure but has not led to huge salary offers to the kind of midfield artist United lack. On that score, they lost out to Manchester City on Samir Nasri and appeared to be put off by Wesley Sneijder's astronomical pay in Italy.
Ferguson's strategic mastery is the buffer between the Glazers and the mob. With no guarantee of continued success when the Ferguson age has passed, the American speculators will dread the day he quits. The good news for them is that his retirement date will not be based on a private urge to depart in a burst of glory.
This point is missed again and again. If choreography was his bag, Ferguson would have walked away after the Champions League victory in Moscow or United's record 19th league title win. He is not some ageing monarch fretting about his legacy or a showman wondering how to leave the punters wanting more.
His paternalistic sense of United as a family with him at the head is so fierce that he would be more likely to stay on to oversee a bumpy phase than worry about whether he has a major trophy in his hand for the valedictory photographs.
This is the kind of bond that is built up over 25 years and one that Keane will never know. You have a problem, you react. It is not about self-aggrandisement. (© Daily Telegraph, London)