James Lawton: Why we need Roy Keane back
Published 04/11/2011 | 05:00
He stood there with a microphone in his hand and a look on his face which said that, of all the places he might want to be on the face of this earth, the touchline at Villarreal this week was certainly not one of them.
Not with his TV interviewer babbling a series of inane questions.
Not with the need to make airy pleasantries with Patrick Vieira, the adversary he once battled to a standstill in pursuit of the mythic title of Premier League football's most influential player.
But then if Roy Keane's casual stint as an analyst of Manchester City's crushing Champions League triumph over the Spanish club was marked by some evident personal discomfort, it may well have served its purpose. At one of the lowest points of his football existence, he put himself back in the eye of both the public and the employing classes.
Certainly it gave us at least five reasons to mourn, however ambivalently, his latest absence from a game he served with such extraordinary intensity.
Keane's craggy, unyielding on-air performance reminded us quite how thinly the quality of hard, even brutal, honesty he has so long carried like a suit of clothes is spread across the surface of big-time football.
"Now," he was asked, "can City go on and win the Champions League?" Keane looked at his interrogator with an expression normally reserved for visitors from another planet.
Probably not, he suggested with some firmness. Despite the recent convulsion of their 6-1 home defeat by City, Keane reckoned United were probably still a notch further up the European ladder, along with Bayern Munich. And then there were Barcelona and Real Madrid, operating on a distinctly more rarefied level.
But then he shrugged and allowed that if City had faced almost non-existent opposition this night, if it was impossible to draw any significant meaning from such an imbalanced contest, they were still undoubtedly enjoying the benefits of some extraordinary unfolding talent.
It was instant, withering reality -- not what TV generally prefers but something probably impossible to separate from the presence of Keane.
With Keane out of football, the potential for gut-deep divisions in arguments about how the game should be prosecuted is quite sharply reduced.
This is not about honesty, real or perceived, as much as attitude and if Keane's is sometimes hard to embrace, it is rarely easy to ignore. As a manager he failed at both Sunderland, ultimately, and Ipswich, but these were no ordinary failures.
They were marked, as much as anything, by a contempt for all those around him who he believed failed to match his own set of values -- a position which led to his departure from Old Trafford without the kind of immense general regret that might have been expected after such a crusade of a playing career.
Keane filled football with his will, his intransigence in the matter of what is right and what is wrong, and if the game is a less contentious place in his absence, less angry and polarised, it is also diminished in its life-blood potential for genuine human drama.
Keane smouldering, walking his dog in a massive huff, seeking to live professionally almost entirely on his terms, has always been something of an echo of his first mentor, Brian Clough -- always a fascinating example of someone who believed emphatically in his own ability to beat the odds.
The presence on the Spanish touchline of Vieira reminded us of what Keane has so long represented. It is a supreme ambition to inflict himself on every situation.
Seeing them together this week inevitably took us back to that time at Highbury over six years ago when Keane confronted the towering Frenchman in the pre-match tunnel, intimating that whatever issues existed between the two teams, they paled against the battle for personal authority that would be waged that night. Quite soon, Keane laid waste to Vieira in a breathtaking tackle. United won the game 4-2.
There was that other Keane who performed so brilliantly in the 1999 Champions League semi-final in Turin, when United fought their way back into the tie with Juventus on the back of their captain's extraordinary performance.
Later, Bobby Charlton said he had never seen commitment quite like it. "It was embarrassing at the end of the game," he recalled. "I realised later that I spent most the game on my feet cheering Roy Keane's performance. You're not supposed to do that in the directors' box."
Keane's absence from football, we were reminded this week, at the very least represents a dwindling of drama.
Yes, of course John Terry of Chelsea is a one-man journey into the outer reaches of controversy, while Wayne Rooney is never quite sure what face to present -- the one of a football angel equipped to produce the most exquisite deeds or the snarling one of a street ruffian -- but it was different with Keane.
He could require the attendance of United manager Alex Ferguson in a police cell in the early hours of a morning over a matter unrelated to football but never at the expense of the belief that his greatest battles, and scrapes, would always come out on the field.
Watching his uneasy performance on television, you could see only a man detached from his natural terrain -- a man, deposited by the years, on the wrong side of the touchline.
As he refused to play the bland game of 'me too' half-truth football punditry, you had the powerful sense of a man who hankered for football on his own terms.
He came near to it, for a while at least, at both Sunderland and Ipswich but he never got the results to go along with the endlessly pugnacious style. He could conjure anger and contempt as easily as some men muster a sigh, but where should it really have been directed?
His heaviest critics say he most persistently avoided the most obvious target: his own unwillingness to face the football world as it is, the modern footballer as he is, and not how he would liked them to be.
This week some reports suggested that Leicester City, having dispensed with Sven Goran Eriksson, may see the return of Roy Keane to football as something vastly, and maybe profitably, different.
Leicester have spent considerable amounts on their playing staff. Perhaps they see in Keane's authority, his tough-minded pursuit of superior performance and commitment, one way of rescuing some value.
For the rest of us there is another reason to endorse the possibility of his return. It is that when we see Keane with a microphone in his hand, slashing through some of the easier assumptions of the football world, we find that we miss his contribution to the game.
We miss his dark passion. We miss the suspicion that beyond its financial rewards, Keane still finds in football the most compelling challenge of his life. We want him back because of what, through all the disappointments and the failed expectations, he still represents.
It is the belief that if football will always be a game, it is still worth the attention of seriously committed men.
In this considerable matter, Roy Keane, the reluctant TV man, plainly still has few rivals.