Wednesday 18 September 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Chronicles of Keane go from best-selling story to a full-blown saga'

Roy Keane. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Roy Keane. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Perhaps a lesson to be learned from the Roy Keane chronicles, if we didn't know it already, is that the anti-hero often has a longer shelf life with people than the mere hero.

These chronicles have been running for more than 25 years now. What began as a best-selling story with his transfer to Manchester United in the summer of 1993 has become a full-blown saga, taking the central character through his decade of glory, his many battles, his years in management, in punditry, and now his current phase as the anti-hero in exile.

His previous workplace is a roaring factory that produces players great and small and in-between, but spits them all out alike when they're finished, at the back end of a conveyor belt that never stops producing its raw material and then discarding it upon expiry.

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A small percentage of them will re-train as managers in order to stay on the factory floor and, if they succeed, can enjoy a second career inside the machine. Keane has had his varying stints in this line of work and hopes to do so again. But the law of diminishing returns has been steadily draining his reputation in this sphere for several seasons. It is a familiar trajectory for many an ex-pro: the managerial career that dwindles away until he is finally expelled from the system for good, not forgotten but no longer relevant. Even great players get borne away by the tide and washed up on the crowded shore of yesterday's men.

If they want to, they can then hit the nostalgia circuit and spin the old yarns to middle-aged blokes in hotels off the motorway, off Broadway, down the boondocks of memory lane.

But in Dublin last Wednesday more than 2,000 people turned up for Keane in a state-of-the-art entertainment venue built for West End musicals and mainstream commercial shows. He sold the place out.

It was a two-hander with his old United mucker Gary Neville. They were interviewed by Joe Molloy and Nathan Murphy, from Newstalk's indefatigable Off The Ball team. Neville can also command a crowd these days, given his stature as the pre-eminent television pundit in British football. But as soon as they walked out onstage at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, the chants of 'Keano' went up from the crowd. He had them eating out of the palm of his hand before he even sat down.

Long after his body gave up on him, his aura remains magnetic. His star quality survived intact when United turfed him out in November 2005. The star dust that surrounded him then remains luminous still. It occupied the vacuum that is normally left behind when a player retires. Usually there is a black hole where the talent once was; usually the charisma is in the talent; the talent is the charisma. And when the talent disappears, the charisma fades with it too. The star dust pales with the star.

Keane's lives on, maybe because his greatness as a player was so dependent on his life force as a man. It was not built on technical mastery or extravagant natural skills. He was highly efficient with the ball and possessed a massive engine for the athletic demands of centre midfield. But it was his voracious intensity that set him apart. It was a ferocious kind of energy. Translated into football games, it meant he wanted to win more tackles, cover more ground, win more games than seemingly any of his peers. In a world of alpha males, this was the fuel that made him undisputed patriarch of the Premier League pack.

Evidently, this emotional intensity could not be switched on just before every match, and simply switched off again at full-time. It wasn't the playing of the game that inspired it; it was what inspired the way he played the game. Sometimes it controlled him as much as he controlled it. His notorious confrontations with authority sprung from the same source. It was in him before he ever became a pro and therefore it was still in him after he finished as a pro. It did not die just because his physical ability to play the game eventually died. It lived on because it is part of who he is as a human being.

And it makes him at times an unpleasant human being, as his performance on Wednesday night occasionally reminded us, when he turned scornful, vindictive and petty with some of his remarks. But he was there for over three hours and, for the most part, he showcased the charm and the electric intelligence that has often been buried beneath the caricature. Keane has always had a razor sharp mind.

Of course, the footballers' incorrigible sense of humour was on display too; most of them are not as funny as they think they are; Keane and Neville were at times hilarious. The chemistry between them was a study in itself. As team-mates, the full-back had a reputation for being the goody-two-shoes while Keane was the dark enforcer; Neville was the bass player, Keane the brooding front man; Neville the teacher's pet, Keane the dissident and non-conformist.

Neville has grown up and carved out a huge profile from his television work; he does not seem to be as deferential to his former captain these days. But there was no doubting which of them held the balance of power on Wednesday night.

Neville blanched as he sat there listening to Keane taking out Alex Ferguson by the roots, lashing their old manager with the same cold fury that the old manager adored when it was being inflicted on others. He couldn't be tamed then and, at 48, there's not much sign of him being tamed now either.

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