Monday 24 June 2019

James Lawton: Remorseless, ferocious and vengeful but Roy Keane was a force of nature that was indisputably one of the world's greatest

In his peer group of one, Keane's true greatness lay in an understanding that when a game was over it was history

Roy Keane with Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo
Roy Keane with Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo

James Lawton

Early one morning in Marbella 20-odd years ago, when the most rheumy eyed of the tourists were tottering to their beds, I saw someone of intense purpose about to cross the road with an armful of rubbish. It was Roy Keane and he was glowering.

I stopped my car and waved him on. It was not the grandest gesture to a young man who had already announced himself as a great football warrior and, knowing enough of his nature, I hardly expected an effusive response. However, I did think it might be worth slightly more than a suspicious scowl.

But then who am I to complain about the lordly rages of Roy Keane? John Giles once complained, mildly, that he was brusquely dismissed by the new young hero from Cork when they were first introduced at an airport. All these years on, no one is free from a Keane putdown, a scatter gun of vituperation.

My esteemed second cousin Niall Quinn was once described as an "old woman," which seemed a poor reward for a notably valiant career plus an oft-stated admiration for his critic.

Rio Ferdinand, the super-star record signing, received several withering assessments, along with almost every Keane team-mate as they battled along the scorched earth created by the furies of his will and his demands, not least on himself.

And here, maybe, we come to the most significant point 25 years after Roy Keane's arrival at Old Trafford, not as another hand-picked recruit of obvious talent but a force of nature, a man not just to uplift his new playing environment but transform it.

Some debate the relative value of Alex Ferguson's insight into his signing of Eric Cantona, a year before Keane, and the Irishman honed by the fierce expression of Brian Clough's ambition at Nottingham Forest, one which included an exasperated punch in the face.

Keane, significantly, did not cower or whine but accepted he had paid a price - an extremely tangible one - for a failure of professional duty.

Between the Frenchman and the one from Cork there was a significant difference.

Cantona had his rages, as a sneering Crystal Palace fan came to know in an incident which led to the player's six-month suspension, but he also had a certain whimsey, an understanding that there was meaningful, measurable life beyond the football field.

He once told me that when he went on to the field he was accompanied by the ghosts of Old Trafford and that was also true when he took part, often blearily, in a local pub match.

There has been no such revelation from Roy Keane and what it means is that when all the questions are raised, when the debate about his proper function in football, from Martin O'Neill's assistant to the routine and, let's be honest, sometimes wearisome controversies of his TV punditry, is over, there is one part of Keane that is indeed a personal fortress.

It is Roy Keane the player, the ferocious, vengeful, untouchable player.

The revenge he took on his adversary Alf-Inge Haaland was without pity or remorse.

It was the action of a man who would never defer to the jury of public opinion. And, journeying back to those years when he made such an impact on Manchester United, when he set his own standards and made himself the head of a team which at its most intense moments could resemble a wolf pack bearing down on some hapless referee, we are reminded each step of the way that there is only one lasting, impregnable judgement on the career of Roy Keane.

It is that he was indeed one of the world's greatest players. It is a verdict endorsed by no less than Pele when he included him in his top 100 players.

But then was ever a footballer less in need of the approval of the game? He had a peer group of one and beyond it criticism could dry like tepid spittle in the desert.

One of the more vivid memories is of his taking on Patrick Vieira in the tunnel at Highbury. Keane saw the big Frenchman putting the arm on Gary Neville and that just wouldn't do.

The referee, Graham Poll, having separated Keane and Vieira, agonised over not administering two red cards before the players stepped on the field.

The greatness of Keane was not so much in his skills - which were formidable - or his wolverine instinct for weakness in an opponent, which was nothing less than savage, but his understanding that when a game was over it was history, there was nothing more that could be done and God help anyone who had not delivered all that he had.

Plainly, when Brian Clough punched him in the face he was not administering a lesson but re-enforcing one he had learned for himself.

Some of the most acute critics of Keane the player, the supreme competitor, are unanimous when they reach for his finest moment.

It was when he led United to the superb semi-final recovery against Juventus which carried the team to the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich. Keane, despite a yellow card that ruled him out for Barcelona, became the team that day. He was its heart and its sinew and its self-belief.

The normally fastidiously polite, Bobby Charlton, admits offending directors' box etiquette by remaining on his feet for almost every moment of the game.

"As a young player I was once mesmerised by a performance from Alfredo di Stefano at the Bernabeu," Charlton recalls.

"Di Stefano's control of every situation stunned me. With Roy, it was the strength of his commitment, the sheer scale of his determination. It was nothing less than awesome."

"Watching Roy Keane that night in Turin made me feel very humble. It told me I was associated with something that was great," said Alex Ferguson.

For so many of the finest players such a statement might be etched in gold, a lifelong passport to that peace of mind which comes when you know you have explored and touched the limit of your powers. But perhaps not Roy Keane. Maybe his needs are more elusive.

It means that he may just have to settle for the glory he had, a terrible glory in its fury, but a glory nonetheless.

Irish Independent

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