Wednesday 22 May 2019

Snooker with Fergie, lads' holiday and meeting Mandela - the summer that changed Roy Keane and football forever

It’s 25 years since Roy Keane made the headlines with his £3.75m British record transfer from Nottingham Forest to Manchester United – a move that began a remarkable story that continues to unfold

Roy Keane is unveiled as a Manchester United player in July 1993 Photo: Getty
Roy Keane is unveiled as a Manchester United player in July 1993 Photo: Getty
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

July 1993. The news of Roy Keane's transfer to Manchester United shared the sports headlines with Stephen Roche's final Tour De France and Ian Botham's farewell to professional cricket.

On the news pages, there were concerns that Northern Ireland was being used as a 'political football' with unionist support propping up an unpopular Conservative government.

The R & A did provide some cheer north of the border by suggesting they might bring an Open Championship to Royal Portrush before the end of the century.

In some ways, it was a different world. In other ways, it was just an older version of the same one.

But football was entering a period of extraordinary change and the subject of that summer's big move would be at the heart of it.

A quarter of a century on, he remains the biggest name in Irish sport. Maybe even in Irish life.

And at the World Cup just gone, he was the loudest voice on an ITV panel that seemed to prevail in the UK television wars.

There's something quaint about scrolling back through the archives to a time where Keane was an emerging star rather than a household name. Some of the quotes don't quite fit in with the persona.

"There was only one club for me. It should be called 'Magic' United", said Keane, in an interview after his £3.75m switch from Nottingham Forest was announced.

That said, he was back on point in the next paragraph. "They wanted me to sign for five years but I thought four was more than enough. You can always come back for a new one after a year or two."


In the end, he would stay for a dozen years, and effectively leave through the back door following a bitter row that brought the curtain down on a glorious chapter in his career. A chapter that would never have started in the football environment that exists today.

The story is well told at this stage. Keane met with Blackburn Rovers manager Kenny Dalglish on a Friday and agreed to sign for the club. But when the Scot rang Ewood Park to get the contract drawn up, the admin staff had clocked off for the weekend. And off meant off.

Keane went home to Cork to celebrate and woke up on Sunday morning to be told that Alex Ferguson was on the phone.

That led to an invitation to Ferguson's house for a game of snooker that kicked off a brilliant alliance which only turned sour after a decade of sustained brilliance.

It's the definition of a sliding doors moment.

Would Blackburn have lasted the course with Keane in the centre of the midfield? Would Dalglish have persevered in management? What if Arsenal had succeeded with their late bid? How would Keane have fitted into the raucous dressing room culture which Arsene Wenger tried to dismantle when he rocked up three years later?

Keane had a reputation that was touched on in an Irish Independent piece by Frank Stapleton reacting to the news, although it now reads as an insight into the era where the pitfalls of fame were viewed through a slightly more innocent lens.

"The obvious point being made about Roy and Manchester is the amount of temptation there might be to go off the rails," said Stapleton, "I don't think he need necessarily fall into any major errors.

"There are discos in even the smallest village, so if you're looking for temptation it's out there to be found. Roy is a single guy who likes to enjoy himself, and he can do so provided he's careful."

He celebrated his transfer by going on holidays to Cyprus with pals, with an angry Dalglish initially promising to track him down.

That said, there was a thriving social scene at United too, and Keane did embrace it in the early years.

His arrival essentially confirmed the end of Bryan Robson's stint, but the former captain explained on a visit to Dublin earlier this year that he had actually endorsed the new arrival.

""In my last year at United and, because I wanted to become a manager, the boss always allowed me - because I always got in really early - to go up and sit in the trainers' room and have a cup of tea and chat with them," said Robson.

"This one morning in pre-season, they were chatting about Keaney, he was telling them what the price was going to be and he was asking them their opinion, whether they should go for it or not, and I just joined in with the conversation and went, 'Look gaffer, I've played against him quite a few times - I'd definitely pay that price for him.'

Robson reckoned that the prospect of breaking the British transfer record was the only reason that Ferguson was in the slightest way hesitant.

"I think managers are always conscious that, if you're going to break the record, you'll have discussions and hope that they back up your thoughts about signing a player like that," he said.

Keane had become a very wealthy man overnight, although he has since spoken of rejecting a £400,000 a year offer from Blackburn to go with the £350,000 on the table from 'Magic' United.

It was initially reported that there was some dressing room disquiet over his wage, with speculation that Paul Ince was going to seek a salary rise in response.

By the time Keane's feet were under the table, he had secured a deal which ensured that he would always be the highest paid player at Old Trafford.

If a new face came in on a bumper deal, the Corkman's pay would jump in tandem. In the summer of 1993, Alan Shearer's £500,000 a year salary made him English football's highest paid player.

Recruits from outside Britain and Ireland were generally low profile nomads, but with Sky money changing the game, higher quality recruits started to populate dressing rooms. And wages soared.

His debut for United was actually against Arsenal in a friendly game in South Africa, an early version of the money-spinning summer matches on foreign climes that are now a vital part of the Premier League club calendar.

But the tourists were in the minority. Spurs were in Ireland on the day that Keane's move was confirmed, with Teddy Sheringham on target in a warm-up match with Drogheda at United Park.

They didn't exactly have a squad that would be selling tickets beyond these islands. United and Arsenal were on the way towards that status.

Nelson Mandela met both teams before their match. It was televised back in the UK and Ireland, after the English FA dropped objections over plans to screen it because the proper protocol had not been followed.

It was also reported that they were concerned that it would impact on the attendance for the Charity Shield match between the two protagonists several weeks later.

That would almost make you nostalgic for the time when a live match was a treat. The lucrative global friendly scene is now tied in with the TV deals that fund the beast.

It's harder to avoid them with the roadshow rolling into Dublin this week for the meeting of Arsenal and Chelsea that is win-win for the participants regardless of how the game goes. Money for nothing.

By 1999, Keane was coining upwards of £50,000 a week, but he had earned his rise. That's the going rate for an average Premier League player these days. Marquee players speak of six figure sums as a weekly wage, not as an annual salary.

Keane earns close to €500,000 per annum for his work as Ireland number two and his ITV work substantially boosts his earnings. He's making more money in his current guise than some of his old team-mates did in their playing pomp.

But Keane drove change, rather than benefiting from it. The imports raised standards of professionalism in English football and he adapted spectacularly after overcoming some early hiccups.

While others fell by the wayside, he survived to function as the dominant force in a great side and demanded that colleagues followed his lead.

In his new role as the grouchy pundit, dampening England's expectations and taking a world weary view of the noise that surrounds the modern game, Keane is cast as a character from the old school.

That's not strictly true, given that the rump of his career coincided with the rapid acceleration towards a personality driven football culture, where the brand mattered whether the subject liked it or not.

The younger Keane knew his worth, and was shrewd enough to capitalise on that as football became an extension of the entertainment industry.

Today's blue chip stars can collect huge sums of money for a favourable Instagram post.

Keane embraced the major earner of his day by donning a leprechaun outfit for a Walker's Crisp ad.

He had to play the game until he reached the point where he didn't need to do that anymore.

But he still sells. The strength of his personality stirs emotions, even if his setbacks in management have provided a reminder that he is human.

His life changed in the summer of 1993 when he inherited a level of spotlight that has never left him, and this was also a transitional period for the discourse around Irish football.

Edgier days were around for the corner, far removed from the feelgood vibes around the local boy done good.

This was the beginning of an era that has no end in sight.

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