Roy Keane: Mature figure watching from the sidelines
In his playing days, Roy Keane was among the most intimidating figures in soccer. But Eoin butler finds maturity has tempered the Corkman's infamous rages
The international code is for the United Arab Emirates. I dial the thirteen-digit number I've been handed and wait for a response. In a hotel lobby, 4,000 miles away, an English-speaking receptionist connects me to Roy Keane's room.
"What is it," I ask him, "about footballers and Dubai? Can't you guys take your holidays any place else?" The former Manchester United captain sounds relaxed and in good humour. "I'm working here," he jokes, "trying to find some new Irish lads, you know yourself."
The Ireland assistant manager has assumed his post at a time when morale among supporters is at an all-time low.
The biggest names in the side that performed so abjectly at Euro 2012 were all veterans of Keane's playing days. And the new talent coming through has, so far, failed to make an impact.
Is Keano like the rest of us? I wonder. Whenever a player named Jon Flanagan, say, or Connor Wickham impresses in the Premier League, does he immediately rush to Wikipedia to check on their eligibility?
"No, I wouldn't go that far," he says. "But yes, you're constantly looking at players' names, making discreet inquiries. You mention Connor Wickham. I was aware of Connor when I was manager at Ipswich, so you're always on the lookout. But football is a very small world."
At this point, I imagine Ireland's most iconic sportsman peering out the window of his luxury hotel room and spotting Niall Quinn, Andy D'Urso and Alf-Inge Haaland on the sunloungers below. "Hmmm," I imagine him thinking. "Perhaps I'd best avoid the pool today".
"So how many young prospects are there in the pipeline?" I ask. "Me and Martin are hearing about different players every day," Roy shoots back. "But I'd be wary of mentioning names just yet. I'd be wary of putting that pressure on them.
"But it isn't all doom and gloom. There are some good Irish players out there. Fingers crossed a few of them will come through for us in the next few years."
Rewind three years to January 2011. Roy Keane had just been sacked as manager at Ipswich Town. For the first time in his adult life, the Corkman found himself out of a job in football for a prolonged period. How did a person so immersed in the claustrophobic world of professional sport readjust to civilian life?
"It was fine," he insists. "Normal stuff happened – day-to-day stuff. There was nothing hanging over me. Nobody I had to answer to. In that respect, I enjoyed it."
Sir Alex Ferguson's recent autobiography included a chapter called 'Outside Interests'. It was mostly about wine, horses and, I suggest, historical tyrants he tried to emulate (Keane laughs but refuses to take the bait). What might he call a similar chapter in a book of his own?
"Watching sports, I suppose. Spending time with family, walking my dogs. Years ago, when I was playing, people said that I had to have a hobby. So I play a bit of snooker to relax. Things like that."
While Roy enjoyed his break from the game, he was not destined to sit around the house. He jokingly recalls a trip to Nigeria with former Chelsea centre-half Marcel Desailly: "We were asked to do a gig for Guinness. It was only three days, so I figured why not? When the wife and kids heard there was a danger I might get kidnapped (he pauses), they were doubly keen for me to go."
Even in an industry as volatile as soccer, Keane's appointment to the Ireland set-up last November confounded most observers. His antipathy towards the FAI had been public knowledge for most of two decades. Indeed, he and the association's chief executive had traded barbs in the media as recently as last summer.
Was it wishful thinking, some wondered, to expect that a man once accused of stepping on the toes of Sir Alex Ferguson would not also soon exceed his brief as number two to Martin O'Neill?
I suggest that part of the rationale for the FAI in approving his appointment could be seen as something of a marriage of convenience between a wounded hero desperate for a route back to the game and an FAI aware of the potential commercial benefits to be gained from plastering his face all over their matchday merchandise.
Keane's response is remarkably frank. "D'you know what?" he says. "I don't know. I'm really not sure. All I know is Martin gave me the call and said, 'Are you up for it?' Do I realise there's another side to it? Do I appreciate there are commercial considerations? Of course. I'm not daft.
"You'd have to ask Martin about his decision. But I'd like to think those reasons weren't top of the list."
Of all the unlikely twists and turns Keane's post-playing career has taken, his current sideline as big match analyst for ITV sport has perhaps proven most fascinating to observe.
For years, he had derided football punditry, saying he would consider a TV job only "if I fall on hard times". But since performing a volte face, he has proven a revelation in the role.
Of course, most people never expected Keane to spout banalities like Jamie Redknapp or Michael Owen. Keano the pundit was always going to be controversial.
But what surprised many was the quality of his analysis. Keane never courts controversy for its own sake. Nor does he ceaselessly contradict himself from commercial break to commercial break. As a big-match analyst he is thoughtful, dispassionate and brutally on-the-money.
"There'd always been offers and I'd always said no," he says. "But I was offered the Champions League final between United and Barcelona at Wembley. I really wanted to see the match but didn't want to be bothering anyone for tickets.
"ITV got in touch through my lawyer on the Wednesday. They called at 11.45am and said they needed an answer by 12pm. In that 15 minutes, I looked at my horoscope and it said something like, 'You can't keep saying no to things'. So I said yes."
Because of his horoscope? "Yes, absolutely." Is he yanking my chain here? Honestly, I have no idea. But a fair portion of the afternoon is spent cross referencing decisions in Keane's career against the relevant day's astrological charts (May 23rd 2002: "Don't let any longstanding grievances eat you up inside. Get them out").
TV work, he emphasises, though, is not a long-term deal. "I don't intend to be doing it for years," he says. "I'm sure a lot of people say they'll do it for a year and end up doing it 15 or 20. But my first priority is working with Martin and the team."
The public have an image of Keane as an intense, highly strung individual. But once every spring, at his annual photocall for Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind's SHADES campaign, they have seen a softer side to his personality: intense, highly strung and standing next to a puppy.
Given his love for dogs, it's no surprise the Cork-based charity is close to his heart. "The public might be fed up of looking at me asking for money every year," Roy says, "but having seen the work this charity does over many years, I'm so impressed by them. They really change people's lives."
I can't help mulling over whether the public's own vision is impaired when it comes to evaluating their own greatest living sportsman. Ever close to his Mayfield roots, Keane has always remained grounded, even as books and musicals were being written in his honour.
But chatting to him today, I've heard much to suggest that, in middle age, he is funny, self-aware and, dare I say, rather likable. Would he change the public's one-dimensional image? I ask. Or is he happy enough to leave them with the caricature?
For a moment, I fear the line has dropped. "That's not a bad question," he finally admits. "I always had a certain public image. The media played a part in that, but I'm sure I did too.
"The sending-offs, the skinhead haircuts, one or two off-field incidents. People automatically assume you're like that away from the game. But as you get older, you get more mature. You act differently. Truthfully, I don't think I was ever that person away from the park."
We talk about other things. His favourite recent movie was 'Dallas Buyers Club', a film that was, coincidentally, also singled out for praise by his former boss Alex Ferguson at last month's Oscars ceremony (even in their estrangement, the similarities between the two are striking).
When I ask if the forthcoming memoir he's working on with Roddy Doyle (due this year) was written in response to criticisms Ferguson made of Keane in his book last year, he finally loses his temper.
"You've asked me some good questions today, Eoin," he snarls. "But that's ridiculous. You obviously don't know me. That is a ridiculous, ridiculous question."
Being snarled at by Roy Keane, I should add, is not the worst thing in the world. In fact, it's a little like being insulted by Don Rickles. I'm so in awe of the guy it actually feels like a great honour.
I mention 'Keane & Vieira: Best of Enemies', a recent ITV4 documentary that made a generation of men sigh with nostalgia for an era that has scarcely passed. In a vintage display of petulance on the programme, less than a month after Ferguson's book was published, Keane selected Brian Clough as the greatest manager he'd ever played for.
He also chose a greatest XI from among his former Utd team-mates that included several players (Jaap Stam, Paul Ince, David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy) who had fallen out with Ferguson, but excluded others (Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and, most astoundingly, Paul Scholes) who remain close to the former boss.
But Roy has a confession to make: "That programme is not something I'm entirely happy that I've done." "But it was brilliant," I exclaim. "Whether people liked it or not, I felt uncomfortable picking my best XI. I felt embarrassed leaving players out. I feel like I disrespected team-mates. And if you asked me to name my best XI now, well I wouldn't do it, first of all. But if I did, there'd probably be three or four changes."
I had intended to ask Keane if there is really any point continuing to pursue a feud with a 72-year-old man with whom he had shared so much success. As an admirer of both of them, I really hope I have just received my answer.
What about his claim, I ask, that he was tougher than Vieira? His reply contains three statements it would have been inconceivable to hear five years ago.
"A lot of that stuff would have been very tongue-in-cheek," he admits. "Patrick is six-foot-four. If he wanted to get a hold of me, I'm sure he could have.
"It's all just a big game we're playing, at the end of the day. People really shouldn't take these things so seriously."
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