Barry Egan chats exclusively with Roy Keane on his career, his family, Saipan, Cork and the pursuit of happiness
It was early September last year and Roy Keane was in Dublin with Gary Neville for a gig at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, talking about their Manchester United glory years.
At the Marker Hotel, alongside the theatre, I was introduced to Keane a few hours before he went on stage. I’d never spoken to him before, but we got talking over a coffee. It was a chat, not an interview — that much was made clear. Very definitely not an interview.
The previous weekend, Dublin and Kerry had played out a draw in the All-Ireland football final. Had I been to the game, he asked? I told him I’d spent the day at Temple Street Hospital with my four-year-old after she’d broken her arm at the playground.
“That’s not a real injury,” he smiled. “She could have gotten the bus in herself.”
Coffee over, he autographed a white napkin from a table nearby for my son and said goodbye.
That week, I emailed his agent about a possible interview. It was politely declined . . . maybe some other time.
That usually means ‘never’, but every now and then this business can surprise you. Nine months later, locked down at home along with the rest of us, Keane had the time and the inclination to talk. We agreed to speak at 1pm the following day. He called right on the button.
It was a week before he returned — explosively — to a TV analyst role with Sky Sports, savaging Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea and defender Harry Maguire at half-time in Friday’s 1-1 draw at Tottenham. For many, the real talking point on the night was Keane, rather than the game.
But that was hardly a surprise, for he has always been box office.
Barry Egan: What’s the difference between Roy Keane, the football legend and Roy Keane, the man who walks his dog?
Roy Keane: I’m not into all this legend stuff. You put your boots on now and you’re a legend, particularly in Ireland. You play five games for Ireland and you’re a legend. You score one goal you’re a legend. Scratch your arse and you’re a legend.
When I was going to matches — and I had this throughout my career, going back to Rockmount — I was going to work . . . I was going to work. And I’d like to think I am a different person away from my job. I’m not saying it’s chalk and cheese. But I was going to earn a living, trying to help my team win a match.
At every level I have played, I was trying to win matches. Since I was eight years of age, I took football very, very seriously.
BE: Do you ever think about things like your legacy?
RK: Nah, listen. That’s certainly not something I would be comfortable with. That’s not my scene. If I had a bucket in front of me now, I’d be throwing up.
BE: If I told you that you couldn’t play, you’d be more comfortable.
RK: I’m more comfortable with criticism. You’re right.
RK: It keeps you on your toes.
BE: Did you get positive stuff from your family growing up?
RK: [Laughs] No, not really! Are you joking? I still haven’t got it. Christ almighty! It didn’t work that way, as you know. Typical Irish family. Just got on with it. My family will probably tell me that my three brothers were better players than me.
BE: And were they?
RK: I’d say so, yeah. They were very good players. They played at a very good level. And if they had the luck I had, it could have been them. Most sports people weren’t as good as they thought they were. I never won a trophy in my career at Man United or Celtic or Rockmount. The team did.
BE: Where did that come from?
RK: From eight years of age I played the game to win. Would I give that advice to kids now? Obviously not. But I played to win.
I was from a competitive family. I’m a Keane, but my mother’s a Lynch. Sport is in her family. I have sport running through my blood. So, along the way, I was going to push people. I had to.
A good old Irish friend said to me years ago, ‘Roy, you just need to lighten up a small bit.’ And I try. I try to lighten up. But regarding football, I couldn’t lighten up, because if I lightened up too much in football, I would never have got to England. And if I did, I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes.
I had to be intense. I had to train properly. I had to push myself. I had to push people around me. I don’t make apologies for that. That was who I was. Even pre-season, any game I ever took it easy in, I guarantee you I was the worst player on the park.
I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. It just wasn’t in my make-up. And sometimes that would rattle a few people, even in training. I’d go, ‘I can’t do it [take it easier]. I wish I could. I just can’t.’ I wish I had. You know when you want to let a bit of steam off? I couldn’t. If I thought, ‘We’ve no game for two weeks and my hamstring is a bit tight, I’ll just go easy’, I couldn’t do it. I had to be full pelt.
BE: Why was that?
RK: Fear. Fear of failure. Fear of letting people down. When I came to England, I had wanted to be a professional player for a long time. I wanted to win trophies. I wanted security for my family. I wanted a nice house. I wanted a nice holiday. I wanted a nice car.
BE: What are you frightened of now? Some people who have that fear earlier on in life, it just keeps transferring on to other fears.
RK: Not for me, thank God. It was that football bubble that I was in. There is no guarantee that I’ll be doing TV next year. There are no deals lined up. I’m speaking to one or two, [but] if none of these things fall into place I am actually quite relaxed. And maybe that’s because I am out of football now.
I have always loved the game. I don’t always like what goes on around the game. If people want to pigeonhole me and say, ‘He’s this or that, the legend stuff, or ‘he’s an oddball’ . . . listen, my job was to win football matches. And generally speaking, the teams I played with were all okay with my attitude to the game. Did I always get it right? I made mistakes, like everybody else.
BE: What mistakes did you make?
RK: Stuff like letting teammates down by getting sent off. Sometimes I would try and push them. Sometimes I was too hard. Sometimes I was too soft. If I was critical, looking back on my own career and how I dealt with people, even in management — and people mightn’t believe this — but I reckon that sometimes I was too nice to people.
BE: Too nice?
RK: Absolutely, yeah. That was one of my weaknesses. Being too nice. I try and look after people. I try and please people. And you end up trying to please everyone, and we all know what happens to people who try to please everybody. You come unstuck. I had that in my career.
The bottom line is, I finished at 34 because of the injuries. The guilt is part of being a sportsperson. You play when you shouldn’t, not the other way around. I put my body on the line when really I should have been strong enough to say: ‘I’m not fit today. I’m not fit to train.’ I was constantly pushing myself. And you get criticised for missing games because you were injured. As I say, all the experts are out there.
There is always that element going on when you are in top level sport. Even dealing with managers or players, sometimes I turned a blind eye. I was too nice to them. And then eventually when people trust you and they think they’ve got . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? Eventually they think they can take the mick out of you. Obviously people stab you in the back. People stabbed me right in my chest, it wasn’t in my back. Because I was too nice to them.
BE: Who stabbed you in the chest?
RK: There’s plenty. There’s plenty. Plenty stabbed me right in the chest. People who I thought I trusted throughout my life, whether it be contract stuff, managers. People. That’s what they do. That’s the nature of the game we’re in, with football. I understand that. It’s tough going. You’re battling on the pitch. You’re battling off the pitch, whether it be injuries or contracts [or] the way people are treating you. And sometimes you have to put a front on.
Because of the position I played, in the middle of the park, people were hitting me. I was hitting them. Every time people talk about my career they talk about the people I tackled or hurt, forgetting obviously that I was hurt quite a number of times myself. But that’s the kind of game people play. That’s the deal. It’s give and take. But this idea that you’re working with good people all the time . . . I’ve been very, very lucky. Some of the best people in my life, the majority of people I know, are through football. But I met people as well who I still regret that I got involved with. A number of people. People I trusted.
BE: You’re talking about Fergie [Alex Ferguson].
RK: I’m talking about a number of people. Listen, don’t be putting words in my mouth here. I’m talking about a number of people here and not automatically just United. I have been involved with other clubs. And I have been involved with Ireland. And from a player’s point of view, I have been involved with off-field stuff, whether it be people doing contracts . . . whatever it might be. And there are a number of people who I look back now and go: ‘Shame. Shame on you.’
BE: Was it that much of a shock to you that a big corporation like Manchester United would treat you the way they did in the end?
RK: I didn’t say it was a shock. Where did I say it was shock? I never mentioned United. Put it this way: I’m certainly not the first or the last player to be treated badly by a club. I read that poor Tony Dunne passed away the other day and from what I hear and read, and I know you can’t believe everything, he was very disappointed with the way he was treated. So, again, I’m not the first. It doesn’t keep me awake at night.
BE: Is there anything that does?
RK: At the moment, no. No, no. Sleeping well.
BE: What about Covid-19?
RK: You know, I haven’t been too bad. I know people are suffering and it has been a huge setback. Obviously, I am very lucky. I was supposed to have some work, the usual stuff. I had the Euros coming up. But in terms of dealing with it and being in the house with the family and all, if I’m honest, I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed the bit of not chasing around. I’ve enjoyed getting myself a bit fitter. I’ve been out on me bike.
We’ve got a pool in our house, luckily enough, which I’ve cursed for the last 13 years. But the last two months I’ve not been out of it. I’ve really got into the bit of swimming, the bit of exercise, and obviously I’ve got my couple of dogs. There’s lovely walks near where I live.
I’ve missed the football. I miss getting back to Ireland. This is the longest I’ve not been back to Ireland for a number of years. There is obviously a huge downside now. People are a lot worse off and struggling and so many have died. But in my own house, we coped okay with it.
BE: What else are you doing with yourself?
RK: I’ve managed to get back into a bit of reading over the last one or two months. I’ve not actually been watching that much television, which is unlike me. It goes to show I’m just used to watching football. When there is football on, I have watched one or two old matches on the television. I watched Liverpool v Aberdeen from 1978 the other night. I really enjoyed that. I also watched two old United games.
BE: What have you been reading?
RK: I read Woody Allen’s book a couple of weeks ago and I really enjoyed it. I was laughing out loud. I enjoyed him. He was funny. At the moment I’m reading something a bit heavier, Easter 1916, about the Irish rebellion. I wish I listened a bit more at school during my history lessons, but I’m enjoying it.
BE: What do you think of the rise of Sinn Féin in Ireland?
RK: Ah, listen, I just started out reading this book. I don’t want to go there.
BE: Apart from Woody Allen, what else makes you laugh? I watched an old clip of you throwing the ball at Alan Shearer at Newcastle in 2001 and I laughed.
RK: No, that wouldn’t make me laugh. It would make me think that ultimately I’m getting sent off and letting my teammates down. I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I was always walking that fine line anyway but that was the gig I had. I had to play on the edge. But that was stupid. That’s not playing on the edge, that was stupidity. But again, at the time we were losing and I would have been irritated by that.
BE: What’s the biggest mistake people make about you?
RK: I don’t know. There’s a lot of people coming out. There’s been a lot of stuff said about me. People on podcasts and this and that. All these stories, and I’d say 99 per cent of them are certainly not true and the other per cent is highly exaggerated. So, these constant stories, whatever is put out there. Whether it be the way I handled players or whatever it might be, when I left United or with Ireland or with different people . . . I get pigeonholed. It’s hard to shake that off. So people might be a bit wary, shall we say. I don’t know.
BE: Do you care?
BE: Do you care what people think of you?
RK: I think nobody likes to be criticised. Criticism is part of the game. I have never minded being criticised but I think there comes a point, when people literally are telling lies about you. I’m including media with that. I don’t just mean players. You certainly know it is not going to help you get back into work quickly. But that’s up to people. They can carry around their own guilt, if they want to tell lies about people. And I do mean lies.
I think people’s memories play tricks on them. And I’m sure also that they get stitched up themselves in things they’ve said. But you asked me do these things keep me awake at night. No. I’m okay.
* * * * *
BE: How do you reflect on Saipan in 2002 now?
RK: Saipan? Well, if you want to analyse that spell in my career, I always think you should look at what management and playing is. And when you’re a manager you want players to go out and have a go for you. We played 10 games in the [qualifying] group. I think we were unbeaten in 10. I’m not saying that was down to me. But I would like to think I helped the team.
Obviously I played the first game of the play-offs [against Iran], missed the second leg. Again, I finished when I was 34, and all of a sudden I am having all these accusations made against me in front of a group of players about a game I missed. But it is not for me to understand. That’s for other people to sort out themselves.
All of a sudden I’m having a manager [Mick McCarthy] making accusations about me about a game I missed, and who, all of a sudden, was a medical expert. You know?
But instead of focusing on Saipan and what happened, I do count my blessings that I played in ’94. I think if I had never played in the World Cup that would have been . . . but I played in ’94. Again, my relationship when I was with Ireland was slightly different to at club level. But when I was playing with Ireland, my job was to give my best — and I did.
When people say, ‘I love playing for my country’, I get fed up with that. As if you need to say that. I never used to say it. When I hear people get interviewed [saying] ‘I love my children’, I’m like, ‘What?’ You need to say that you love playing for your country?
I was constantly fed up with people saying that. I was fortunate to play for the under 16s, 21s, Ireland Youths. I think I played 67 times [for the senior team] and considering I missed three years when I left after Saipan and I was out with a cruciate for a year, I have no guilt whatsoever about any issue I had with the Irish team. I enjoyed it. It’s just unfortunate. But that’s for other people to answer.
I don’t understand why a manager would get worked up about a player having missed a game when we had already qualified. It’s bizarre, really. But then again, I shouldn’t be surprised.
I was fortunate to play under some brilliant managers. But I also played under one or two shit managers. I saw an interview the other night — Alan Shearer was interviewing Terry Venables about England at the 1996 Euros when they got in trouble for the dentist’s chair and allegedly they damaged it.
There was drink involved, whatever. And Alan Shearer said, ‘Do you think the players let you down?’ Terry Venables, who is a pretty good manager, a pretty experienced manager, said, ‘No, no, my job was to focus on winning football matches.’
Maybe if other people I worked with just focused on trying to win football matches or not get stupid advice from people, or go on an ego trip, then I don’t think that would have happened [in Saipan.] But that’s not my stuff to deal with.
BE: What was going through your head on the plane home?
RK: You’ve got to be careful there. Because when I hear people talk about stuff that happened 20, 30 years ago, your memory can play tricks on you. [But] I’m pretty sure I was thinking, ‘It’s done. I was wronged.’
Generally speaking my relationship with Ireland, with the dressing room and with Mick, wasn’t as strong as club level. When I went to play for Ireland you wouldn’t see fellas for three or four days. You wouldn’t cross paths. You would be working or going for breakfast with a load of strangers.
So, I didn’t come away from Saipan thinking, ‘I can’t believe that’s happened.’ I sussed one or two of the people I worked with over the years. I’m kind of not surprised, but I go back to it, life goes on. I’d like to think I might have helped the team.
Things can get heated, it’s all part of the game, I see it in other sports. All the people — it was the same at United — who are now very good on the TV and are doing a lot of talking and are very good at the media, said very little at the time. They’ve all found their voices, you know, 15, 20 years later.
In the heat of meetings, these kind of leaders, shall we say, or alleged leaders, never said a word. I know if I was in Saipan and there was accusations getting made against — it could have been any of the players — I definitely wouldn’t have tolerated that as a senior player. I’d have stepped in and said, ‘No, no, no. Stop all this.’ I know things can get heated. But strangely enough with Ireland, and even with United, things were very quiet.
BE: Do you ever laugh when you hear some of the impersonators take you off?
RK: No. No. It takes a lot to make me laugh, you know?
BE: You’re supposed to be prickly.
RK: Listen, it’s a bit tongue in cheek. Sometimes you get a reputation. Sometimes I play along with it. Sometimes they want favours from me. You have a laugh sometimes and you play along.
I’m a footballing person. I love the game. I love having the crack. I like working hard. I like switching off. I wouldn’t say I live and breathe football 24 hours a day but I’m very serious about my football. You’re on about ‘Do you laugh?’ ‘Are you happy?’
BE: Are you?
RK: To me, it’s not about being happy. I like being a bit peaceful. To me, it’s about being relaxed and at ease and being with good people.
BE: Do you believe in God?
RK: Yeah, I believe there is something up there looking after me. Absolutely.
BE: Do you pray?
RK: Yeah. I have faith. I was brought up with that. I went to Mass. Listen, I have no halo yet, but we’ll see. Put it this way, I’m working on the old halo. But, yeah, I like a laugh and a joke. When I’m doing the TV, people say I’m very serious. Any company I work for, I always say to them: ‘If you want a comedian, then I’m the wrong man.’
I am not going to be one of these ex-players who thinks they’re a comedian. I listen to these people on the television who try to be funny, whether it be quiz shows or podcasts, and I’d rather stick a hot poker in my eyes. I swear. I don’t know why they think they’re comedians, these fellas. Listen, they are trying to find a niche for themselves, which is fine.
BE: What’s yours?
RK: My niche at the moment is if people want to employ me to do TV stuff then I’ll try and be on time and I’ll be respectful to the people I’m working with. But don’t think you’re going to get Tommy Cooper.
BE: What comedians did you like growing up in Cork?
RK: I loved Norman Wisdom. He was brilliant. I think Billy Connolly is really witty and really clever.
BE: Dave Allen?
RK: Yeah, he was fine. I could listen to all these fellas. You’re on about me laughing? I’ve gone to one or two comedians. I’ll find people funny, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t understand when I see people belly-laughing. You know, belly-laughing at a joke! I don’t get it. Jesus, I don’t get it. People laughing out loud. I don’t know about that. I’m not ready for that yet.
BE: When was the last time you cried?
RK: I cry at some things on the television.
BE: Like what?
RK: It’s kind of a daft question. What makes you cry? Fucking hell. Sad things make me cry, do you know what I mean? Something happens to people you love, that makes you cry. Sometimes there’s a movie, and there’s a scene . . . Yeah.
* * * * *
BE: What was Cork like for you growing up? A few weeks ago, I interviewed the editor-in-chief of Glamour in New York, Samantha Barry. She said that when she was six months old she lived three doors down from you in Mayfield.
RK: It’s a small world and fair play to her for doing so well. Up the Rebels.
Growing up in Cork was brilliant. But my life was all about sport. My life was sport. When people say to me, ‘I’m trying to get my kids into sport’, I’m like: ‘Sport? If kids don’t want to get into sport, they’re not going to.’
You’re on about coronavirus. I was looking forward to a really good summer. I had visions of being down at Páirc Uí Chaoimh watching the hurling and the football. In a sense, you can just enjoy the moment. I know that sounds a bit cheesy and a bit spiritual. Then, all of a sudden, that’s taken away.
But growing up in Cork? I always go back to my bit of luck. Being born in Cork, a big plus for me, obviously. Growing up in Mayfield. Rockmount was a really good club. I played for two brilliant managers. I played with brilliant players; players who were much better than me. When you compare me to players — people talk about Scholes, Gerrard, Lampard — these guys were way better than me.
BE: Frank Lampard was a better player than you?
RK: Yeah. Gerrard and Scholesy too. I’m not saying they had the same influence in their teams as me and I couldn’t compete with the guys, but, yeah, they were better than me. I had lads at Rockmount better than me. I’m under no illusions about that.
BE: Have you stayed in touch with those lads from Rockmount?
RK: I speak to them all the time. The majority of lads I meet up with when I’m in Cork are lads I played with when I was in sport, or in school. They’re all doing well. They’re all decent fellas. They’ve had their ups and downs.
You’re on about the news — I try and avoid it. I pick up the news about Cork and people are getting stabbed. The world is changing. Don’t worry about what’s going on in America. Look at what’s going on in Ireland. You need to look outside your front door before you start pointing fingers. I don’t like to see or hear these things.
BE: You mean the criminal gang feuds in Ireland?
RK: All that. But I’m sure all that was going on in the ’70s and ’80s. There’s always something going on that we’re not happy with, but you know when you see a kid of 16, 17, getting stabbed, you think, ‘C’mon.’
BE: Did you suffer any racism when you went over to England as a young Irish man?
RK: Nah, nah, nah. I used to get the odd bit on the football pitch from players.
BE: What would they say to you? ‘Irish bastard’?
RK: You keep doing this. You keep putting words in my mouth. It wasn’t ‘Irish bastard’, but it might be Irish anything. I went to games in the last few years scouting for Ireland and I had it outside two different grounds. ‘You Irish this’ and ‘You Irish that’. But, anyway, it’s not an ideal world we’re in. And football has given me the greatest life ever. But it’s like everything else, there is going to be disappointments and distractions.
BE: So, going back to your friend’s advice, how did you lighten up in your non-footballing life?
RK: I just didn’t let things get on top of me. I mentioned earlier about trying to please everybody, I have certainly copped myself on with that. I’ve learned to say no now. I know sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone but if your whole world is just doing favours for people you’re heading for trouble.
You can have too much exposure as well — that can kill you. So I have to get the balance right. Over the last few months, because of the lockdown, I’ve not had to leave my house. I’ve really enjoyed my house. I’ve enjoyed sitting around, doing nothing. I’ve enjoyed being bored. I’ve enjoyed not having to feel I have to go out to do something. Being restricted in going to Ireland is disappointing, but you have to think, ‘Ah, nah, sit with yourself for a few months.’
BE: What do you miss about Ireland?
RK: Just going back. I love seeing the family, seeing buddies, having a cup of tea and a bit of a chat. Going to watch a hurling match. It could be anything. It could be going to watch Cork City or Cobh. Just having a break from England. I would go back for about three or four days. Over the last few years, I have enjoyed going over on the ferry. I love the ferry.
I remember coming to England years ago with a team from Cork. We came over to watch a couple of games and we had a great laugh. So when I go back on the boat now it just brings those real child-like memories back to me. It really does. I love the freedom of my car. I would rather drive back than fly. Obviously if I am back for one or two days the flight is easier, but if it is three or four days, I jump in the car.
I do love my freedom at the moment. I love not being under contract. I miss the Irish [assistant manager] job, honestly. I really enjoyed that. People like Seamus Coleman, Seamus McDonagh, Steve Guppy. Ah listen, I loved it.
If I can make one point about the new Irish staff. I’ve heard a lot of bullshitters over the last 10 years and Keith Andrews is up there with the best of them.
BE: Would you like to get back into management?
RK: I hope so. I hope so. Listen, I think it’s going to be very difficult to get back into it. I’m not daft.
BE: Why will it be difficult?
RK: I think a number of reasons. A number of people . . . my reputation wouldn’t help. I certainly know that. I don’t know many people out there [who would] do me many favours in the game. People say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And I don’t really get involved in that environment. Which is fine also, because you don’t want too many people doing you favours.
I was fortunate to get the Sunderland job. I think my track record there was okay. Not fantastic, but I think it was okay. Ipswich, could have been better. I think I did some good stuff at Ipswich.
What I find strange is that some managers get some opportunities and that’s the end of them, and I’ve seen other managers with a worse track record than me get seven, eight, nine jobs. That’s the bit where I scratch my head.
Maybe there is no working that out. But listen, if other lads are getting opportunities, good luck to them. And some get more than others. That’s the kind of luck you need. That is one word I have used throughout my career. I think I have been very lucky, and maybe I used all my luck up as a player.
But it’s still there. I still have that desire to take over a team and help a team. But I don’t constantly look at my phone thinking, you know . . . it’s not red hot. It is red-hot with other stuff, but not stuff that has me thinking I would like to get my teeth stuck into [that].
But I still do think there is enough people in the game who, if they analyse it properly . . . I have good experience. I have managed at a decent level. I think I could do a good job for somebody. That’s it. I think I could help a club and work with a team and make them better. Let’s see what happens.
BE: Could you see yourself back in management in less than a year or thereabouts? There are no crystal balls, I know . . .
RK: There is no crystal ball, but to answer that question, I think yes. Sometimes I have a funny feeling. I feel there might be something out there for me that might come up in the next few months and I’ll be ready for it.
BE: Liverpool are about to win the Premier League title after 30 years. How does that make you feel?
RK: I’m certainly not anti-Liverpool. When I was growing up in the ’80s, Liverpool were obviously a brilliant team and I had a lot of respect for players like Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton. I take my hat off to [that] Liverpool. They were a very, very good team. They were constantly winning League titles.
People will always connect me with United, but I would never begrudge a team winning the League. They deserve it. They have been outstanding over the last couple of seasons. The sign of any good team is to be consistent, and that’s what they’ve been.
I think the industry is quick to hand out credit. It’s about what Liverpool do after winning it. Teams have had good seasons and faded away.
So, to win the title is amazing, a fantastic achievement, but the important thing for any big club is to kick on. How many titles can they win over the next five, ten years? That’s how I judge the really good teams.
It’s the same with players. I’ve seen players have one or two good seasons and they get a bit giddy, a bit excited. And before you know it, you don’t hear of them any more.
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