Roy Keane has been an Irish hero. Roy Keane has also been an Irish villain.
His name has soared from the terraces in chanting unison when he has worn a green jersey in Lansdowne Road.
His name has also been jeered from the terraces in chanting unison when he has worn a green jersey in Lansdowne Road.
Roy Keane's name has even been chanted in the stadium when he wasn’t playing at all.
He has been voted Ireland’s Player of a World Cup tournament. He has also left a World Cup tournament before a ball was kicked.
Since debuting against Chile in 1991, he has been a player, pundit and assistant manager, a pivotal presence – even in absentia – throughout so many key junctures of the country's storied history at major soccer tournaments.
There has rarely been a dull moment when the Keane edge sharpens into view. His name is box-office, whether emblazoned on an Irish football shirt, a book, a musical or a chat show line-up.
And even when he was been working in another country, embedded in another club culture entirely, his opinions on Ireland’s success – and quite often its lack of success – has often generated more interest than the views of those intimately involved.
The story of Keane and his inextricable link to Irish international football at major tournaments may not be over yet; should they qualify for the rescheduled European Championships, he will almost certainly be in a TV studio sitting in judgment.
Always captivating, Keane’s career contains a myriad of contradictions which, at once, testify to his extraordinary genius as a sportsman but also his ordinary vulnerability as a human being.
For every person evolves in a lifetime and Keane has been no different; it is impossible for people to remain stagnant.
And it is this aspect of his character, as well as the immeasurable quality of his performances, which has captivated the Irish public for three decades.
Love him or hate him, maybe. But it is always impossible to ignore Roy Keane.
As much as Keane is central to Ireland’s soccer story, he always felt on its periphery, a status often over-blown later when events would be deployed retrospectively as evidence of Keane, the outsider.
Whether due to his diminutive stature or geography, Keane absorbed the skin of that outsider at an early age; rejection was one of the early traits that formed him, and the consequent desire to prove people wrong.
In the season bookended by Ireland’s first two appearances at major tournaments, Keane combined a season with Cobh Ramblers with participation on a FÁS Course where one of the main men was Maurice Price, who was also a member of Jack Charlton’s backroom team.
It didn’t take long for Keane to impress more influential football folk than just Price.
The day after Ireland drew 1-1 with England at the World Cup in Cagliari, Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest publicly announced the signing of a promising young midfielder.
His ascension was swift, so much so it created an impromptu clash of club and country, marking a trend that would be maintained until his (final) international retirement 14 years later.
Keane had already played for the U-21s and had been less than impressed with Charlton’s assistant, Maurice Setters – “I smelled bulls**t” – the odour would follow the pair around for some time.
Charlton fancied using Keane in a 1990 friendly but Clough wanted his player for a Full Members Cup quarter-final away to Barnsley.
Price, the man he once tried to impress, was Charlton’s interlocutor.
“Jack says if you don’t come, he won’t pick you ever again,” said Price.
“Well,” answered Keane. “If that’s the way it is, so be it.”
It’s difficult to know which to take more seriously; the threat from the occasionally pantomime bully or the recalcitrant diffidence of the fledgling firebrand.
In any event, a debut against Chile chilled any serious heat.
A summer trip to the US in 1992 would ensure the temperatures didn’t dip too much, however. It may not have been a major tournament but it would form the genesis of a much more incendiary story more than a decade later.
Ironically, Mick McCarthy would assume the role of the demanding captain when berating a young Keane for being sidetracked on a post-match p**s-up with a few colleagues while a coachload of Irish players patiently waited.
Although the roles would one day be reversed, this particular narrative had already been established; for already, Keane had demonstrated the same disregard for his manager on a similar trip 12 months earlier.
As with most major historical figures in any walk of life, revisionism looms large, especially when interpretations of events are naturally coloured by the witnesses’ own testimony.
However, advancing times and tides must inevitably influence opinions and Keane’s view of events can vary wildly; distance, be it from the World Cup that was or the World Cup that never was, present different personal perspectives.
In this regard, Keane would later paint Charlton’s tactics as inept; indeed, he was quite often generally dismissive of the entire period, into whose latter era he has emerged as an impressively significant substitute.
And yet it is amusing to trawl the archives and his own ghosted words in our sister paper, the Evening Herald, from that summer of ’94 when he enthusiastically embraces many of the aspects of the Irish football culture from which he would later violently resile.
Whether it was the wonderful Irish fans celebrating despite defeat or the “brilliant” tactics of the manager, Keane’s view as a player stood in stark contrast to his later views in a variety of different guises.
As a pundit in 2012, he would rail against the Green Army’s jollity as Giovanni Trapattoni’s stilted squad imploded spectacularly in Poland amidst the daily revelries of thousands of Irish, including the Italian’s boss, the FAI CEO.
Later still, as an assistant manager, he would be forced to defend a style of play that many feel was almost as sterile as that deployed by Charlton, albeit ultimately far less successful.
The contrasts and contradictions are not merely filtered through the passage of time – for example, the drinking culture in football would change dramatically as Keane and the equally stratospheric Premier League grew up together.
Keane’ relationship with drink, misunderstood by many people, but most crucially himself, was a key aspect of his life’s passage; he had controlled it long before so many still assumed it had controlled him.
The vacillations in Keane’s changing views are also influenced by Keane’s day job.
Once he joined Manchester United, Keane began to morph into the persona with which his Irish fan base became much more familiar: a warrior figure who demanded nothing less than total commitment, forged in the image of an ultra-competitive squad and a myopically driven manager.
For a multitude of reasons, these circumstances could never simply be transferred into the international arena but Keane would spend a lifetime arguing profusely that there was no reason why they could not.
On many occasions, his principled stances would be franked by historical perspective; on others, his intransigence betrayed not the selflessness of a squad member but rather the selfishness of a star player seeking special treatment.
And so there were times when his name was chanted from the four corners of a ground and times when he was booed from the very same bleachers.
After his Irish debut, Keane came of age in Seville when Ireland played a 0-0 draw against Spain at the start of a 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign that would take them all the way to the second round. His influence would grow exponentially.
And yet already, the seeds of the future were being sown, if not on that team coach in ’92, then when he was unwillingly utilised as, in his words, “a convenient patsy” to patch up a training ground bust-up with his detested nemesis, Setters.
For there was a World Cup walk-out in 1994, too; this time led by one of his predecessors as captain, Andy Townsend; Keane admitted he followed the herd, an interesting counter to a trait he would later (“sheep in a heap”) cuttingly condemn.
Keane perceived a public humiliation, a set-up; if – or when – something similar ever threatened him again, he would ensure that his reaction would be entirely more potent and independently minded.
As the junior man, Keane took the rap but he came of age on the field.
He would end the tournament by being voted Ireland’s best player; afterwards, he reflected positively on the benefits of a lengthy build-up to adapt to the heat and humidity Stateside.
And when it was over, he appreciated the support in defeat and the consolation pints and yet railed at the fraud of a homecoming in the Phoenix Park. Contradictions abounding.
He also mused wistfully about what it might be like to lead Ireland into another World Cup.
So, too, did the rest of the country….
The world would witness the just how forceful eight years later when, on an island, Keane became the personification of one.
Ireland would not qualify for another major tournament until the one he would ultimately quit prematurely in 2002.
In the intervening period, he would emerge as one of the world’s most influential footballers at one of its leading clubs.
Keane remained young at heart – the party animal of 1992 would continue to get into scrapes in the UK for some years yet – but his notoriety as a principled leader of demanding standards was steadily emerging as his leading character trait.
Portentously, or not, when a fledgling McCarthy succeeded the fading Charlton as manager, Keane got sent off in his first game; it seemed symbolic of the rocky road ahead, where every public utterance was parsed for weighty significance.
Sometimes one didn’t have to dig too deeply; as Ireland ached for the big time, decisions like the deployment of Keane as a sweeper against Iceland in Dublin (sound-tracked by jeers) offered historians neat prologues for unwritten drama to come.
After a slew of near misses, Ireland finally succeeded at McCarthy’s third attempt; Keane’s displays against Portugal and Cyprus were memorable, so too the decisive home win against the Dutch, a fortunate victory, as quite a few of Ireland’s major successes have been.
The post-match handshake has, also, expanded in significance with each passing year, so too his opening minute tackle on Marc Overmars.
For us, the most compelling sight on that Beautiful Day was Keane, alone and imperious in defence, surrounded by friend and foe, and yet seemingly stopping time as he calmly assessed his domain.
As you will read exhaustively elsewhere in this series, Saipan stymied any attempt to consummate the tentative marriage between two larger-than-life personalities, the difficulties already evident when Keane missed the second leg of the World Cup play-off against Iran.
For a strident, no-nonsense personality, concise communication was not always Keane’s strong point.
And, when it was, its timing was more often than not ill-judged, as his frequent outbursts as assistant manager would betray.
He didn’t regret his 2002 departure – he even left his boots behind and bequeathed his gear to hotel staff – but later he would file a motion for regret.
Keane would end his exile when Brian Kerr was appointed manager – notwithstanding an early hitch, of course – when the manager was made to look a little silly, and Keane a little surly, on the eve of his opening match in charge.
Injury and age had by now thieved the tenacity of yore from the Keane edge and it seemed faintly fitting that he was injured when Ireland’s expulsion from what might have been his second World Cup was confirmed against Switzerland.
A second, and final, international retirement inevitably followed.
After a typically volcanic exit from Old Trafford, his club career also soon ended and so began a life in the uncertain arena of management; with mixed results, Keane assumed a different persona, his public reconciliations with figures such as Niall Quinn and Mick McCarthy thawing his frosty relationship with many in Ireland.
He didn’t entirely retire his caustic world view, as sundry personalities from Paul McShane to John Delaney discovered when Thierry Henry’s sorcery ended Ireland’s 2010 World Cup campaign.
Two years later, he excoriated the Irish supporters for their enthusiastic efforts to drown their sorrows as Trapattoni’s Ireland disintegrated in Poland.
Soon, he would take it upon himself to bear the weight of their often impossible dreams.
When Martin O’Neill got the job, the previous flirtations with Keane’s name became the stuff of reality.
At times, it seemed like a circus; a spectacular altercation with the pub owner who had served him all those years ago at the US Cup was just one of the most notable front-page headline grabbers.
The side struggled to create them on the back pages but eventually stuttered into Euro 2016, Keane now seemingly more sanguine about the difficulties involved at international level, as well as being mildly more sympathetic to the supporters’ unwavering backing.
His distant sneering at 2012 was now supplanted by empathetic realism.
It was often uncertain what Keane’s role actually was – “I make the tea!” – but, whatever about his tactical input, which seemed inadequate given the poverty of performances, his legendary motivation skills resonated.
Ireland developed a reputation of a side who were difficult to play against, who found it difficult to play themselves, and yet always managed to combine both these facets until the final knockings.
The Euro 2016 campaign typified these traits at various times, stunningly against Germany in qualifying and a weakened Italy in the tournament itself. Some of his rallying calls were spellbinding.
Never mind that this was a template borrowed from a regime he had despised a generation before – they sang “We’re all part of Jackie’s Army” as Keane jumped for joy when qualification was secured in a play-off.
Responsibility ensured that his deep-seated principles could always be compromised.
Not all of them, however. The incendiary “WhatsApp” row – more contradictions or just the evolution of a human being? – may not have ended his time with Ireland but it may as well have done.
From then on, he was wedded to mediocrity and those clothes always seemed ill-fitting.
Ultimately, his departure ended in a most unKeane-like fashion, perhaps reserving one last irony and contradiction.
He departed with a whimper, a most prosaic exit for one whose central role in great Irish soccer dramas has captivated us from one century into the next.
And with the certainty of another chapter to come.
The Nation Holds Its Breath Premium
Not only was Euro 2012 Ireland’s weakest performance at a major finals, the run of three defeats and the goal difference is the joint-worst outcome in the history of the European Championships, Giovanni Trapattoni’s side a beaten docket after one game.