'Burning Calories With The Pure Intensity Of His Being'

In an extract from his new book 'The Promised Land' about Manchester United's 1999 treble season, Daniel Harris tries to explain what made Roy Keane a great...

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The following is taken from the chapter in 'The Promised Land' about United's Champions League semi-final second leg against Juventus. Roy Keane has just scored to make the score 2-1 to the Italians, starting United's comeback...

The archetypal captain's goal was the defining moment of what would become his signature performance, "an amazing insight into the strength of his character", said Stam. Keane, on the other hand, found the ensuing fuss was "quite embarrassing actually" - typically contrarian but typically accurate. Newcastle in December 1995, Liverpool in the 1996 Cup final and at Anfield in 1997, Arsenal twice in 1999-00 and Madrid away in 2000 immediately come to mind as superior efforts, along with several for Ireland in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, against Portugal, Holland and Cyprus. Coming off at half-time in the last of those games and giving out about someone's misplaced pass, Gary Breen attempted placation. "We're two-up, Roy," he ventured. "That's not the point," came barking back.

But to identify specific games is almost to miss the point; it was the reliability of the brilliance that was so alarming, far more than its particular iterations. And it was this that made him such an effective captain. Giggs once appeared to joke that "fear was Keaney's greatest strength," before making it clear that he was being serious. "A lot of it was," he reiterated. "He would tell you whoever you were."

But the self-styled "Alan Hansen generation" had good reason to tolerate this rounded mouth, jerking arm aspect, because without him there would likely be no such moniker; the 1996 title was won with kids in the team, but delivered by grown-arsed men: Schmeichel, Keane and Cantona. And this was recognised within if not without, Gary Neville later admitting that "we were nothing without them".

Yet any moron can shout and bully, this only a small part of Keane's leadership style. He was a popular figure in the dressing room, proficient in laughing at himself and others, but like Robson and Cantona, his influence was underpinned by the confidence those others took in his presence. Ole Gunnar Solskjær rated him the best player he ever played with and who he'd pick if given only one choice, while Giggs acknowledged his principal contribution to be "his example on the pitch... just his performances."

But still there was more to it: "If Keaney wasn't playing well," he explained, "he would still contribute to the team, drive the team forward and get performances out of players who maybe weren't playing to their potential. I think that was Keaney's greatest strength" - and the mark of the true leader.

This ability was founded in an obsessive attention to significant detail learnt from Brian Clough, a man who once made him cry after a careless back-pass cost a late goal. "I only ever hit Roy the once," he said. "He got up so I couldn't have hit him very hard."

"If you weren't doing your stuff, Clough would spot it," Keane wrote in his autobiography. "A seemingly innocuous mistake that resulted in a goal conceded three or four minutes later, a tackle missed, or a failure to make the right run, or pass, would be correctly identified as the cause of the goal. It was no use pointing the finger at someone else - which is second nature to most players. He knew; you knew he knew. Every football match consists of a thousand little things which, added together, amount to the final score. The game is full of bluffers, banging on about 'rolling your sleeves up', 'having the right attitude' and 'taking some pride in the shirt'. Brian Clough dealt in facts, specific incidents, and invariably he got it right."

"Bluffer" is the ultimate insult in Keane's world, acting truthfully and according to principle the only standards requiring satisfaction. But this refusal to compromise is psychologically demanding. He recalls being unable to concentrate in his first FA Cup final, unsure whether his brothers had got in after spending the time prior to it sorting out his friends from Cork first, desperate not to be thought a big-shot - part of the reason he so often found himself back home for nights out. Similarly, living in digs in Nottingham, he asked his landlady whether he might decorate his room, and when she agreed, painted the walls and ceiling black, claiming it to be the only way that he could relax. It was no great shock to learn that he is a compulsive leg-shaker. Or in other words, his public persona belies an insecurity, the kind of insecurity that meant his first words on entering the United dressing room took the form of a pre-emptive strike: "I don't like you, you don't like me, let's just get on with it."

And now, lean, pinched and demonic, burning calories with the pure intensity of his being, he was the very personification of the red devil, scared of nothing and a worthy addition to a lengthy line of hard bastards including Frank Barson, Maurice Setters, Nobby Stiles, Jim Holton, Joe Jordan, Bryan Robson, Remi Moses, Norman Whiteside and Mark Hughes.

This had always been his manner. Before his debut for Nottingham Forest, made at Anfield, no one in the team had heard of him - "he was this young kid pushing the skips and helping with the kit", recalled Brian Laws. Then, Clough told him to try on the number seven shirt "to see what he looked like", concluding that "You look a million dollars. In fact, you look that good, you're playing." Stationed on the right wing and opposing John Barnes, the best attacker in the country, some might have been cowed. Keane was not cowed. Within five minutes, Barnes had not only been banjoed but "told what he was going to do to him", an "incredible debut" did thus ensue.

Also paying attention were United - "We tried to buy him right away," Fergie told FourFourTwo in November 1999. "He played against us three weeks after that - that's why we watched him at Liverpool, because we were due to play them at Old Trafford. They beat us 1-0, and at the kick-off the ball went back to Robbo and he cemented Robbo right away. Now that's not a reason for signing a player, but it told you something about his attitude. Playing in the big arena didn't phase him one bit and Robson didn't intimidate him in any way - which you would find quite surprising 'cos in Robbo's halcyon days he tended to do that to everyone - including his own players - the kind of personality he had. From that moment on we targeted him."

Growing up in a tough city like Cork, smaller than other kids and rarely hugged by his father, Keane quickly learned to protect himself. "Aggression is what I do," he once said. "I go to war. You don't contest football matches in a reasonable state of mind." And opponents knew it, team-mates knew it, and the crowd knew it; it's unlikely any player has ever imposed his personality to such an overwhelming degree. In any place you called home, it'd be his word that found you.

The trope is not uncommon in elite sport. Writing for ESPN about Michael Jordan, Wright Thompson observed they way he "has always collected slights, inventing them - nurturing them. He can be a breathtaking asshole: self-centered, bullying and cruel. That's the ugly side of greatness. He's a killer, in the Darwinian sense of the word, immediately sensing and attacking someone's weakest spot. His whole life has been about proving things, to the people around him, to strangers, to himself."

And the same was so of Keane, his edge inspirational to team-mates not as elementally possessed but able to push themselves as remorselessly, given suitable stimulus. "Anybody looking to throw in the towel had the perfect opportunity," he later wrote of going 2-0 down. "Anybody seeking to prove that they were worthy of playing for Manchester United also had the chance to f*cking prove it."

So it was that Beckham told Neville "we can do this" - suffixed, of course, by the obligatory "you know" - and "there was no sense of panic", recalled Stam. "Our mental strength had an effect on the Italians, I'm sure of it," he wrote. "They were used to teams rolling over after going 2-0 down. Not us. Everyone in a red shirt still wanted the ball, we all wanted to get forward and no one was hiding."

After 28 minutes, possession percentages appeared on the screen: Juve 38, United 62. Then Cole held the ball up, preparing Yorke for a shot which he dragged wide, and it was all very weird: away to Juventus in a European Cup semi-final, and it's one-sided. Every now and again, a person at the scene of a road accident finds a body trapped under a car, and, instinctively focusing every reserve of strength and adrenalin into the maelstrom of the moment, discovers the ability to lift it. That's what United were doing.

Daniel Harris is a writer, in shorter-form and about sport mainly for The Guardian. You can buy his 'The Promised Land: Manchester United's Historic Treble' in paperback or on Kindle here and follow him on Twitter here.

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