There will never be another player or pundit like Roy Keane

Matt Stead

Roy Keane was one of a kind as a Manchester United and Ireland legend and remains precisely as such in the punditry booth.


Who’s this then?
Roy Maurice Keane is now 49 years old. A 5′ 10″ midfielder born in Cork, he is still possibly the most notorious Premier League player of the ’90s and early 2000s.

Starting out at semi-professional Cobh Ramblers as an 18-year-old, he played just one season for them before being scouted by Nottingham Forest and moving to the East Midlands for £47,000 in 1990.

He would play 154 times for Forest, scoring 33 times. With a relegation clause in his contract, he was set to move to Blackburn for £4million, but the deal was gazumped by Alex Fergusion at the last minute taking him to Old Trafford for what was at the time a British record of £3.75 million in 1993.

Thus began a career of massive success that became the stuff of legend. As captain of the club, many, many honours followed. After 480 games he left with seven league titles, four FA Cups and a Champions League. In 2000 he was both the PFA and FWA Player of the Year.

He finished his career with six months at Celtic, winning a League and League Cup double in the process, finally retiring through injury while still only 34. He had played a career total of 676 club games, scoring 87 times.

His 69-cap international career was a whole soap opera in itself, culminating in the infamous Saipan incident during which Keane, raging at boss Mick McCarthy, uttered these immortal words:

“Mick, you’re a liar… you’re a f*cking w*nker. I didn’t rate you as a player, I don’t rate you as a manager, and I don’t rate you as a person. You’re a f*cking w*nker and you can stick your World Cup up your arse. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country! You can stick it up your b*llocks.”

I always thought there was something of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock about that; something very Irish.

But the adventure didn’t stop there for Keane. There have been management gigs with Sunderland – who he got promoted – and then Ipswich. Both ended in some degree of acrimony. He worked with Martin O’Neill in managing Ireland. While doing that he also had a few months as an assistant to Paul Lambert at Aston Villa, growing an Old Testament prophet’s beard in the process and looking like William Wordsworth’s moorland leech gatherer. Later he and O’Neill had a go at running Nottingham Forest but it lasted just six months.

On top of all this, he’s worked as a pundit on ITV and Sky and become legendary for scowling and playing what some see as a pantomime villain. It’s been quite a ride and it is far from over yet.


Why the love?
The most ferocious hard man of his era? Well, as Billie Eilish might say, duh.

In so many ways, Keane set standards on and off the pitch as a player that have not been equalled since by any player in his position, or indeed, perhaps any player in any position. First, let’s not overlook his phenomenal football skills. As a disrupter he worked like a football rib cage protecting the heart. If you were going to get through United, you’d have to get through Roy, and Roy wasn’t happy to see you even try. If you thought you were big enough and hard enough, he was here to tell you were not.

But it didn’t stop there. He was a creator too, robbing the ball in midfield and feeding their extremely potent strikeforce. He was very rarely dispossessed and kept things simple where possible throughout.

But unlike so many players who we all admire, Keane was very flawed. His violent temper got the better of him several times. He had fights with teammates. There was the Alf Inge Haaland incident – which didn’t end the Norwegian’s career, despite assertions to this day that it did –  and many others when the red mist descended and the red card arose.

The Haaland tackle, so colourfully described in one of Roy’s autobiographies, was not so unusual really. There have been numerous over-the-ball tackles since football began, but only Keane has so publicly admitted to malice motivating it. He’s since said he had no intention to injure him, but absolutely did want to hurt him. There’s a difference. Many others have behaved likewise but simply never admitted to it.

Then there’s the drink. He had a problem with alcohol. A big problem. It led to many violent incidents in his career, with his manager having to get him out of jail on one occasion. It would be a surprise to no-one that he was an angry and violent drunk and while he’s long since knocked his boozing on the head, in 2014 he admitted:

“The self-destruct button is definitely there. And I suffer for it. With my drinking, I used to go missing for a few days. I think it was my way of switching off, never mind the consequences. It was my time. It was self-destructive, I can see that, but I’m still drawn to it. Not the drink – but the madness, the irresponsibility. I can be sitting at home, the most contented man on the planet. An hour later I go: ‘Jesus – it’s hard work, this.’

“Maybe ‘self-destruct’ is too strong a phrase. Maybe I play games with myself. I have great stability in my life. But then, that worries me. I like home comforts, but then I want to be this hell-raiser – but I want my porridge in the morning. I want my wife and kids around me. I’ve dipped into this madness, and I don’t like it that much. Maybe I’m like every man on the planet – I don’t know; I want a bit more than what’s on offer.”

He was sent off 13 times in his career. This often did his club no favours at all, so much so that later in his career he made a deliberate, mindful attempt to curb his temper and his drinking. Obviously when he did this, many said it took the bite out of his game and he wasn’t the same player. That is open to debate.

However, it was Roy’s flaws as much as his positive attributes that gave him so many fans. The innocent, squeaky clean player is admirable but not exciting. There has to be some dark for us to be able to appreciate the light and Keane often brought the former.

At the moment, I’m researching a new book and this was consistently referred to by football fans of all ages as both literally and emblematically what we have lost from the modern game. You’ve seen it hundreds of times, but look again and try to imagine it is 2020. You can’t, can you?

It is perfectly possible to argue that such behaviour is witless aggression. And it is. Keane is so angry, nostrils literally flaring with fury and after all, it is only football. And yet and yet and yet…for the TV-based observer there is something visceral and magnificent about it. Something which stirs the blood about it. Something real about it. Something unrestrained and powerful about it. Something which embodies spirit and life, possibly because it is happening within a constricted circumstance – a tunnel – and importantly, within a regulated game. So we know, perhaps subconsciously, that this is not the same thing as watching CCTV of a street fight outside a bar, and that allows us to enjoy it without the worry that someone is going to pull a knife and seriously crimson the pavement. It is regulated aggression, but serious aggression nonetheless.

The widespread feeling is that this sort of thing is gone now. That the likes of Keane and Patrick Vieira are figures from the past, who would now be outlawed by the game both literally in terms of laws but culturally, too. Today, well, it’s all headphones, isn’t it? As the Waddler might say.

I mention this because it is axiomatic in understanding the love of Roy from a certain generation of football fans. Let’s not mince our words: Keane could be an absolute f*cking b*stard. Ruthless, determined and absolutely not for compromising one iota. He would not back down, he would not go lightly; he would rage against not just the dying of the light, but the light itself. He was never ready to play nice and would rather go down in flames than give way. As such he was the driving force behind Manchester United’s dominance of 1990s and early 2000s English football. It is impossible to imagine that team without him, so great was his contribution on the pitch in terms of skill and presence, and as crucial, his influence of it in terms of discipline, inspiration and order.

Perhaps the classic example of this was his performance against Juventus in 1999 dragging United to the final after being 2-0 down. His majestic header opened the scoring for United but he played most of the game in the knowledge he’d be suspended for the final if they even got there.

Later, his manager said of Roy:

“It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”

Ferguson and Keane fell out in the later stages of his playing career. It always felt like an unnecessary break-up for two people who must surely have massively respected each other. Roy famously didn’t see eye-to-eye with Carlos Queiroz and was ruthless in his criticism of teammates after a 4-1 beating at the hands of Middlesbrough – a club that was an occasional painful thorn in United’s side over the years. Even though he was largely correct in most of his opinions, eventually it made his presence at Old Trafford untenable. He’d even told Ferguson the team needed more from the boss because the team was slipping behind competitors. I don’t imagine that went down well.

So he left for boyhood club, Celtic, and immediately started berating teammates there. He played in a winning Old Firm game and was absolutely imperious, with an almost weird masterful end-of-career calm about him.

Managerially, he initially seemed well-suited to motivating average players to over-perform at Sunderland, but that wasn’t to last. His belligerence now seems out of step with the modern player’s need to be pampered. Or that’s what Roy would probably say. Times change.

Of course, this sort of passive-aggressive arsiness made him perfect for television, to the point where if any of us were to choose a pundit to entertain us, we’d probably all choose Roy. Not so much for profound insight into the game, but for having the balls to call a spade a f*cking sh*t shovel, for finding the more self-indulgent modern lifestyle offensive, and for not going along with that slightly peculiar leg squeezer geezerishness that seems a default for some ex-players. He is visibly awkward at times, squirming when exposed to, or experiencing, any emotion apart from anger. Things that are not in harmony with his world view clearly really bloody annoy him.

One of Roy’s scowls is worth a hundred hours of anyone else’s yapping. He is also capable of being funny, witty and casting a shy, amused, understated glance. Under it all, I’m sure he’s actually a very shy man, a shy man who is not a natural clubbable, chatty sort of person at all. Perhaps much of his bravado is a mask he’s built to protect himself from the world.

He’s the whole package, is Roy. Capable of being everything from funny to furious, good or bad, right and wrong. And in that lies his eternal attraction.


What the people love
We’ve all seen him so often and for so long, so he is totally interwoven with our lives like few others. And none of us are equivocal in our view of Keane. So no wonder then, that my love bag was bursting this week.

‘Something that he said that stood out to me, from the Keane vs Vieira documentary that was so simple and yet stayed with me, an Arsenal fan (paraphrasing) “I am not looking for perfection. I’m looking for progress. Just keep trying to be better, else what’s the point?”‘

‘I’ve felt sorry for him. Bit then maybe I’m just soft.’

‘Such a welcome cold, hard, honest opinion in an era of everything having to be “amazing”. Cuts through enforced studio “banter” like a hot knife through butter. Never change Roy.’

‘The player because of whom I started supporting Manchester United! Unbelievable captain, slightly underrated player. In all the talk of replacing Scholes, Carrick, Ronaldo etc I think United’s biggest miss has been not being able to replace Roy Keane in their midfield for 15 years.’

‘RIP Triggs.’

‘An extreme advocate for the concept of personal responsibility: something which has diminished in the game partially culturally, and partially due to the increasing reliance on finely tuned systems. There is no modern player analogous to Keane, and it’s a void in our game.’

‘Full disclosure I am a Liverpool fan. Roy Keane was a fantastic player, the kind most people dream of being. He, and Nedved, make me detest the rule that count back semi-final infringements can get you banned from the final. The phrase is overused but a genuine winner.’

‘His punditry has caused many to forget just how good he was. His performance against Juve in the CL semi was up there with the very best ever. And his reaction when Carragher left Giggs out of the Liverpool/United team? *chefs kiss*’

‘Hated him more than any other player before or since…but now, I love the guy, find him fascinating !!’

‘Widely thought of as a thug and this downplays his ability to play. Great passer of the ball and scored some huge goals. In my opinion, he is the greatest midfielder of the premier league. Not only does he walk into any team of the premier league era, he captains it.’

‘The pure distillation of a Corkonian – Fiercely proud, will sacrafice EVERYTHING to fight wrongs, only demands of others what he’s willing to give himself, savagely funny with a razor sharp tongue and will wither you with a single line.’

‘My (and possibly his) biggest regret was he didn’t play in ’02 WC. His presence and powers were at their peak. I genuinely believe he could have bestrode that tournament like a colossus. Ask the Dutch, who withered before him months earlier.’

‘No Irish player has ever had a bigger impact on the national team. Dragged the squad to 2002 WC in a group with Holland and Portugal. Caused a mini civil-war in Ireland over the Saipan incident. The Prime Minister was called in to try and sort it, but Roy was not for budging!’

‘Good player. I firmly believe he hates football, but is stuck in it cos of the cash. He’s tried walking away but keeps coming back. Generally to diminishing returns, like an addict. I like him, he’s funny, but I can’t listen to his sad anger anymore.’

‘As important to Manchester United’s dominance as any of the more glamorous people further up the pitch. A man who set standards and demanded everyone’s best because he gave it himself too. Not the worst technical player either. Everything the current team lacks frankly.’

‘Great player, average manager, incendiary pundit. And he was wrong on Saipan.’

‘Gotta love Roy. Great midfielder, fierce competitor and has that slightly deranged look in his eye that scares the shit out of everyone who meets him.I have a theory that you can judge his levels of instability by the state of his beard. When he looks like he’s got a half-eaten badger hanging out of his face you know he’s gone full-Keano.’

‘When Roy Keane was manager of Sunderland, I saw a Newcastle fan with “KEANO W*NKS HIS DOG” printed on the back of his replica shirt. That’s how much he winds up opposition fans ! Brilliant.’

‘Scared Sunderland to promotion, can we have him back please.’

‘The reason I love football more than our Irish Gaelic Games which is sacrilege. My first ever game was in Landsdowne Road for a 1-0 win over Holland in a World Cup qualifier in 2001 and after two minutes he nailed Overmars and the Dutch folded. He was incredible that day.’

‘The last of football’s hard men, the kind of never say die battler that has sadly gone from the game. A lot of talk these days about teams needing leaders and Keane was the type of leader every team would want.’

‘If I ever met him I’d ask him how such a straight-up bloke felt playing with cheats like Van Nistelrooy or Ronaldo. But he’d probably just chin me.’

‘I’m an Irish Liverpool fan but loved watching Roy Keane play. So often set the tempo for Utd and Ireland. Viera row was amazing TV. Injury curtailed him at the end. I was at his last United game, terrible 0-0 draw and he went off injured in a 50/50 with Luis Garcia (I think).’

‘Everyone talks about his game v juve. But for celtic against rangers at ibrox was amongst the best controlling midfield performances i’ve seen. He didn’t break sweat, was weirdly above the emotion, & completely controlled everything.’

‘It’s odd but when a player is widely accepted to have been brilliant, it’s not often that player was better than how they’re remembered. Keane was a way better footballer than you remember. Ireland’s greatest ever in my opinion.’

‘The kind of player that if you were on an outward bound activity with and you bumped into him alone in the woods at night, your soul would be screaming in fear.’


Great moments
THAT goal v Juve in 1999. Look at how he stares the ball down as he steams in and heads it. Not blinking once.

There are hundreds of great punditry moments from Roy. This is just a recent one about David De Gea. This isn’t manufactured at all. He’s accessing his tap root of anger and is genuinely annoyed to the point of disgust, is unafraid to speak his mind and to call out poor performances.

His first goal for Celtic. A 20-yard strike. His celebration, somewhat un-Roy-like.


What now?
Roy’s life currently seems to consist of TV studios and no doubt plenty of dog walking. Sadly, his beloved Triggs, his famous and well-exercised Labrador, is long gone. Roy donated his testimonial money to Irish Guide Dogs For The Blind. Aw.

There are those who see his TV work as becoming ever more a pantomime act where he plays the Mr Grumpy, gainsaying any truck with modernity. Perhaps it is a slightly enhanced, edited version of himself, but I would suggest it is a role he feels he can play with ease because it is rooted in his true self. It is very hard being someone you are not in front of an audience for any length of time. Hard to adopt positions you do not believe in, harder still to maintain them over weeks and months and years. The Roy we see is the real Roy.

But regardless, whether genuine or not, it really doesn’t matter. This is TV; it is entertainment not documentary and there’s no doubt that Roy either playing at or just being Roy is box office and will continue to be so.

He also trades on his past doing theatre Q & A shows with Gary Neville with no little wit and the occasional twinkle in his eye, perhaps finally feeling a little easier with an audience now. With him being such a unique character, there is certainly a demand for him and likely to be one for many years to come.

If you think about it, more than most, Roy Keane has been a consistent and significant presence in our lives for over 25 years now. He continues to fascinate and entertain. There will never be another Roy. Long may he scowl.

John Nicholson