‘Stand up, speak up!’ stood out in capital letters on the shirt of Patrick Vieira when he clashed with Roy Keane in the Highbury tunnel in 2005. This was exactly what Roy Keane did for his teammate Gary Neville on the day. This was exactly what he’d done his whole career.
Keane’s life revolved around fear–fear of letting people down, fear of failure. Fear he projected outwards and transformed him into a formidable warrior on the pitch, in the dressing rooms and in his life. He was a crusader for the naked truth.
He took his first bite of professional football at Nottingham Forest. Britain’s drinking culture was rampant then and Keane saw nothing wrong with it. He often went out with friends to drink until the early morning hours before a training session or a match. That was his decision as he saw it. He knew the disadvantages but carried the responsibility and had the results to back it. When he went out on the field, he always gave a hundred percent. At the same time he judged those who didn’t with the same ferocious honesty he judged himself.
When Forest lost their FA Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur in 1991, Keane was disgusted to find his teammates laughing and joking in the showers. He could not understand how losing did not make them feel dejected and guilty. For him, this showed a lack of ambition. It was a turning point in his career. He knew he had to move to a club that could match his aspirations, a club where he could surround himself with winners.
Picture: Finished Goc Air Corps
When Alex Ferguson came for him, Keane didn’t even blink before accepting to make the switch. The Scott was in awe of Keane. He saw him as his embodiment on the pitch: a fearless warrior with unquenchable thirst for winning and a compulsive fear of failure.
Keane had no trouble adapting to his new surroundings but if he was an outspoken warrior on the field, he was just as shy off it. Living alone initially, when an opportunity presented itself to go out drinking with friends, he took it.
Alcohol brought out the worst in him. He would often become aggressive and would bring down anyone who in his words ‘came above their station’. A warning to tread carefully around him was something you could probably feel bleeping in the back of your mind. A dangerous calculative mind forming objective judgements, unflinching and resistant, was backed by courage, eloquence and brawn in Keane. Such qualities didn’t earn him many friends but even his enemies knew this was a man who stuck to something bigger than himself and respected him for it. But Keane wasn’t bothered about making friends. He wasn’t bothered about living a life of loneliness. He wanted to win every time and everything in football and whenever he didn’t, he had the vision to know what and where to improve and the resolve to force that change, in him and often in other people.
Teamwork meant for Keane how much he was able to infuse teammates with his engulfing desire to believe in the unbelievable. Fergie time–the little extra injury time referees revered United with so often–would have been irrelevant without Keane’s drive to squeeze out every last drop in his teammates until the final millisecond. It didn’t matter if they were down two or three goals, he would play to win and those who wouldn’t, risked meeting his rage in the dressing room. This worked and perhaps it was the reason United were so dominant with Keane in their core.
On the road to the treble in 1999, United were trailing 2-0 to Juventus in the semi-final of the Champions League. It was Keane’s goal that started a complete comeback, 3-2. But it was revealing how he dealt with a yellow card that ruled him out of the final. He played as if it hadn’t happened. Such was Keane, it didn’t matter he wouldn’t play in the final, what mattered was the task at hand. His teammates felt the power of such influence even in its absence in the final as they achieved a historic late comeback against Bayern Munich. Perhaps it was fear of their captain that drove them. It doesn’t matter.
What mattered was that Keane had two sides to him: the wild boy from Cork who would drink and get into brawls and lash out with scorpion words, and the athlete that carried him on the pitch.
The events that stemmed from his injury against Leeds in 1997 clearly demonstrated both. He punctured his circulate in this match, an injury that ruled him out for a year. But it was the looming figure of Alf-Inge Haaland over his twisted body suggesting he was faking it that would stick. In Keane’s mind being a called a fake was an attack on the core of his personality as a man. For him, it was a mockery when his career was on the line.
It was during the recovery of that injury, Keane learned to recognise the athlete in him. He put aside his drinking for a while, shaved off his head and worked hard towards recovery. His face changed and became more chiselled. A deeper reason for that hid in the recesses of his mind. His second meeting with him in April 2001 would become one of the defining moments of his career. When he chopped on his right knee and then loomed above him in the same way Haaland had done, the reasons for his striking outward transformation were revealed: cold and unrelenting vengeance easily on par with Harmonica’s in the 1968 movie Once Upon a Time in the West. His first meeting with him some four years earlier had started a snowball rolling down the hill and culminated into the destruction of Haaland’s career.
“I’d waited long enough. I f*****g hit him hard. The ball was there. Take that you c**t. And don’t ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries.” Keane said in his autobiography.
As shocking as this incident was, Keane’s ‘strongest part of the body was his tongue’ according to Alex Ferguson. Whenever he thought something was not up to par, he lashed out and almost always hit the bull’s eye. Ferguson described in his autobiography how near the end of Keane’s United career, the Irishman moaned about every little thing: from the place where they stayed in the pre-season training to the way they trained. He slaughtered players who he thought were not up to standards left and right. But his influence was such that his mood controlled the mood of the whole team. Whenever he was unhappy about something, the players followed.
“As I was arguing with him, his eyes started to narrow, almost to wee black beads. It was frightening to watch” Ferguson recalled. When a manager well-known for his gargantuan ego and resilience to withstand decades of football at the top level gets a scare from one of his own players, you know he’s met his match. This feeling of intimidation was the main reason Ferguson offloaded Keane. But the way he did it, without waiting for other clubs to approach his player, smelled to Keane of betrayal. Despite the countless of trophies he had won under Ferguson, in his mind the Scott crossed the line then.
Asked how he could describe Ferguson in a word, Keane’s silence and the following ‘ruthless’ spoke volumes.
Keane’s tongue forked about before the South Korea and Japan World Cup in 2002 too. By then, the Irish captain had cemented his status as a talismanic figure and fearsome captain who people listened. But controversy was just around the corner again. When Ireland travelled to Saipan to prepare for the World Cup, they found they had been given a pitch with holes to train on and were missing their goalkeepers. Keane was not happy. He questioned his manager’s ambitions for being content with anything less than perfection.
In Keane’s mind Ireland were world champions already, in Irish manager Mick McCarthy’s on an exotic holiday with the occasional run around. Keane’s knack of giving extreme opinion unbridled in its rage unloaded on McCarthy in its full spectrum, listing out everything that bothered him about his countryman. Then he demonstratively left the squad and returned to Ireland. Keane had refused his most sacred dream–to play in the World Cup again–but as he saw it, he stood up for what he believed and that defined him as a man and footballer.
On the pitch, he was Keano–the most dominant figure of all 22; outside of it he was Keane the reclusive man. A heapful saw the later and Patrick Vieira was certainly none of them. The two had an iconic rivalry during the late 90s and early 2000s when the Premier League was a two horse race between Arsenal and Manchester United. In the 6 foot 4 inch Frenchman, Keane found a formidable adversary and opponent to his honest tyranism of victory. When Arsenal and Manchester United played the lights were on Vieira and Keane. The outcome of this rivalry on the day often defined whole matches.
“I’m sure I would dominate him eight times out of ten if we met again.” Keane later said.
He won battles but lost some too and for that he learned to respect the Arsenal powerhouse. In fact, he even shed a tear in private when Vieira left the Premier League in 2005. The fact that his departure weirdly coincided with him leaving too raises some interesting questions about the nature of the rivalry. For him the war was over, the purpose gone. For the Premier League, it was an end to the era of tough footballers and a beginning for technical ones.
Picture: Adrian Murphy
Such was Keane: influential, formidable, outspoken, vengeful and committed to a fault. But in his own words: ‘It was just and act’ regarding his scary persona on the pitch. “In different parts of your life, when you are at home with your family, when are going to work or when you are playing on a Saturday at 3 o’clock, it is an act. I know in a lot of sports people do the same, boxers do it. It is a game. It is an act, isn’t it?” Keane explained wide-eyed as if he was still searching for the answer himself.
Some people are driven to drink, others to depression, Keane never allowed any of those in. His career was marked by unbendable resilience. As if he had a sign ‘No Entry’ emanating from him. He made all the decisions about his life and football, for bad or worse. But he extended those self-imposed laws onto others to a fault. Paradoxically, it was the very same thing he found people would follow him for on the pitch. Just as he found people shying away from him for it outside.
If his football abilities secured him a place in Manchester United’s Hall of Fame, then his personality cemented him one in the Premier League’s all time history.
“Aggression is what I do. I go to war. You don’t contest football matches in a reasonable state of mind.” Keane said. Perhaps he was right. Football is a warlike game. Keane not only knew it but was a perfect fit–almost to the point of being an archetypal warrior–ruthless and ambitious, courageous and enraged. Ferguson described him as a man of “energy, guts and blood.” This was the man most will remember. And the fact that he was the greatest captain the Premier League ever had.
This other more compassionate, content and happy man, Keane chose to keep at home and there was nothing anyone could do to make him decide otherwise. He was his own man and always had been.