“Pass the fu*king ball forward, take risks, you’re not at Leeds or West Ham now, you’re at Manchester United!’
As Rio Ferdinand recalls the antics of his captain in his first training session there is less an air of fear and trepidation, and more a collective sense of respect. Whether he grabbed your arm and got in your face, shouted at you from the end of the pitch, or even rendered you mute with his ice-cold glare, Roy Keane commanded respect more than anyone else.
As a leader, Keane bled United red with every cell in his body. In his case, however, he didn’t do that by courting favour with the fans, flashing a steely smile to the press, none of it. Instead, his rock hard work ethic, interlaced with his carbon fibre esque understanding of the game, made him lead by example. There was no room for people who didn’t take the game as seriously as him, there was no space for doubt. You were either with him or left by the cold rainy Manchester wayside.
As a man, Keane was an unscrupulous figure, who never hid behind any pretense. No minced words, nothing taken back, no regrets in a career laden with Goldust and bad blood in equal measure. A performer who set a yardstick that is hardly matched, and a character who broke careers without a second thought, and formed a cult-like following.
A Product of the Times
Life was never easy for Roy Keane, and even as an 18-year-old upstart, he certainly didn’t make it easy for himself. The relationship between Nottingham Forest’s (Keane’s first club) manager Clough and Keane was not easy, a recurring trend in Keane’s career. During their ‘91 run to the FA Cup final, an error from the 19-year-old gifted Crystal Palace a draw in 3rd round.
An irate Brian Clough dropped Keane to the floor with a left hook after the game. The times were different then. Clough didn’t face a maelstrom of “You’re getting sacked in the morning” and Keane even sympathised with the pressure his manager was under, remaining forever grateful to him for giving him a chance to play in England.
Keane’s heroics for Forest through the rest of that season, convinced Alex Ferguson to shell a British record 3.75 Million pounds for him, prying him from Kenny Daglish’s Blackburn at the 11th hour. It was the biggest risk of Ferguson’s career till then, but it arguably yielded his biggest reward.
From the King to Keano
Throughout the mid-90’s Keane’s performances made him a permanent within the club. The summer of ‘95 saw the departures of club mainstays like Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis, which left the Irishman as one of the club’s senior-most figures, leaving him to serve as the torch-bearer for the famed ‘Class of ‘92’. With Eric Cantona’s sudden retirement, Keane was made United’s captain and leader of a young side on the brink of true greatness.
Much like his predecessor – King Cantona – Keane had a streak of madness that defined his United career until that point. He was fined 5,000 pounds and given a three-match suspension for a cynical challenge on Gareth Southgate, earning the first of his 11 red cards for the club. There was a method to his madness however, as Keane’s prowess as a box-to-box midfielder brought about the central aspect of his captaincy— Raising everyone else’s game by raising his own.
Efficient, imperious and effective, Keane’s simple pass-and-move style evolved. His passes had a purpose, he broke lines, drove the side forward. His playing style was more utilitarian than symphonic, and as a result, left little room for error and a large space for success.
In an interview with Graham Hunter, Darren Fletcher noted of Keane
“Everyone looked at him as this ferocious competitor and box-to-box runner and tackler. That wasn’t false, but, with the ball, he had one of the best first touches and the best pass forward into the attacking half to break the lines of the opposition that I’ve ever seen… Because Roy controlled the midfield, Scholesy was then the one who got forward and got goals and used his technique higher up the pitch.”
The Method to the Madness
Roy Keane’s aggressive approach to the game was evident in every inch of every action he took. A vocal, hard-nosed player, who took his role as captain with the utmost seriousness. It seemed like there was an air to him that instilled the fear of God into both his teammates and opposition alike— An equal opportunity enforcer.
‘Schitzo’ galvanised United’s midfield by facilitating quick counters, pressing in the final third, enabling the overlap. The control he had on the midfield was less metronomic, and more blitzkrieg. Less dependent on the singular maestro to dribble and break lines, and more dependent on the whole team matching each other blow for blow- all originating from the same fulcrum— Roy Keane.
United v Brondby UCL ‘98
Sir Alex’s side were never deterred, as long as Keane was on the field, the manager’s vision was always enacted. He was the messenger and the matador of his gaffer’s philosophy. Grace and composure be damned, if a match needed to be won, Keane would stop at absolutely nothing to achieve it.
If a character was ever needed, Keano led from the front, by example and not necessarily strength. His blood and iron performance against Juventus in the ‘99 Champions League semi-final is still spoken in the most lofted of exhalations. Winning the ball, carrying it forward, spreading passes and even scoring a game-changing header. Sir Alex Ferguson himself—a man who seldom praises his players during pressers—broke rank, spoke of the performance thusly;
“Hounding every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him,” Ferguson said. “I felt as if it were an honour to be associated with this player.”
Roy Keane vs Juventus
The Madness Incarnate
Exercising restraint, however, was far from Keane’s strong suit. His all-or-nothing approach consistently landed him in hot water, leaving his team without their captain, in many cases.
None are more evident than his tackle on Leeds United’s Alf-Inge Haaland. A year prior to the incident, Haaland’s tackle rendered Keane to the sidelines for seven months, chastising him for “faking it”, relegating Keane to watch painfully from the sidelines, as United threw an 11-point lead and lost the league to Arsenal. Critics pointed straight at Keane’s absence as the reason for United’s bottle-job.
Upon returning, however, Keane was consumed less by winning, and more by vengeance. In a league game against Manchester City in 2001, the then 30-year-old went thigh in on Haaland, in an incident that was later found out to be intentional, malicious, and unsportsmanlike.
In his autobiography “The Second Half” Keane said of the incident;
“pissed me off, shooting his mouth off. He was an absolute prick to play against. Niggling, sneaky. I did want to nail him and let him know what was happening. I wanted to hurt him and stand over him and go: ‘Take that, you cunt.’ I don’t regret that. But I had no wish to injure him.”
The incident precipitated a lawsuit, a £5000 fine, casting a shadow over Keane’s career, that wasn’t ready to go away.
With a Whimper, Not a Bang
After a hip operation, Keane was forced to change his approach as a player. Gone were the days of commanding the centre of the pitch with a swashbuckling presence. Keane went from maestro to matador, bettering his passing range, as United’s 4-4-2 became more of a 4-4-1-1. The tenacity within Keane had dipped, but his control never waned an inch.
All of this was most evident when United faced Arsenal at Highbury in 2005.
In his final year at the club, Keane went face to face with his most seasoned rival. The antithesis to everything that he was—Patrick Vieira.
With both adversaries leading their respective sides out, tensions flared between the two before a blade of grass had even been touched. You’d have to cut the tension with the chainsaw because neither party rattled. Keane’s rally cry “I’ll see you out there” rang more ominous than threatening, as both he and partner Paul Scholes scripted a classic United comeback, giving United the 2-4 win.
The victory was symptomatic of Fergie’s United, and Keane’s pivotal role within. With their backs against the wall, Keane rallied United’s troops, and much as he’d done in ‘92, Keane gave a platform for a younger breed to excel. Plaudits might well go the way of Rooney and Ronaldo for that win, but it was Keane who let them do what they needed. Winning tackles, timing passes, Keane was immaculate, though often understated in that victory.
Even in the twilight of his career, Keane shone like the supernova at the centre of the galaxy, with every teammate revolving around his gravitational field. Vendetta, red cards, and controversies have somewhat unfairly coloured his reputation nowadays.
Keane, however, doesn’t care.
Unperturbed by the reputation he’s courted, Keane is a man who never swayed from saying what needed to be said, and doing what needed to be done. Regret doesn’t enter his headspace, as he knew that without him, United couldn’t have dreamed to achieve what they did. Despite ending his career in a dying inferno, as opposed to a blaze of glory, the flame of Roy Keane’s legacy will likely never die out.
In an era where captains have seemingly lost their importance, the impact of Keane’s shines even brighter.
Shouting, screaming, and coming at you like a battering ram will only take the horse to water. Keane’s ability as a player and as a captain would make the horse drink the whole damn lake.
By Ritwik Sarkar
El Arte Del Futbol is an official content creator for OneFootball. Find more original features, Player Profiles and tactical analysis on www.elartedf.com. If you are reading this on our website, we’d like to thank you for your continuous support!