Roy Keane: The fearless force
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"Drive 'em, Roy. Drive 'em."
One of the oddities of football spectating is that you may never know the name of the chap who sits in front of you for season upon season. However, those who sat in the Stretford End Lower during Manchester United's golden period of the late 90s would recognise that refrain. The bespectacled and balding chap, usually first to lose patience when his beloved Reds loosened standards, summed up Roy Keane consummately while he flew into his habitual rages. Drive was what made Keane perhaps the greatest of all United captains.
"Fail to prepare, prepare to fail," was the motto Keane would repeat to those colleagues he felt were not working hard enough in training -- which was usually all of them. Failure was never an option. "This man was not just a strength in the team; he was the team," as United legend Sir Bobby Charlton said last year.
Teams captained: Manchester United, Celtic, Republic of Ireland.
Trophies won: Premier League (seven times); FA Cup (1994, 1996, 1999, 2004); Champions League (1999); Intercontinental Cup (1999); SPL (2006); Scottish League Cup (2006).
The purity of Keane's vision was undiluted. Total commitment. Unrelenting effort. A refusal to give up on even the most minor of causes. Keane led by example, in that, with two minutes to play in a game already won, he would throw himself into a tackle to win a throw-in on the halfway line. He ruled by fear, too. The veins on his cropped cranium would strain as he barked orders. All of his teammates felt the lash of his unlimited stridency, no matter their star status, as did Sir Alex Ferguson, until, the years having curbed Keane's effectiveness, there was a bust-up too far. Even Ferguson was afraid of Keane.
"The hardest part of Roy's body is his tongue,'' Ferguson wrote of their final parting in last year's autobiography. "It was frightening to watch. And I'm from Glasgow.''
When Ferguson turned to Keane in the summer of 1997 to be the captain to succeed Eric Cantona, eyebrows were raised. The Irish midfielder was already United's beating heart, but he was a firebrand with a taste for a night out and no stranger to a red card. The doubters had their case enhanced when just weeks into his captaincy, Keane wrenched his cruciate in trying to lash out at Leeds United's Alf Inge-Haaland, an incident that would have an aftershock for some years to come.
"Roy Keane with a captain's goal for Manchester United," exalted ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley. In Juventus' Stadio Delle Alpi, Keane had just headed United back into their Champions League semifinal in April 1999. Eighteen months from his knee operation, he delivered the finest performance of his club career -- Irishmen say his performance against Portugal in 2001 surpassed it -- and performed selflessly, having received a booking he knew would keep him from playing in the final. Juve's midfield, featuring the Olympian talents of Edgar Davids and Zinedine Zidane, was dominated by Keane, who snapped into tackles, dictated the tempo and inspired his club's finest ever performance on European soil. The hero's verdict was professional to the last. "I did all right," he demurred.
His manager, writing later that year in 1999's "Managing My Life," was unstinting in praise. "I didn't think I could have a higher opinion of any footballer than I already had of the Irishman but he rose even further in my estimation at the Stadio Delle Alpi," said Ferguson. "It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. ... I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player."
Keane was never blessed with the talents of colleagues like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. Beyond tackling and heading, he was a 7 out of 10 at most footballing facets, yet his levels of consistency would almost always outstrip his colleagues, as would his unbending strength of character. Brian Clough, the manager who brought him to English football with Nottingham Forest, recognised his fearlessness when giving him a league debut in 1990 at champions Liverpool, when the teenager had been in England for mere weeks. "The only thing he didn't confront or tackle at Nottingham Forest was me," wrote Clough in his 2003 autobiography.
Clough was past his brilliant best when Keane worked with him at Forest, but Ferguson was at his peak at the exact time Keane hit his own playing heights. Keane embodied Ferguson's message, his competitive spirit burning just as brightly as his indomitable boss. "He mirrors the manager on the pitch," said Steve McClaren, Ferguson's assistant from 1998 to 2001. "They are winners."
Until their schism, Ferguson would always defend his skipper when Keane's drive veered into a dangerous territory of disgrace. Their bond seemed unbreakable in 2002 when Ferguson went to bat for him, warding off a media whirlwind that saw Keane being sent home from Ireland's 2002 World Cup camp in Saipan, as well as an autobiographical admittance he had set out for revenge on Haaland in a 2001 Manchester derby. The following summer saw the pair celebrate their last Premier League title together, but Keane was already beginning to lose what had made him so inspirational. Hip and knee problems had reduced his engine capacity. The lung-burning bursts from defence to attack were now impossible.
"I just felt over the last couple of years with the younger players at United, I was losing that influence," Keane told the Sunday Times Magazine in 2006. "They were the ones smelling blood. In terms of dominating, I was definitely losing it. I was always my own judge, sometimes harsh, but in the end, I wasn't quite at the races."
Beyond a short, injury-hit five-month spell at Celtic, Keane's final playing contribution was to suffer a broken foot in a September 2005 draw at Anfield. His United departure resulted from a never-shown MUTV appearance in which he coated off colleagues for a 4-1 defeat at Middlesbrough. Though they were now enemies, Ferguson paid Keane the compliment of never seeking to directly replace him.
In truth, no player could ever replicate Keane's irresistible drive.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.