Wednesday, October 10, 2007
"Going to work was like going to War."
21st April 1999, Stadio Delle Alpi, Turin - 11 minutes into the Second leg of the semi-final of their Champions League tie with Juventus, Manchester United were 2-0 down and seemingly out of the competition. Two weeks earlier, Juventus had dominated Utd at Old Trafford in the first leg and been unfortunate to concede a last minute Ryan Giggs goal which kept the English team in the tie. And this was a seasoned Juventus side, with the experience and power of Conte, Davids and Deschamps alongside the skill of Zidane and Pessotto. The notion of getting a result against them at home was an unlikely one, made even moreso by the 2 goal deficit. Inzaghi had scored both of the goals, the first a piece of classic poaching from Zidane's cross, the second taking a wicked deflection off Jaap Stam. There was the suspicion that this Juve team had the measure of Utd. They had crossed paths a few times over the previous five years and Juve had generally emerged on top, a rollicking 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford in 1997 apart. But in this game, Roy Keane seemed to will his team to win. Provided with the aggressive, terrier-like Nicky Butt as his midfield partner, Keane never gave the Juventus midfielders an inch or a second on the ball, hustling and cracking into tackles. Zidane lost some of his composure, Davids seemed to lose some of his bottle. In his autobiography, Keane talks about knowing that Juventus weren't really up for the battle the way his Utd were and about going into a 50-50 with Davids, the Hard man of the Turin side. No contest, he says. Juventus were beaten, they just didn't know it yet. With Butt doing more of the dirty work than the more artistic Scholes usually did, Keane was the chief playmaker on that night, and his passing, when he was on his game, was almost hypnotically consistent. He played simple balls, but in all directions, of all types, long and short, lofted and rolling. He never stopped moving, open for the returned pass. He shouted and cajoled ferociously, driving his team on. He would not lose, you felt. He rose to nod in the first Utd goal and his determined celebration said it all - he knew there was more to come. Even when a late tackle on Zidane meant that he was booked and knew he would miss out on the final, should Utd reach it, he remained focused and driven. A goal from Yorke in the 34th minute meant that Utd were winning on away goals, and Andy Cole sealed the win in the 84th. The team were applauded off the pitch by Juventus fans. Alex Ferguson spoke of his Captain's performance in his autobiography : "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."
Performances like that one are the reason many Utd fans of a certain age love Keane more than any other player, more even than Eric Cantona. He gave the sense of truly caring in a way so many players manifestly do not - he seemed to care to an almost insane extent. Hence the outbursts, the snarling, the fighting. He was a supreme competitor, or as he himself put it: "the robot, the madman, the winner". Nowhere near as gifted as many of his peers in the battleground of midfield in World Football in the 1990s, Keane was a greater player than most of them because of his intelligence, but also because of his desire, his spirit and that aura.
He was a small boy, which made his breakthrough into professional football more difficult. His aggressive, competitive nature must have helped, and after a few failed trials, he eventually played in the Football League of Ireland for Cobh Ramblers, a smalltown club from Cork. There a scout from Nottingham Forest spotted him, and Keane signed for £47,000 in 1990. He quickly broke into the first team, making his debut and excelling against Liverpool at Anfield. He established himself as a starter at the expense of England International Steve Hodge and received his first call up to the Irish Squad. Back then, his style was very different. He was a goalscoring midfielder, with the happy knack of bursting late into the box to smack in a cut-back or a rebound. His game changed considerably after a few years at Man Utd, where he had moved for a then-record £3.75million in 1993. He became a more rounded midfielder, his prodigious energy and workrate making him a truly box-to-box player, both destroyer and creator. Initially he played alongside two players he superficially resembled - Bryan Robson and Paul Ince. But he would come to replace both at the heart of the team. Robson advised him to work on his defending and Keane did so, altering his game and allowing that fantastic engine to carry him into a ceaseless stream of tackles, blocks and interceptions. His reputation, both as a troublemaker and a player, grew. There were high profile red cards for late tackles, and for stamping on Gareth Southgate. His charisma and the fact that he was already becoming the team's new leader meant that he was a great story for the media. He badly injured himself stretching to tackle - to foul - Alf-Inge Haland in a game against Leeds, and missed most of a Season in which his importance to Utd was underlined by the team's lack of success. His return coincided with that Treble Season. But he attracted controversy, in his interviews, in his actions upon the pitch. He swung a punch at Alan Shearer. He led a pack of baying players after a referee to protest a decision. He criticised fans at Old Trafford. He refused to sign a new contract until he was given what he felt he was worth. He brutally, deliberatly fouled Haland in an act of vengeance he was then open about in his autobiography. He spent a night in a cell after a tabloid sting when the team were out celebrating in Manchester led to him becoming involved in an altercation with two women. He criticised the lifestyles and motivation of several teammates. He elbowed Jason McAteer in the face. The media, obviously, loved him.
His record at Man Utd only needs recounting. He played 326 games for the club, scoring 33 goals. He won more or less every available major trophy with the club, including a European Cup, 7 League titles, 4 FA Cups and 1 Intercontinental Cup. He played in 7 FA Cup finals, a record. In 2000, he won both Players and Football Writers Player of the Year awards. He was the only Irish player in Pele's 100 Greatest Living Players list. He was, quite easily, the dominant player of his era in the Premiership.
Perhaps his chief rival for that accolade is Patrick Vieira, his direct opponent at Arsenal. In Keane's time at Man Utd, Arsenal were almost always the closest threat, and his contests with Vieira were invariably central to the success or failure of the teams. Vieira was a better player in purely technical terms, with a great touch and those long telescopic legs enabling him to make some unbelievable tackles, plus a good range of passing and the ability to dribble skillfully. He could dominate an opposition midfield as well as anyone in the game...except Keane. He did not have quite as big an aura, quite as intimidating a presence. When he first emerged as a young player at Arsenal in tandem in midfield with Emmanuel Petit, Keane seemed unprepared for the challenge. But that didn't last long. Keane, as usual, compensated for his technical shortcomings with his will, his intelligence, his charisma, his ability to work harder than anybody else. He seemed to take Vieira's measure over his first few Seasons in England, and after that, Keane generally emerged the victor in their personal duels, just as he did with the emergence of Stephen Gerrard a few years later. Alex Ferguson once commented that Keane needed it to be a personal battle to thrive. He loved the personal combat, you vs. me, it was what brought the best out in him, and as such, he must have relished every meeting with Vieira. Keane probably peaked either in Utd's 6-1 demolition of Arsenal at Old Trafford in 2000 or when he scored both goals in a 2-0 win at Highbury. In the "Battle of Old Trafford" in 2004 when Arsenal players were confronting and baiting Utd players all over the pitch, none dared to approach Keane, not even Vieira, who Keane had shepherded off the pitch after his red card in that match, sparing the Frenchman further trouble. However, the climax of their rivalry came in the tunnel at Highbury in 2005, when Vieira threatened to "break Gary Neville's legs". Keane rushed to defend his teammate by haranguing Vieira about his own lack of qualities, asking him why he wasn't playing for Real Madrid and a few other comments (which Graham Poll, in his autobiography, says were amusingly witty and left Vieira threatening to break Keane's legs too) and ending the exchange with "I'll see you out there" as he pointed to the pitch. If that was some sort of attempted psyche-out by the Frenchman, it backfired, as Keane kept the ball, dominated the game and led Utd to a 2-4 win.
"It disappoints me that I didn't win the World Cup. People say 'but Roy, you played for Ireland, you were never going to win the World Cup'. I never saw it like that."
August 2001, Lansdowne Road, Dublin - Ireland need a result against Holland to qualify for the play-offs for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. They have, as usual, been drawn in a horrible group with a couple of Europe's modern heavyweights - the Dutch and the Portugal of the golden generation of Figo, Rui Costa and Couto. With Keane near the peak of his powers, the Irish have fought their way to some impressive results - drawing 2-2 with Holland in Amsterdam and drawing twice with the Portugeuse. Portugal will qualify automatically as group winners, and the winner of Ireland-Holland will take second place. Holland's squad is absolutely star-studded with an especially impressive array of strikers including Ruud van Nistelrooy, Pierre van Hoojdonk, Patrick Kluivert, Roy Makaay and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Most of them will be on the pitch by the end of the match as the Dutch desperately search for a goal. By contrast and with the exception of Shay Given in goal and Robbie Keane and Damian Duff up front, the Irish team is full of journeymen, average players who add to the collective. In such company, Keane's qualities become almost exaggerated in their importance. He is forced to prove his stature, to stamp his greatness on the game. He does it, seemingly, through sheer force of will. In perhaps the first minute of the match, Marc Overmars takes possession of the ball. Overmars is one of Holland's flair players, a dagger along the wing, with lovely touch, great pace and an eye for goal. He takes a touch with the assurance and confidence typical of a cultured Dutch player, in no hurry, aware of his space and his options. But one of Keane's best qualities has always been his hunger for the ball and his speed in making up ground in pursuit of it, and he is upon Overmars in an instant. His tackle is typically shattering, from behind, and though he gets the ball, he also takes plenty of the man. Overmars gets up looking shaken with Keane telling him not to make such a meal of it, and from then on, none of the Dutch midfield ever looks confident on the ball again. Mark Van Bommel tries to fight Keane's fire with his own, but finds that in such a war of attrition, few can match the Irish Captain (dutch Coach Louis van Gaal would vote for Keane as his European player of the Year in that Season, so impressed was he). Despite having Gary Kelly sent off in the 58th minute, Ireland win 1-0 courtesy of a Jason McAteer goal, with Keane dominant in the centre of the pitch. Indeed, his tackle and run began the move leading to that goal:
To truly understand just how good a player Keane was, his performances with Ireland have to be considered. For most of his International career, he found himself surrounded by players far inferior to his clubmates. Yet this appeared to inspire him. He drove them on just as remorselessly as he did the Utd team, if not moreso. One Dublin Newspaper regularly ran an alternative set of player ratings after every Irish match based around how many times Keane had shouted at the players. Hence the player shouted at the least had been Ireland's best player, Keane apart. And he was invariably Ireland's best player. This explains the impact his departure from the Squad at the World Cup in 2002 had in Ireland, where it was a socially divisive issue, mentioned in Parliament and omniprescient in the media for weeks. As David Walsh has written, Keane suffered from the burden of being the greatest player produced by a small nation. This meant that he became something of a champion in the Greek Warrior sense of the word. Ireland regularly played teams from bigger, stronger countries. These teams were often manifestly superior to the Irish team. But the Irish could ask any team in the World: who is your best player? This chap? Ok. Well, here is our best player. Now our best player will play your best player off the pitch. Just watch.
And Keane did it, time and again. Faced with Luis Figo, one of the most skillful players of his generation, Keane matched Figo's goal with one of his own and stymied the Portugeuse over and over. In a qualifier for the 2006 World Cup against France at Lansdowne Road, Keane dominated a French midfield made up of Zidane, Vieira, Makelele and Dhorasoo. It is inconceivable that Ireland would have limped out of that World cup in 2002 against Spain if Keane had been on the pitch. He would not have allowed it, not in such a manner, at any rate. But he was not on the pitch. His departure from the Squad was farcical, but just adds to his legend, in its way. It deprived him of his best chance to win that elusive World Cup, but has provided the raw material for two seperate plays and a couple of books: "Roy Keane's 10-minute oration ... was clinical, fierce, earth-shattering to the person on the end of it and it ultimately caused a huge controversy in Irish society." - Niall Quinn
That "oration" is part of what made Keane such a great player. There is a sense that he was almost waiting for the opportunity, that these complaints and criticisms he had harboured were a burden for him and he was almost glad to be rid of them. His wit and sharp tongue flashed occasionally in his interviews, but the snatches of that attack of Mick McCarthy revealed by other members of the Irish squad were both funny and cutting. Keane gave McCarthy no option but to send him home. The entire episode recalls the story told by Tony Cascarino in his book, of the entire Irish team kept waiting on a coach in Florida for Keane, young and relatively new to the squad, who has spent the night and morning in a local bar. Keane eventually arrived wearing a "Kiss me Quick" hat and was confronted by a furious Jack Charlton. "I didn't ask you to wait for me, did I?" Keane replied, stunning the older players, each of whom was petrified of their coach. When McCarthy, then Squad Captain and Senior pro, stepped in, his comment : "Call yourself a professional?" was met by Keane's "Call what you have a first touch?" What happened in 2002 really began on that day, according to Keane. His refusal to accept Ireland's second best status was the real sticking point, however. Ireland is a nation that celebrates reaching the Quarter Finals of a major competition, or at least it used to. Keane's attitude has changed that somehow, his reluctance to celebrate a draw with a great team when he knew Ireland could have won has spread through the culture alongside the great and unprecedented prosperity brought by the EU.
He always seemed to burn with some sort of fury - you could see it in his eyes in certain games, you could feel it in the way he terrified not just the opposition but his own teammates, too. He was a warrior. He laid it all on the line, left everything on the pitch, and he expected no less from those he played with. Thus his book and interviews are full of respect for those he considers proper professionals - the likes of Paul Scholes and Eric Cantona. But plenty of others he is less kind about. He might acknowledge somebody's talen while burying them in terms of personality. Peter Schmeicel played up to the crowd too much. Teddy Sheringham was a typical cocky, flash London wide-boy. He once claimed to have lost track of who he was not speaking to in the Utd dressing room. There are tales of him knocking out the big Danish goalkeeper in a training ground row, a sort of turf war, soon after Keane arrived at the club. Also the story that the famous Beckham "boot-gate" scar was in fact caused by the fist of Keane rather than a boot kicked by Fergie. Tellingly though, few who played with him at United have anything negative to say about him. Sheringham called him the best player he ever played with, as did Ruud van Nistelrooy. Few players share his warrior mentality, and it makes an impression on more sensitive teammates. It has carried him through his first year in Club Management at Sunderland, where he has also displayed his dark wit and acute intelligence in his interviews.
Footballers, whether they know it or not, are ambassadors. For clubs, for countries and for themselves. For decades, Mancunians knew that when they told foreigners where they were from, they would receive "Ahhh - Best, Law, Charlton" in return. Mention Brazil to so many people and they will instantly think of football. Argentina means Maradona. Liverpool might instantly summon the Beatles to mind, but after that its football. Roy Keane is possibly the only footballer from the Republic of Ireland with any kind of similar recognition factor worldwide. I've had personal experience of this which I found strangely touching, when I was in a little shop in the Argentine Andes a few years ago. The proprietor, a little old man, asked where I was from. "Ireland", I replied.
"Ah." he said. "Roy Keane. Very good player."