by Alex Hess
Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: I hated Roy Keane while he was a player. Hated him. He was a genuinely detestable human being. He was the snarling, fouling, talismanic captain of the club I despised, and perfectly encapsulated all the reasons I loathed them: the relentless, ludicrous dedication to winning, the play-by-my-own-rules attitude, the scorn and disdain for anything and everything non-United. He relentlessly abused referees, he deliberately injured opponents. And yet, in retrospect, I can’t help but respect him. Even worse — as sacrilegious as it may be for a Liverpool fan — I find myself quite admiring Keane The Player. Of course, it’s far easier to take up such a position a good few years after his retirement, with sufficient time elapsed for my traumatic childhood memories of United’s Keane-driven treble-winning side to have somewhat faded, but there nonetheless exists in my mind a genuine, grudging, approval for his efforts in United red.
Though it’s going over well-trodden ground to discuss his attributes as a player, this is my piece and so dammit I’ll do it anyway. While his mentality and drive were always his stand-out characteristics, it’s often easy to forget that Keane was also a very accomplished midfielder. While not possessing a truly excellent technical facet — his touch and passing were never comparable to those of Scholes, and he lacked the elegance of Beckham, or the close control of Giggs — he was a very adept central midfielder, possibly the most ‘complete’ of the four. His passing was polished if unspectacular, he could carry the ball forward when needed, and he also popped up with the odd goal (he got 12 in 1999-2000). Of course, Keane never displayed what you might call the ‘natural’ ability of many of his team-mates, but he made sure that his comparatively modest talent was stretched to the very limit possible, and he never fell short of the technical standards required at the highest level of club football. He also had the habit of ensuring those around him flourished – his defensive hard work, for example, was key to Paul Scholes establishing himself as a goalscoring midfielder within a 4-4-2, which is no easy task. (Incidentally, this role, combined with Keane’s own ‘box-to-box’ responsibility, forms a pairing of midfield positions effectively non-existent in today’s game. How times have changed.)
Despite all this, though, what tends to most fascinate me about Keane is his complete and utter lack of compromise with regards to his attitude. Coming to prominence almost perfectly in time with football’s Murdoch-propelled rebirth as a celebrity-studded entertainment business, Keane’s outlook represented the complete antithesis to the glossy world that top-level football was becoming. He was — pardon the cliché — Old School in the most definitive sense, and he certainly didn’t belong in Sky’s new-look Premier League. While the Lee Sharpes and David Ginolas were practising their step-overs and flexing their torsos in shampoo ads, Keane was (in my imagination, at least) out on a blustery training pitch on his own, running laps in the dark, his mind set on the most effective way of crippling his next midfield opponent.
In a universe increasingly littered with sports cars and diamond-encrusted watches, he was a throwback to the no-holds-barred, ‘battlefield’ mentality of decades past, and in this sense he was very much the on-pitch manifestation of his manager (or managers, given that he also played under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest). Given that it’s this absurdly, almost comically glamorous lifestyle of the modern footballer that so grates with and alienates a large proportion of today’s fans, such an active refutation of this does tend make Keane bizarrely likeable. Perhaps this is even more the case in 2011, an age where the very embodiment of mediocrity, David Bentley, has become most noted for wrapping his car (as well as his career) around a lamppost, and United’s current talisman was recently persuaded to double his wages having publicly questioned the club’s ambition. For all the accusations that could be thrown at United and Ferguson, a lack of ambition is not, I think it’s fair to say, one of them. Oh, to have Roy Keane in the dressing room during that saga.
And finally, to add a somewhat Shakespearean element to Keane’s career trajectory, it was this intense single-mindedness that eventually led to his downfall. Not only was Keane himself as dedicated and obsessive a perfectionist as is humanly possible, but — fatally — he demanded the same from everyone around him. Whether laying into his own fans (for not being loud enough) or his own team mates (for not trying hard enough), Roy Keane just couldn’t seem to accept the fundamental truth that not everyone was like him. Eventually, Keane’s public intolerance his team-mates’ shortcomings reached a pinnacle with his infamous MUTV interview, and the adverse effect he was having on dressing room morale became irreversible. Ferguson decided enough was enough, the door was opened, and Keane, of course, walked. Yes, Keane had passed his peak when he was sold to Celtic, and United were no longer losing a great player, but, as Ferguson’s unwavering faith Scholes and Giggs would suggest, it was attitude rather than ability that prompted Keane’s departure.
As far as I can remember, he had a brief and fairly nondescript spell at Celtic before calling it a day, but for me, as I’m sure for many others, his career properly ended when he left United. In hindsight, it was a fitting end. I can’t imagine him looking back and having any regrets about it — he had never stood for any deficit in dedication, and if that meant he couldn’t continue as a Manchester United player then so be it. His unwavering personal values, as ever, took precedence and his legendary No. 16 shirt was ceremonially passed over to… Michael Carrick. As a manager, he grew a beard and tried to connect on a personal level with the likes of Kieran Richardson. Neither of these endeavours convinced (despite early Championship success) and you get the sense that he just isn’t cut out to manage – there’s too much pandering to millionaires and too little opportunity for horrendous tackles. As Ferguson has shown with the recent Rooney saga, management involves a significant level of compromise, and Keane just isn’t capable of it.
So I suppose my appreciation of Keane is not just due to his frankly stubborn refusal to accept anything other than the best, but is equally borne of a respect for his fierce, instinctive contempt towards anyone who failed to share his mindset. On a human level, it’s a fairly odious attitude to hold, but as a footballer it made him a world-class. Roy Keane was a dislikable person, granted, but he never tried, or wanted, to be anything else. He cared only about being a winner, and — likeable or not — I reluctantly applaud him for that.
Between fantasies of United’s demise, Alex finds the time to write for Football365, WSC.co.uk, and a number of blogs. His collected writing can be found at Crunching Challenge, and you can bother him on Twitter here: @A_Hess.