What makes a footballer great? Is it talent, fortune or is it hard work? Or is it simply meant to be? English Premier League fans from the 90s would attest to the latter. Especially those who watched Roy Keane.
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In an 18-year-long playing career, Keane played for Cobh Ramblers, Nottingham Forest, and Manchester United, before ending his career at Celtic. Keane was a dominating defensive midfielder, famous for his aggressive and highly competitive style of play. This attitude that helped him excel as captain of Manchester United from 1997 until his departure in 2005.
Manchester United fans swear it by their souls. In spite of a Neville or Vidic since. Or a Bruce or Robson before. United have never had a leader like Roy Keane, before or since.
In spite of all his abilities, he certainly wasn’t the most talented. Or the most physically imposing. So, what was it about this Irishman that made him a great? In one word, attitude.
Keane’s first breakthrough came for the semi-professional Irish club Cobh Ramblers. His rapid progression into a promising footballer was reflected by the fact that he would regularly turn out for Ramblers’ youth side as well as the actual first team.
Keane managed to impress Nottingham Forest manager, Brian Clough, and Keane moved to England. His spell with Forest included runners up medals in the FA Cup and League Cup.
Theatre of Dreams
For all his legend, Keane might never have ended up at United. Blackburn Rovers manager, Kenny Daglish, had convinced Keane to join the Rovers in 1992. However, a mistake prevented the move on a Friday.
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Daglish went home, with the move set to be official on the Monday. In the interim, Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, managed to lure Keane to Old Trafford. Keane signed for Manchester United for £3.75 million, a British transfer record at the time.
Keane was signed just as United had clinched their first league title, post Busby. He soon established himself as first choice. At the end of the season Keane won his first Premier League title. Two weeks later, he broke his Wembley losing streak by helping United to a 4–0 victory over Chelsea in the FA Cup Final.
The following season, Keane received his first red card as a Manchester United player. This came about as a result of stamping Gareth Southgate in an FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace.
The trophies kept piling up as Keane won 5 more league titles in 6 seasons from 1995 to 2001. The climax was of course in 1999, when Keane captained United to an unprecedented treble of the Premier League, FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League.
In an inspirational display against Juventus in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final, he helped haul his team back from two goals down to win 3–2. Keane scored the first United goal himself.
His performance in this game has often been described as his finest hour as a footballer. Even Sir Alex Ferguson called it “the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field.”
This was due to the fact that earlier in the match, Keane had received a yellow card after a trip on Zinedine Zidane that ruled him out of the final. United went on to win a dramatic final, 3-2. Keane started the FA Cup final, but had to be substituted due to injury, after 8 minutes.
Incidentally, Keane played as many as 55 matches for United in the 1998-99 season, his maximum at the club. The next season was his most successful as a goalscorer, as Keane netted 12 times in 45 matches.
Keane would also accumulate as many as eleven red cards for United. This was typical of his abrasive style of play, which also led to several injuries.
Keane’s confrontational nature also led to numerous altercations with Arsenal skipper, Patrick Viera. The most infamous incident occured at Highbury in 2005, when the two almost came to blows, in the tunnel before the match.
Keane also had incidents with United goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel.
Keane caused controversy in December 2000, when he criticised sections of United supporters after a Champions League victory over Dynamo Kyiv at Old Trafford. He complained about the lack of vocal support given by some fans when Dynamo were dominating the game. Keane’s comments coined the term “prawn sandwich brigade”.
Keane’s most infamous moment came in the 2001 Manchester derby. Five minutes from the final whistle, he was sent off for a blatant knee-high foul on Alf-Inge Håland. This was considered by many as an act of revenge.
Keane confirmed as much in his autobiography. This stemmed back to an incident in the 1997-98 season. Then Keane had suffered a cruciate ligament injury caused by an attempt to tackle Håland. As Keane lay prone on the ground, Håland accused the injured United captain of having tried to hurt him and of feigning injury to escape punishment.
In early November 2005, Keane provoked more controversy on MUTV. After a humiliating 4–1 defeat at the hands of Middlesbrough, he took the opportunity to criticise the performances of several club players. This included the likes of John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher and record signing Rio Ferdinand.
There was another league title in 2003 and an FA Cup in 2004. But, this was a time of transition and United found it difficult to maintain their numero uno status.
This and that spectacular outburst over MUTV contributed to Keane’s abrupt departure, mid-season in 2005-06. This was during a protracted absence from the team due to an injury. Keane reached an agreement with Manchester United allowing him to leave the club immediately.
He played for Celtic for the rest of 2005-06 and then retired from professional football on medical advice.
Keane’s international career for Republic of Ireland, was expectedly less successful, though no less colourful. It included an altercation with national manager, Mick McCarthy. This resulted in Keane being sent home from the 2002 World Cup.
Keane is the joint-most successful Irish footballer of all time, having won nineteen major trophies in his club career. Seventeen of these came at Manchester United. This included 7 English Premier Leagues, 4 FA Cups and a Champions League.
He is widely regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders of his generation. In 2004 Keane was named by Brazilian legend, Pelé, in the FIFA 100 list of the world’s greatest living players.
As manager of Sunderland, Keane took the club from 23rd position in the Championship to winning the division. This led to promotion to the Premier League. From 2013 onwards, Keane has been the assistant manager of Republic of Ireland.
However, he will always be remembered for his time at Old Trafford. His no nonsense gait and never say die attitude is embedded in the memories of United fans. He still lives as he always did, with his own rules and no regrets.
As they say. Some things are just meant to be.