Offside, 25 November
There's only one Keano - and that's the problem.
‘Keano, there’s only one Keano.’ This is the chant that has echoed around Old Trafford for the last decade. And that is precisely Manchester United’s problem. There is only one Roy Keane. Fergie has searched for Keano Version 2.0 but has so far failed to find a replacement. Eric Djemba-Djemba was not, it transpired, ‘so good they named him twice’ but ‘so crap they flogged him to Villa’. Kleberson’s brief tenure at Old Trafford was equally undistinguished, while Michael Essien chose to go to Stamford Bridge instead. And now, after his ‘unbroadcastable’ MUTV tirade against his own team-mates, there isn’t even ‘one Keano’ any more. Roy Keane has left the building.
Keane is a paradoxical footballer, a curious mixture of the old and the new. In one sense he is an old-fashioned, tough-tackling midfield enforcer. But he is also, or at least he was at his prime, a very modern midfielder. Not just a hatchet man but a box-to-box player who could break up play, set up attacks, and dictate the tempo of the game. He is the ultimate team player. Rather than feel sorry for himself after receiving a yellow card in the 1999 Champions League semi-final in Turin that would keep him out of the final, he instead imposed his will on the game and drove United to a historic victory. Yet off the pitch Keane is a brooding loner – ‘the Hamlet of the over-the-top tackle’ as Tony Parsons described him – who, by his own admission, has few friends in football.
Keane’s legendary rants about prawn-sandwich-munching spectators at Old Trafford and players who had lost their hunger thanks to ‘Rolex watches, garages full of cars [and] mansions’ endeared him to those United fans who had become disaffected with the club’s commercialism. But, unlike the nostalgists, Keane never wanted a return to a pre-commercial jumpers-for-goalposts past, castigating the United board for failing to spend big after winning the treble in 1999 and being publicly scathing about the Republic of Ireland’s amateurish World Cup preparations.
Throughout his career Keane has polarised public opinion. He was idolised in the red half of Manchester and in his native Ireland (where sales of Keano dolls have reportedly soared since his Old Trafford exit) but he was loathed by opposing fans – though evidently not by rival managers as 40 clubs are reportedly queuing up for his services. Sir Alex Ferguson called him the ‘best midfield player in the world of his generation’ but to his detractors, like journalist Rod Liddle, he is simply a ‘thug’. ‘[If] this was a decent world’, wrote Liddle, ‘he wouldn’t get the chance to sign for another club because he’d still be banged up and certainly banned from the game for life’. This is a reference to the infamous ‘take that you c**t’ tackle on Alf Inge Haaland which, in Liddle’s words, ‘smashed the Norwegian’s knee to pieces’. According to Liddle, ‘It proved to be the last 90 minutes of first-team football Haaland ever played’.
This is lazy journalism. Haaland actually played in an international game for Norway a few days after That Tackle – some feat for a player whose knee had just been smashed to pieces! Moreover the injury that ended Haaland’s career was to his left knee, whereas Keane’s studs clearly connected with the Norwegian’s right knee. The tackle on Haaland was certainly brutal but Keane was crucified not for the tackle itself – a straight red card and automatic ban had been deemed sufficient punishment at the time – but for later admitting in his autobiography that it had been pre-meditated (‘I’d waited long enough. I f***ing hit him hard’). The additional five-match ban and £150,000 fine Keane received was, in effect, a punishment for the crime of honesty.
As the Haaland incident illustrates, Keane has always been prepared to speak his mind and damn the consequences. His rant against Ireland manager Mick McCarthy in Saipan (‘You were a crap player and you are a crap manager…. You can stick it up your bollocks’) cost him the chance to play in the World Cup finals. His most recent MUTV salvo directed at his own team-mates after the 4-1 league defeat by Middlesbrough led to the swift curtailment of his United career.
If you still can’t decide whether to love Keane or loathe him ask yourself this: would you prefer the media-coached, vacuous ‘er, um, the lads done good’ post-match platitudes of your average professional footballer or a withering pull-no-punches Roy Keane rant? I’d vote for Keano’s eloquent rage every time.
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