Football fans all over the world talk about many things during the passage of their conversations; the state of the game itself as it relates to fans; the immediate predicament of the club which they support; the state of their country’s national team; in fact a myriad of topics relating to the game of football.
However, if one wanted to provoke immediate argument, there can be no doubt that by asking the question; ‘What do you think of Roy Keane?’ one would have to take a step back, and then watch as it would bring about an immediate, and voluble response, even though his actual playing career finished some three, or more years ago. Keane has been called many things, and many would apply the term ‘flawed genius’ to him because although there was never any doubting his immense genius, and his wonderful ability to play the game, there was certainly a temperamental brittleness about him which led him into so many scrapes both on, and off, the field.
Roy Maurice Keane was born at 88 Ballinderry Park, to Maurice (Mossie), and Marie Keane, in the north suburb of Mayfield, Cork, Eire, on August 10th, 1971. His family was from a working class background, and they could never have envisaged, on the day that he was born, just what a prolific sporting career their small son would have in the years to come. Certainly, it would not have crossed their minds at that time, that they were bringing into the world not only one of the greatest players ever to grace the game of football, but also one of the most controversial as well.
The family was very sports conscious and as well as a love, and a value for football, they also had a love of boxing – a sport that the young Roy Keane was to briefly flirt with, winning his only four novice fights by knockout, when representing Dillon’s Juniors in the Irish Novice Boxing League. Roy also tried GAA but that did not last too long. As a young boy, and also well into his teens, he was in appearance, only small. But as he showed throughout his professional career, even then, he had a will, determination, and resilience about him, that would see him eventually succeed. His first introduction into organized sport came when at the tender age of just 9 years he followed the family tradition and joined Rockmount AFC’s Academy. It was an association that would last some ten years.
While still a young boy, Roy’s character could be described as “fiery” and there were also the first signs of him being somewhat of a leader and a natural, ruthless competitor. His skill and determination saw him voted as player of the year when in his very first season at Rockmount, which ended with him playing for the Academy’s Under 11’s team – two years ahead of his time. He wasn’t frightened of a reputation, or any of the older players, and they did not faze him in any way at all. Speaking to a reporter in later years about those early days at Rockmount, and of him eyeballing other players, he was to say;
“I have done it since I was eight or nine. I did it at Rockmount. I fell out with people when I was 10, 11. People who didn’t train properly.
“I fell out with a good friend of mine, when we were kids, because he wouldn’t go training one night, and wanted to go out on his skateboard. Didn’t speak for years.”
Keane recalls Rockmount AFC as a “relatively modest experience that was to shape my life.”
His team manager at Rockmount, Timmy Murphy, nicknamed him the ‘Boiler Man’ – ‘the fiery one who mans the furnace, who gets things heated up, and keeps it that way.’ Talking to Murphy about Keane, brings a mist to his eyes as he recalled those days long ago, in an interview with The Times in the autumn of 2006.
Ah Roy’ said Murphy, ‘Roy Keane.’
Murphy saw Keane develop at Rockmount, and they were kings in junior football. He was both his manager and his mentor. The English and Scottish club scouts came from over the Irish Sea, contracts in one hand, and dreams in the other. But it was never Keane who they were after. As he developed, Roy was still small, gritty, and some would say that he wasn’t too gifted. But when you patrolled the touch-lines as Murphy did week-in, and week-out, for every game, for every training session, you knew, you just knew.
‘Even then, when Roy was just 11 years old, he was the leader.’
Murphy pulled out a photograph. “See this? First trophy Roy Keane ever won in football.” Rockmount U11s, seven boys sitting, seven standing; their statuettes lined up in front of them. Keane is the smallest – but the look on his face is unremittingly hard. The statuette could have been a dead fish by his feet.
What made him like that? He comes from a country once described by the businessman and former rugby player Tony O’Reilly as being dogged by an “it’ll do” mentality. “Sure, it’s not great, but it’ll do.” Keane came from a part of Cork City where boys learnt to look after themselves in the early hours of Sunday morning: a world where you dreamt for a while, and then got battered by reality.
Roy Keane progressed through the Rockmount teams and upon reaching the ages of 14-15 he started to apply for trials with some of the English league clubs. Tim Murphy, and Gene O’Sullivan, wrote the letters for him. Chelsea, Brighton, Aston Villa, Luton Town, and Sheffield Wednesday, have all lived to regret the replies of “thanks, but no thanks”. The rejections disappointed Keane, and also angered him. However, they fuelled the burning desire inside of him, desire which drove his will incessantly to succeed.
Eddie O’Rourke from Cobh Ramblers eventually persuaded Keane to join them, and part of the deal that enabled him to secure his services was the fact that Keane wanted to go on an FAI Academy scheme. Each Irish Premier team was allowed to nominate only one youngster to attend the two year course. Keane had actually signed for Cork City when O’Rourke had talked to him about joining Cobh. It is still somewhat of a mystery as to how Cobh’s forms arrived at the League’s headquarters before Cork’s did but it is a good job that they did, because if they hadn’t, Keane would never have had a place on that FAI Academy course. Cork City had already nominated their youngster and that was a young man named Len Downey.
Even in Dublin, the people running the course, and the many scouts who turned up at games, doubted that Keane could make it at top class level, mainly because of his size. Keane relished the work and the environment at the academy, although it was not without its pitfalls.
Liam McMahon who was Cobh’s manager at the time recalled Keane’s school studies were not exactly up to scratch. He said:
“We got a call that Roy was not doing a great deal at school. My assistant Fergus McDaid was a teacher in Cork so I asked him to have a word with the lad because the Committee were getting concerned. Fraser asked how his studies were going and Roy just said: ‘I am going to be a professional footballer’. And that was the end of the conversation as far as he was concerned.”
It did not surprise Eddie O’Rourke, and eventually, even McMahon was convinced of the young terrier’s ability.
“He would pass the ball like a golfer taps away a five-foot putt,” says O’Rourke. “Turn, pass, turn, pass. It was methodical, and simple, and brilliant for his age. He was box to box, running, scoring, passing, wonderful to watch. Liam played him one day in Dublin and rang me afterwards. ‘He’s after tearing them apart,’ he said. ‘I told ya, I said’.”
McMahon could see the youngster had talent and potential. But it was Keane’s attitude which convinced McMahon that he would gain success over the Irish Sea.
“We were playing up in Donegal against Finn Harps, which is a good six-hour bus journey at the best of times,’ explained McMahon. ‘Eddie wanted Roy to play in a very important youth game in Cobh the night before and then the plan was for him to drive up to join the first team afterwards. We hit the midlands, were engulfed in heavy snow, and I remember thinking: ‘That’s the end of Roy’s chances’. He added; ‘The players were long gone to bed, it was about half-one in the morning, and let’s just say I was in the vicinity of the bar when the door to the hotel opened, and in walked Roy. He just asked where his room was and went straight to bed.”
Len Downey recalled how driven Keane was, even when he was at the Academy in Dublin;
“He would never have a go if you missed a goal but he would tear into anyone for missing a tackle or not tracking back, and he was forever having a go at me because I could be a bit lazy about that part of the game.
“Players were afraid of him, even those who were much older. Even though he was so small and slim, he’d have no hesitation telling the bigger lads what to do, and what he thought of them. He actually stood out because he was so small but he tackled players twice his size, won the ball, sent them flying. He was tiny when he got in the Ireland youth squad and people told him to his face he was not going to make it because of his size. That just made him more determined to prove them wrong.”
Whilst he was at the Academy, Noel McCabe was an Irish football scout for Nottingham Forest, and he used to travel all over Dublin on his bicycle to watch junior games. He was forever hoping that one day he would find the raw golden nugget of a young player, one that he could recommend to Brian Clough. McCabe watched Keane for months and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The game that finally clinched it for him was an FAI Youth Cup quarter final replay at Fairview Park in North Dublin where the Cobh youth team were playing Belvedere. Eddie O’Rourke smiled as he remembered;
“Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” said O’Rourke. “The bus was late, we were late togging off. We were mangled by Belvedere but Roy was head and shoulders above anyone on the pitch and destroyed them – despite the fact we lost 4-0. He was like a man possessed, even after they scored the fourth and the game was over he was still running all over the pitch, urging, bollocking, driving.”
McCabe was the only scout to witness what O’Rourke had been seeing for months – that Keane was a natural-born footballer. He pinched himself when he arrived at the hotel where the defeated team was drowning their sorrows with orange juice. No other scout had bothered. O’Rourke recalled;
“There was every kind of scout there that day, including Boy Scouts. I will always wonder what the others were watching.”
Defeat was rare for the Cobh boys, who won four cups during Keane’s last season, but McCabe arrived to offer a lifeline to the 18-year-old who had dreamed of becoming a professional footballer. O’Rourke, and his brother John, told Keane of Forest’s interest, but the youngster, then facing the prospect of the dole queue, and afternoons watching Neighbours, just shrugged it off.
“He was sick of hearing that players were going over for trials,” explained O’Rourke. “I don’t think he really believed it was going to happen until he stepped on the plane after signing for Forest.”
Much has been made of Cobh Ramblers’ failure to secure a sell-on clause when Keane signed for Forest 17 years ago. Cobh were paid £47,000 in all, receiving an initial £20,000, then £10,000 for his first 10 games, the same amount for the next 10 and £7,000 for five Ireland appearances. They also played a friendly with Forest at St Colman’s Park, with Keane scoring in a 5-0 win after marking his first full season with a debut at Anfield, and winning an FA Cup runners-up medal.
Many would suggest that a sell-on clause from the then British record £3.75million deal which clinched Keane’s signature for Manchester United in 1993, might have set the club up for life.
“You know what? I still wouldn’t have a sell-on clause,” said O’Rourke. “When I signed any player, there was no way I was going to put money for the club before their future and stand in their way. Ronnie Fenton did the negotiating, and Mr Clough came in halfway through. He gave my brother John a kiss and said: ‘What are you going to do with the money?’ He couldn’t believe we were all working men who were going to give every penny to the club. He took a bottle of Paddy’s out, poured everyone a glass and said: ‘Give them what they want”.
“Mr Clough would have turned round and said ‘no’ if we had asked for that kind of deal. How could you tell a young fella like Roy his dream was over because we wanted more cash in the future? No way. At the end of the day, he put this club on the map and we have had plenty of return since.”
So young Roy’s dream of joining a top English club was, at last, finally realised and he wasn’t yet quite 20 years of age. Delighted with his move, Roy found life away from home more than a little difficult, and would regularly look for a few days off to visit his family. There was seldom a difficulty meeting this request from Clough. Clough was both brilliant, and perceptive, when it came to handling his players. It is probable that in Keane, Clough also saw the same qualities of the player, and the leader, as had Murphy, O’Sullivan. O’Rourke, McMahon, and McCabe during Keane’s younger years. Cloughie was to affectionately call Keane “the Irishman”
Initially, Roy was the quiet, withdrawn type of young man at Forest, but as he became an established first team player, the other side of his personality came to the fore. His performances on the field were eye-catching, and soon he had displaced England international Steve Hodge. Back then Keane would leave Nottingham for Cork directly after Saturday’s game, arriving there in time ‘for last orders’ at the Temple Acre, then a meal with his mates. Saturday was dancing, drinking, kebabs… Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, same routine. That cavalier lifestyle seems scarcely credible now in a game directed by nutritionists and motivation coaches as well as trainers and physios.
‘I know,’ he says, shaking his head at the absurdity of that not-too-distant time, ‘but that was the norm back then. We used to get wrecked.’ Given that Cork can be a hard town, did he ever consider the very real possibility that one drunken ruck could have put him out of action for the season? ‘Oh, I know. Without a doubt. In town, there’d always be one or two fellas looking for trouble, but I’d always have my four or five mates and we’d be ready.’
So, you would be up for a fight if it happened?