Flawed genius who became the club’s most influential player ever

Keane's performance against Juve ranks as one of the best individual ever‘Oh aye. The amount of fights I’ve had in Cork that I haven’t even mentioned. That,’ he says laughing, ‘would probably be another book. I mean, people go on about my problems off the field, but they don’t even know the half of it. My uncles used to say to me, “Why don’t you go and have a drink in a hotel – Jury’s, or the Metropole, nice hotels like that?” But, I would say, “No. No. I don’t want to drink in a hotel. I don’t want to sit in a hotel with the shirts and ties when I’m 20. I’d rather take me chances in the bars in Cork”.’

For a moment, he seems quite proud of his youthful ability to court trouble but stay one step ahead of it. Then, almost wistfully, he added:

‘See, back then, when I went home, it was like I was never away, you know? In a way, the fight at the end of the night was the price I was prepared to pay to go home, go out with my mates and let off a bit of steam. That kind of stuff didn’t make the papers until I started getting bigger. I wouldn’t dream of doing it now, but it was great then. I found it very difficult to cope with the kind of fame that accompanied my status as a footballer. I wanted to be alone. Well, not as alone as I found myself during the early months in Manchester… Stupidity and pride meant that I would never dream of making the first move to initiate a friendship. Yeah, yeah. I had to be honest about that. When I first used to live in Nottingham, I was my own worst enemy. My pride stopped me saying, “I wouldn’t mind going for a meal with one of yous”.’

The drinking in Nottingham was almost certainly borne on the back of loneliness, boredom, and being away from home. It did become problematic. At the end of his first season as an established player, Keane played in the FA Cup Final against Tottenham Hotspur, and finished on the losing side. He had appeased Clough by agreeing to play even though he was carrying a bad ankle injury. He went on the lash for six weeks and when he reported back at the City ground for pre-season training, he was well over a stone overweight, and Clough was far from happy.

The 1991/92 season saw back at Wembley again, and again, he was on the losing team – this time against Manchester United. By now, he was becoming one of the hottest properties in the game, and in the autumn of 1992, he negotiated another contract with Forest. It was hard bargaining and Clough was not happy at all as he believed that Keane was holding the club to ransom by demanding what he thought to be an extortionate wage increase. There was compromise on both sides, and the new contract did get signed, but with an insertion clause that stipulated that in the event of Forest being relegated, he could demand a move.

Clough also had his own problems at this time, the main one being that he was battling alcoholism. Several key players from what had been a very good Forest team had already left the club, and as the season progressed, Forest were in deep relegation trouble. Just before the season ended, and after a 2-0 defeat by Sheffield United which doomed them to relegation, Clough announced his retirement after 18 years at the City ground. Ex-Forest favourite Frank Clark stepped into his shoes. The relegation though, had opened the door for Roy Keane’s departure from Forest.

Kenny Dalglish had been installed as Blackburn Rovers’ new manager, and was assembling a formidable team with the help of steel magnate, Jack Walker’s millions. There is no doubt that Dalglish, on behalf of Rovers, had been in contact with Keane earlier on during that season, and once Forest’s relegation had been confirmed, a 4 million pounds deal was agreed between the two clubs. Keane shook hands on the deal with Dalglish, but as it was late on a Friday, they could not get all the forms processed so the agreement was that this would be done the following Monday. However, when the story broke in the Saturday dailys, Alex Ferguson saw it. He immediately got in touch with Keane and from that moment on as Keane was to say in later years;

“Once I knew of United’s interest, there was only one place that I was going to go to – and that was Old Trafford.”

Dalglish was furious, and even Brian Clough entered the fray saying that Keane had been “tapped up” by Ferguson, but he conveniently forgot all about Blackburn’s illegal approaches.

So Roy Keane joined Manchester United in August 1993, a little over three years after leaving Cobh Ramblers. His arrival at Old Trafford meant that he had moved into a dressing room full of strong characters – Bryan Robson (who had been a boyhood hero of Keane’s) was Club Captain, Steve Bruce, Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, Peter Schmeichel. The drinking culture was still in evidence at Old Trafford, despite Ferguson’s attempts to put an end to it, and Roy embraced it totally – in fact he flew headlong into it! At the same time along came all the troubles associated with it.

For all his undoubted ability on the field, Keane could be shy and introverted off it. When he first arrived in Manchester he was socially awkward. Being single, he also had a lot of time upon his hands. It was time which he found hard to fill in a meaningful way.

“Back then, I’d be out with the lads and I’d feel part of it all for a while, and then other times, I’d feel like I was somehow a bit different, but not in a nasty way. Removed. I’d be out in the afternoon because I’d need a few drinks to relax before I met up with the lads at five. Which is crazy. Lads I played with every day, trained with every day, and I’d be “I’m meeting the lads tonight, I’d better have a few before I meet them.” Madness. It was a vicious circle for me. I’d keep to myself, then I’d meet the lads and I’d be ready for a bit of action. I kind of go berserk, if you know what I mean. The trouble might come, and I’d be full of remorse, feeling bad. It’d be, “Oh Jesus, I’m not going out ever again”. And then I’d keep to myself for weeks.”

On the field though his performances were terrific and in the first season at Old Trafford, United won the “double” – Premiership and FA Cup. Steve Bruce had taken over the captaincy, and Keane was taking note all the time. The “double” was won again in 1996, and title retained in 1997. At the end of 1996 Bruce moved on to Middlesborough, and Eric Cantona became Club Captain.

Keane has his own views on Cantona and was to say this, in an interview with The Times in 2006;

“I’ve never believed one individual can have that much influence on a team. People used to say this about Eric Cantona, but I didn’t get sucked into that. Eric was a major influence at the club, but I saw him as the final piece in the jigsaw. He wouldn’t have worked if the other pieces weren’t in place”

As a player, Keane had matured and was probably the most prolific midfield player in Europe. At the end of 1996/97 season, Cantona surprisingly announced his retirement, and Ferguson had no hesitation in naming Keane as his successor as Club Captain. It was his time. However it did not get off to the best of starts because on September 21 1997, he was involved in an incident at Leeds United with the Norwegian defender Alfe-Inge Haaland. The end result was that Keane ruptured his cruciate ligament in a tackle, an injury that would keep him out of the game for almost a year. It was an incident which he would not forget.

The long lay-off caused by his cruciate injury was a bleak time for a man whose life, as he suddenly realised, was defined to an extraordinary degree by those regular 90-minute bouts of combat out on the pitch. He admits to feeling lost, and frustrated, without the purpose and the adrenalin of football. His drinking escalated. He had a row with a barman at a United reserve team party; another with his manager after he was subsequently banned from attending the first team party. His response was to go out on a drinking spree on his own.

‘The injury,’ he said, ‘was an eye opener. It was a big blow for me. I was only 27, 28. I’m not saying I ever took things for granted, but I had started to relax a little, and enjoy things. I was thinking, this is what it’s all about, then, suddenly it seemed like it might all be over.’
Was it that serious?

‘Oh yeah. Especially the way I was carrying on. I was out on the piss every night.’

On crutches?

‘Oh yeah,’ he laughed. ‘Ridiculous. Totally ridiculous. I was doing a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have been doing – not just dancing but daft stuff like jumping over hedges and cars. I’d sometimes come in the next day and I couldn’t move for my knee.’

On April 29, 1999, Keane gave arguably the greatest ever performance by a captain in United’s long and illustrious history. In no big an arena than Turin’s Stadio Del Alpi, against the might of Juventus, in the second leg of a European Champions League semi-final second leg – he single handedly dragged Manchester United back from the brink of an embarrassing defeat, to ensure their place in a European Cup Final for the first time in 31 years. Level at 1-1 from the first leg in Manchester, United conceded two soft goals within the first 12 minutes of the game. But Keane drove his team on, urging them, bollocking them, cajoling them to greater effort. And it was he who dragged them back into the game scoring with a delightful header from a corner kick. It breathed fresh energy and impetus into the team, and they responded to Keane’s performance. Sadly, he was to receive a yellow card during the game which prevented him playing in the Final. However, there is no doubt that Keane was the inspiration that drove them to that European Final.

Keane says his binge drinking came to an end in 1999 when he spent a night in the cells after another brawl in a city centre club. The incident had all the trademarks of a tabloid set-up – it actually made the Sun the following morning – but it meant that Alex Ferguson was summoned to a Manchester police station in the early hours, just four days before the FA Cup Final, and ten days before the European Cup Final.

‘There was a pattern here, the story of me, drink and cities: Cork, Dublin, Nottingham, Manchester. It adds up to aggravation.’

Was that night in the cells the turning point?

‘Maybe, yeah. It was obviously getting me in trouble. I mean, without drink, that whole thing would not have gone beyond first base. I wouldn’t have been there to begin with. Or, I would have walked away. It really pissed me off, the gaffer having to come and get me, and all. That was a long night, that was a hell of a long night.’

Did Ferguson give him a bollocking?

‘Not that time. He could see that I was angry with myself. Not looking for sympathy or anything, but genuinely disgusted with myself. He just asked if I was okay. His reading of the situation is always spot on.’

After the European Champions league win over Bayern Munich in Barcelona on that balmy night in May 1999, there was a sense of déjà-vu. George Best had recalled years earlier that after the win at Wembley, against Benfica, in May 1968, several players were heard to be saying that there was nothing else to win – that they had done it all. In Barcelona, Keane, as he sat in his suit back in the dressing room, was hearing similar things. The player who had innocently said on the night of the victory that he didn’t care if they never won another match foretold the stagnation that would follow.

And that evening in Barcelona, Keane was still the 12-year-old with the dead fish. “The good teams come back and win this trophy again and again,” he said, at the Nou Camp stadium. “That’s what we’ve got to do.” Just as success chipped away at the resolve of team mates, it was repeated failure in the European Cup that did for Keane You ask him about this and it is like Hamlet, alone in a room.

“People look back on my career and think the injuries and leaving the Ireland team at the World Cup were the disappointments. None of that stuff comes into it. The biggest disappointments were the games we lost in Europe.”

“The years when we just got sucked into the bull, ‘the final is in Glasgow this season, the manager’s home city,’ as if that entitled us to a break. ‘The final’s at Old Trafford this season, made for us.’ People got sucked into that.

Click here to read on the controversial end to Keane’s United career