Published: 22 NOV 2005
While I fully understand that everyone loves Roy, I do think the time was right for him to go and I do think the time was right for Ferguson to act.
Roy pre-99 and Roy post- 99 were two very different players. They were the same lad on the pitch giving 100% and doing all in his power to make Manchester United better. But I think the ghost of the 1999 Champions League final haunted Roy. Prior to the 1999 final can you remember Roy doing anything that showed up his team mates or unsettled his Manager? I certainly can't apart from red mist which saw him get a red card in 1995 after stamping on Gareth Southgate. Even when Mick McCarthy asked him to play out of position as a centre back for Ireland in October 1996 V Iceland, he did the job quietly, efficiently & perfectly. For half the 1994/95 season he played right full back for us. He gave you the impression that were he asked to play in goal he would do it and you would have to be on top form to beat him.
In the Champions League semi final second leg in 1999 he picked up a second yellow card and it ruled him out of the final against Bayern. There was no major problem as United then set about retaining the champions League title. But Madrid came and upset our European apple cart. For 20 minutes of that game in April 2000 we looked solid and as if we were on our way to the semi final. Then Roy put the ball in his own net and we were in trouble. His own goal was rendered almost meaningless as Redondo weaved magic and Madrid showed us the exit door. And it was here Roy changed.
Any player worth his salt should be looking to play and win at the highest level. Roy epitomised this thought. But for me the first glimpses of trouble within himself were in November 2000. After we narrowly squeezed past Dinamo Kiev to make it to the second group stages of the European Cup, Roy had a pop at our fans with his famous 'prawn sandwich' comment. The die-hards on the Stretford end loved it, but looking back, was this where Roy started to feel his chances of winning that elusive Champions League medal come under pressure? By the time Bayern knocked us out later in the competition, Roy was going a step further. In the immediate aftermath of the elimination, he gave an interview that suggested the team should now be broken up. It made sensational headlines. Roy even suggested his own position should be under threat but I think what he was doing here was turning up the heat on everyone and when that would happen he knew he would perform. Even in his autobiography, he made reference to how easy the Premiership had become but that in the biggest of European games, United were lacking.
I was at Old Trafford on May 5th 2001 as United lost to Derby but took the Premiership trophy. It was a party atmosphere (not least with our result sending City down) but one or two things happened that stick out in my mind now. I sat in the North stand by the sideline and as the players ran around after the game, I noticed Keane's demeanour was slightly different to the others. Beckham, Butt and co. wore huge big grins as they saluted the crowd. Roy was slightly subdued, smiling, but not as celebratory as the others. Then again the others were safe in the knowledge their European Cup medals were sitting on their mantlepiece at home. Roy was still looking to take the team back to that level. And then Fergie addressed the crowd and we whooped and greeted him like a king. But just before he gave the microphone back to the stage manager he said 'And this team will not be breaking up'. Right there, Fergie was saying that he was the boss Q.E.D.
Isn't it strange how in the 2001/2002 club season Roy didn't have a lot to say? After we struggled to get out of the first Champions League group with two defeats to Deportivo, we went on to produce one of the best United performances ever to beat them in the quarter final. Roy was at his brilliant best in the away leg but went off with a terrible hamstring injury. I remember thinking at the time 'that's him gone for the World Cup'. Ironic thoughts indeed. As United surged towards that second European crown everything was ok within Keane's mind. He seemed assured United could re-scale the European summit and he himself could then look forward to another World Cup. Bayer Leverkeusen though had other ideas. Roy's autobiography told of how he thought United would have taken Madrid in the final.
With the World Cup in mind Keane was surely looking forward to a crack at the biggest prize in International football. He was going there to win it and when he saw Mick McCarthy as a barrier to winning the trophy McCarthy was always going to get it with both barrels. Keane is a winner and he wanted Ireland to think they could win the World Cup. Carlberg's Irish TV adverts ran an ad with McAteer dreaming about winning the World Cup. For Roy it wasn't a dream, he thought Ireland could do it. When he felt that the preparation was a hindrance he left the world Cup and left behind one of his last chances of winning that top medal. In the end Ireland were knocked out by Spain in the second round. Ireland with Roy Keane could have achieved a lot more.
The 2002/03 season saw United start shakily but with a lot of players out injured, including Roy himself, he must have been pleased to see United beat Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle. Again we played Madrid in the quarter finals and although the second game was a classic, the sight of Roy being replaced in the second half was strange to say the least. Madrid were good value for their win and when they knocked us out, the Premiership title was not looking likely, but a surge at the end of the season saw United Champions. But was it the Madrid defeat that the created a doubt within the United management thinking Roy was no longer capable of playing in central midfield without extra cover? The 5 man midfield that had been used to devastating effect in the 02/03 season became the norm for most of the following two seasons. In 2004 & 2005 United limped out of the champions League at the second round stage. Roy's chances of winning a European Cup medal were now all but gone. Think of Roy Keane's mentality: That must have hurt him.
While Roy may have been the first to acknowledge he was not naturally gifted in the mould of Zidane, he worked so hard that he made himself as good if not better. Cast your mind back to the game in Turin in 99. For all Zidane's plaudits as the best player in the World, where was he as our Captain courageous headed home the goal that brought us back into the game? When they met in Landsdowne Road in September 2005, who was taken off? Zidane exited the game as he tried all night to elude Keane, who was like a nightclub doorman looking for that toe-rag to eject from his club. Roy made himself into the best midfield player in Europe and I think all of Roy's frustration can be traced back to that Champions League night in 1999 when he didn't play. He was a reluctant participant in the celebrations, but like any good team mate he realised how important it was to his mates so he joined in. Since then as he watched his chances of that European Cup medal fade, he's had to play with players who are not as hood as him or who maybe have not had to work as hard at their game. This, in my opinion at least had led to his outburts, the problems in Saipan and the growing frustration and comments that have come out in the media.
If you look at things from Ferguson's point of view, I honestly think he was right to let Roy go. Ok, you can argue that a player of such great service deserved better. Roy did deserve better. He deserved to play in a European Cup final and it sickens me to think that after the 1999 final, UEFA changed the rules so that instead of two yellow cards leading to a suspension, it would now take three. But for a while, Roy has not been a happy man an the move now is good for all concerned. The MUTV show that was never seen was just a bridge too far. Ferguson's job is trying to re-build United and he cannot afford to have the rug pulled from under his feet by his captain. For the last six years Roy has watched players like Dwight Yorke leave having not even put 1% of what Roy has put into the club over the past twelve years, yet taking his Champions League medal with him. That frustration is over now and Roy can go on and do other things. Who knows, if he makes the right move, that European Cup medal might not be beyond him. Second only to us winning the crown again, would any of us complain if Roy was to become a Champions League medal winner with Milan, Juventus or Barcelona? Roy Keane, controversial, physical, satirical, but above all else an absolute diamond of a player. When Robbo left in 1994 we had Keane to take his mantle. Roy's exodus leaves a hole that might never be filled.
Keano, we love you.
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