Roy Keane The Human Dynamo
Misunderstood and oft-maligned, Tom Humphries feels Roy Keane remains Ireland's key player in their bid for World Cup qualification
Soccer: There were two moments during the 1994 World Cup which, at the time, seemed to define Roy Keane's evolving status within his profession. In a listlessly humid Florida, days before the tournament began, tempers flared on the training ground one day as Ireland's footballers were pushed to the limit yet again. Inevitably there was some press comment on the business. Next day, when Jack Charlton returned from a scouting trip, the principals of the affair, Roy Keane and Maurice Setters, were frogmarched into the press tent like recalcitrant schoolboys and made issue public denials. Nothing happened. Honest.
Setters breezed it. For Keane, a young professional beginning to sense his own worth and responsibilities, the moment was excruciatingly uncomfortable, an unwarranted humiliation imposed on a shy soul. He said the words, face burning. Later on the media, by now endlessly diverted by the harmless tomfoolery of Ireland's three amigos, Babb, McAteer and Kelly, inquired politely as to why young Roy Keane wasn't a part of the comedy troupe. There was an awkward silence punctured eventually by a Jason McAteer joke.
No, Roy Keane would not be appearing at a press conference wearing a daft wig and a soppy grin. He went on to be the Irish player of the tournament. Since then he has gone on to be the most favoured prince in Alex Ferguson's Manchester United dynasty.
He is of an age with the three amigos of US
'94, yet slightly further down the career path than any of them. He is
maturing into one of the most influential players of his generation. Keane
will be 26 next August. He stands at his prime, the match of any other
Irish player in history in terms of medals won and their equal in terms
of stature. He lacks Liam Brady's left foot or Frank Stapleton's cannonball
head, he doesn't have Mark Lawrenson's sedate composure or Johnny Giles
generalship or Dave O'Leary's elegance, but he has a little of everything
and he makes up the ground in all-round ability and consistency. More than
that, Keane's career has reached the edge of another dimension.
The next four weeks may provide the defining moments of his career, the difference perhaps between it being legendary and just being highly respected. He will wear the green (well, orange) of Ireland to Macedonia and Romania as perhaps the one player who can carry a transitional team through those awkward tests and on to a World Cup next summer when he might express himself at his peak.
He goes into European Cup action with Manchester United as the breastplate of the side which could finally eclipse the Matt Busby legend. Between times, he will battle it out in a couple of key Premiership games, most notably against Liverpool. When the calendar flips over to the month of May, he will be close to the top of most people's lists as player of the year.
Which ever way the next few weeks unfold for Roy Keane his achievements will rank as unique. He is the keystone for both United and Ireland. His career path has levelled out (he signed a massive fouryear contract with United last summer) and he looks set to be the heart of the last great British soccer dynasty this century.
We don't discard our stereotypes easily, however. The lazy media perception of Keane is that which attached itself to him as the young star of a flimsily attractive Nottingham Forest team back at the start of the decade. Headstrong on the field. Headbanger off the field. Surname that slots nicely into tabloid headlines. Close the book.
One yellow card for Keane gets more headlines than a dozen telling tackles.
Keane has had his battles, not least in coping with difficult transitions, first from Cork to Nottingham, and then to the broiling claustrophobia of life at Old Trafford where he arrived in the summer of 1993 as a £3,750,000 addition to the Alex Ferguson menagerie.
He came to the attention of newspapers and
scandalmongers by dint of the proverbial footballer in nightclub/winebar
route, going on quickly to become one of the few footballers whose neighbours
get bothered by tabloid newspapers asking if the footballer next door bothers
The turbulence of his early twenties saw him crashing his first complimentary club car, getting fined by Ferguson for a nightclub incident, getting hauled into court by a woman alleging slander, and getting mentioned in gossip columns by a gushing soap opera queen. Easy copy. Worse. Keane isn't a footballer who courts the media. Through good times and bad he hasn't been caught peddling his side of things to tabloids or dashing across hotel lobbies to greet hacks who might treat him to a favourable spin of the publicity ball. There are journalists whom he refuses to speak to and others he chats with if he feels like it, but generally it is a chore and he finds it hard to get past the feeling of having been ill-used by newspapers in general.
Which is a pity. Keane's development and his role within the teams he plays for have been slightly more complex than popular myth allows. The beaten-docket hacks who urged supporters to boo Keane's appearance in Lansdowne Road back before Christmas missed the point. Keane isn't the lazy airhead who refused to put the hot passion of patriotism before the cold commerce of club, he is a huge star whose immensely valuable performances are carefully rationed out by his employers. That's not very sexy, but it's the realpolitik of football.
Keane had, of course, unwittingly fuelled the little controversy concerning his commitment to Ireland last summer when he pulled out of the end of season tour to the US, having earlier indicated a willingness to be part of the trip. On balance, his decision was the right one. For any player who had endured the rigours of two hectic seasons and a World Cup such a tour was undesirable. His late change of mind made juicy copy at a fallow time of the year for newspapers and the story grew to unnatural dimensions.
Neither Mick McCarthy or Keane have ever washed
the linen from that incident in public. The rift was resolved at dinner
before the Charity Shield match last summer and McCarthy, always a fan
of Keane's, remains more than happy with the development of his blue chip
midfielder and quietly pleased with how the Corkman is handling himself
"Look at him this year. We know his ability, it's never been in question, but he's actually had no real problems on the field, he's had a very good season in terms of discipline. He's had his bookings, but he's been far more responsible. He's growing up. We all do it. You get to an age where you don't drive your car so fast because you realise your only going to get there five minutes earlier. You get to an age where you don't want to miss 10 games a year through being suspended. Roy has learned a lot. He's handling himself well."
When Ferguson's studied protectiveness is aggregated with the inevitable toll of injuries which a central midfielder playing with the busiest team in Britain picks up, Keane's absences are more understandable. A parallel relationship exists between Ryan Giggs and the Welsh soccer public. Throw in Keane's shyness, which is almost crippling, and his failure to put his message across in words of not more than one syllable, and the response to the mention of his name has become lamentably knee jerk.
For a player who almost missed the boat (his first shot at full-time football came when he was on a FAS course in the late 1980s under the eye of Joe McGrath) and who represented Ireland from under-15 level onwards, becoming the mainstay of the Maurice Setters youth team which despite neglect reached the World Youth Finals, the accusations of disinterest and dodging must surely rankle. There is little in life and nothing in football which Keane is half-hearted or cynical about.
His tackles, the other stick regularly used to beat him with, are a byproduct of the overall package. He is, as McCarthy says, "the guy who'll go over the top of the trench for you, the guy who'll step in with you during a bar room brawl".
"It's wrong on the football field and he knows that, but there is a quality to it also. It's part of the package with him. When it comes down to it you'd always want him alongside you."
This year he has been notably more restrained, consciously chanelling his extraordinary energy into the substance of the game and not its little sideshows. The new, distilled version of Keane's passion is welcome. He'd made a habit of timing his excesses for the worst possible moment, stamping on Gareth Southgate in the 1995 FA Cup semifinal, and throwing a punch at Russia's Omar Tetradze last March on his first outing as captain of Ireland.
All that remains of the young Keane, the player who made an auspiciously big-time debut against Liverpool at Anfield early in the 19901991 season, is the energy and the occasional storm of impetuousness on the pitch. His play has become more refined, not by diminished passion, but in terms of specialisation.
He no longer gallops from box to box for 90 minutes, doesn't get into the opposition penalty area every chance he gets. Instead, he sits in front of his back four and breaks hearts. "They've got other players who do the attacking stuff at United," says McCarthy, "he still gets up occasionally, but he's got more responsible in that it looks like he's asked to do that role emphasising the defensive side. He sweeps everything up for them, breaks down the opposition all day. You never expect anybody to do the things he does, to win the balls he does and he usually finds a positive pass, he doesn't win it and pass the responsibility. He uses it well."
This season started slowly for Keane. Last summer he finally had treatment for the most celebrated hernia problem in the history of medicine. Then, having scored against Newcastle in the Charity Shield romp at Wembley, he became battle scarred quickly, missing a string of games for knee surgery, returning to play twice, once against Villa and once against Rapid Vienna, before needing hospitalisation for internal bleeding on a leg wound. His season started in earnest in late October with a League Cup outing against Swindon Town. He has shown the benefit of increased maturity ever since.
One senses speaking to Mick McCarthy that his vision of Keane's special qualities remains clear despite a year when they have spent long periods at cross purposes with each other. McCarthy has watched Keane more than half a dozen times this year. One quality strikes him again and again.
"He's a winner. He leads on the field. He's a winner, people respond to that, I saw him the other day having a whinge at somebody on the field, a real screaming whingey face on him. And I loved it. Some guy had made a mistake. The commentator said 'that's what they'll love to see at Liverpool two United players arguing'. Rubbish! Don't give me that. It means they want to win. They care. Roy Keane hates to get beat. People around him respond to that."
A long month ahead for Manchester United and Ireland. Who wouldn't want the boy who hates to get beat alongside them.
He will wear the green (well, orange) of Ireland
to Macedonia and Romania as perhaps the one player who can carry a transitional
team through those awkward tests and on to a World Cup next summer when
he might expresshimself at his peak.
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