Very few people remember where they were on Tuesday, 28 August, 1990. It’s just another date at the end of a joyous summer during which a nation had giddily followed its soccer team on an unlikely and thrilling journey to the quarter-finals of the World Cup. At Anfield that night, the first steps were taken in a professional career that would obsess the country for most of the next decade and a half. As Liverpool cruised to a handy 2-0 win over Nottingham Forest, the visitors’ 19 year old debutant should have been booked for a wild challenge on David Burrows in the 20th minute. Despite most of his team-mates not knowing his name by that point in the match, Roy Keane did enough to catch the eye of one man sitting in the stands.
Manchester United’s chief scout Les Kershaw took a note of the newcomer and reported back to Alex Ferguson the next day that Forest had given a start to a young midfielder who might be worth watching for future reference. That his first performance on Broadway merited just a footnote in the Irish papers was ironic because, very soon, everything he did on and off the field would be magnified and occasionally distorted by the constant media glare. He would grow into a bigger and more enduring story than every one of the heroes of Italia’90. He would win more medals, garner more headlines, and divide the loyalties of Irish fans like no player ever before.
His transformation from one more promising young midfielder to once-in-a-generation icon happened relatively quickly, and coincided with such a change in the prevailing media culture of his homeland that he truly became the first superstar of Ireland’s tabloid age. It was perhaps the only title he never wanted and the one that presented him with most difficulty. A boyhood preparing for on-field glory never included any courses about how to negotiate the off-field perils of fame. In the summer of 1996, Keane had paparazzi stalking his trail and taking intrusive photographs of himself and his kids outside his parents’ house in Mayfield. This was back when David Beckham hadn’t even yet been introduced to Posh Spice.
Unlike his erstwhile United colleague, Keane never courted that sort of publicity, rather he openly bristled at it. Moreover, his evolution into one of those outsized characters who transcend the game they play was never a consequence of slick marketing or canny advertising. It was merely an unfortunate by-product of the magnificent displays he produced almost every time he togged out and crossed the white line. Nobody ever warned him that aspiring to be the best would yield so much baggage. Some are not fazed by celebrity, others embrace it. Keane detested it.
A fellow Irish international once confessed that the sight of the Manchester United captain walking into the team hotel on the week of games instantly lifted him. His thinking was that, no matter the quality of the opposition, the presence of this one player immediately gave Ireland a chance of winning the match. Over time, other countries singularly associated him with the nation the way we ourselves used to associate Romania with Gheorghe Hagi, or Bulgaria with Hristo Stoichkov. He was the national symbol. Accordingly, opponents respected the Irish team when Keane was in the line-up and reckoned it extremely vulnerable if he was absent.
Of course, Hagi and Stoichkov never won any popularity contests in their own dressing-rooms, and from what we know of Keane’s standing among his Irish, and indeed his United peers, he too embodied the age-old belief that the most important player on any team is rarely the most beloved and often the most controversial. Co-existing with contemporaries unable to reach the same heights on the field is never easy. When that tension boiled over in Saipan in May, 2002, the very fact many people described the fall-out as “a civil war” was itself indicative of the ridiculous hyperbole that had begun to infect modern Irish discourse.
Such exaggeration was less common in the Ireland in which Keane came of age, and the country he left in the summer of 1990 was markedly different from the place he divided 12 years later. Apart from the economic boom, interest in the game had – not least because of his own rise – exploded in the interim. Robbie Keane’s goalscoring debut for Wolverhampton Wanderers in August 1997 immediately garnered double-page spreads in tabloid newspapers. Earlier that year, a David Connolly hat-trick against Liechtenstein had caused some Irish journalists to seriously compare him to Ronaldo. Very few people even noticed back when a Corkman, a couple of weeks past his 19th birthday, became Brian Clough’s last great hunch.
The timing of Keane’s arrival into Clough’s orbit was fortunate. At that juncture, the belief among many people working at the City Ground was that Steve Hodge had more interest in preserving himself for England international duty than playing week in, week out. When the first team travelled to Liverpool for their second match of the season, Hodge announced he had another of his famous niggles so Clough decided to call his bluff. The coaching staff told him the most suitable candidates to replace Hodge in midfield were the new kid Keane and Phil Starbuck. As it turned out, both of them travelled late and both started the match.
Famously, Keane was trying to look busy in the dressing-room, helping to put the jerseys out when Clough turned to him and said: ‘Irishman, put the number seven shirt on. You’re playing.’ That the game here owes Clough a debt for that bold decision is without question. Although the teenager seized his opportunity like few others before or since, the role the then Forest manager played in his rise can never be underestimated. Even if the boss may have been half in the tank when he picked him to play that evening, would any other manager in England have thrown a callow novice into the fray against Liverpool the way he did? Considering the Liverpool team sheet read: Grobbelaar; Hysen, Burrows, Venison, Whelan, Gillespie, Beardsley, Houghton, Rush, Barnes, and McMahon, it’s probably safe to say no. Might Keane’s entire professional career have turned out very differently if he hadn’t found a manager crazy enough to gamble he could cope with the atmosphere at Anfield? Almost certainly.
“People said I’d flipped my lid”, said Clough of his punt on Keane, “but he did well and after that even Enid Blyton couldn’t have written a better script”.
The background to the debut is classic Clough too. Playing for the club’s Under-21s in a pre-season tournament in Holland, Keane had excelled at right-back, right-wing, centre-half and midfield, confounding the coaches with his performances in every new position they tried him in. Intrigued by the dispatches, Clough sidled along to a couple of reserve games to see what all the fuss was about. Frustrated to see Keane on the bench at one of those, he waited until half-time before informing the reserves’ manager Archie Gemmill to replace his son Scott with “the Irishman”. Gemmill ignored that request until, with 20 minutes remaining, Clough vaulted the hoardings and issued an order: “Get your son off, and put the Irishman on.”
What did Keane do in the time available? What did Clough see that impressed him?
“Brian was such a genius at spotting youngsters,” said Alan Hill, then the club’s chief scout. “He could always spot something that the rest of us couldn’t. I think he saw Roy make a couple of forward runs and then stick somebody on their backside and that was enough. Afterwards, he told me: ‘The kid has everything, you just have to encourage him’.”
Keane’s adolescence had been spent on a Rockmount team that was one of the most gifted schoolboy outfits the city had ever seen. So gifted indeed that he was not even the brightest star in the firmament. Alan O’Sullivan, the sort of mercurial winger who catches the eye of scouts, was snapped up by Luton Town years before Keane arrived at Forest. Paul McCarthy, a burly centre-half with an eye for goal from set-pieces, turned professional at Brighton and Hove Albion and even tried to persuade his new club that his former colleague was worth pursuing.
Brighton looked into it and were told by an Irish scout that the kid in question was too small, had a dodgy temperament and wasn’t worth looking at. The same month in 1997 that Keane won the third of his seven Premiership titles, Brighton lost the Goldstone Ground and narrowly avoided relegation to the non-leagues. In failing to recognise the gift horse being placed before their mouths, Brighton weren’t alone. A legion of scouts tracked that Rockmount team for season after season and none ever saw fit to take a chance on Keane. The letters he wrote to every English club begging for a trial never elicited a single plane ticket.
Later, many around the game in Ireland would claim they were on the verge of making just such a recommendation when Noel McCabe spotted him excelling in a losing effort for Cobh Ramblers’ youth team in a FAI Cup match at Fairview Park. Keane was a few months into a FAI/FAS soccer apprenticeship course in Dublin, and just starting to evince the physical benefits of full-time training. Others on that scheme would testify later that, from the first day there, he was working harder than the rest, running farther and faster. The picture of a guy striving to get on is appropriate because Keane had no real fall-back by that point in his life.
School had never been his milieu so further education wasn’t an option. With Cork still recovering from a decade of factory closures and economic depression, jobs were scarce. Like every other house in Cork, his family knew the spectre of the dole, though the later tabloid attempts to portray his life as some rags to riches yarn were insulting and misguided. Until McCabe sauntered into view however, the best Keane might have hoped for was combining the part-time earnings of a League of Ireland player with some menial job. Little wonder then that when the scout mentioned the possibility of a trial at Forest, he thought the teenager was “so eager and enthusiastic that I felt here was a boy who would swim to England if I asked him to”.
The preface to Keane’s professional career is important because it’s obvious how much it shaped everything that happened after. There has always been about him the sense of somebody manically afraid of failure. The incredible determination and sheer force of will that dragged Manchester United to the 1999 Champions League final and (almost single-handedly) qualified Ireland for the 2002 World Cup finals can be equally interpreted as the desperate brilliance of somebody unwilling to contemplate or accept losing. What is most impressive about this is the zealousness never once waned, even as his salary mushroomed to a reported £100,000 per week and his personal fortune soared into the tens of millions. It is worth remembering that he chose United over Blackburn Rovers, even though Ferguson was then offering a smaller wage packet than the one being dangled by Kenny Dalglish.
The “driven bastard” he once described himself as can also be glimpsed in the way he outstripped so many of his contemporaries at different stages. At Forest, Gemmill was thought to be his equal once, and even when he moved to United in the summer of 1993, he wasn’t reckoned the brightest young thing on view. Back then, Ryan Giggs threatened to replicate all the good stuff from George Best’s repertoire and serious pundits fancied Lee Sharpe’s chances of winning 100 caps for England. If Sharpe is a tell-all book waiting to happen, Giggs didn’t exactly live up to his advance billing either. As defined by the old soccer truism, great players come good in big games, and the bigger the game the better they play. Has Giggs done that often enough? How often of late? Not half as often as Keane.
“Keane is a great soccer player,” said the legendary Juventus and Holland midfielder Edgar Davids. “He is one of the best midfielders in the world. Keane is what a great player really is. I don’t look up to him, because I don’t look up to anybody, but he’s fantastic.’
Although he was, by some distance, Ireland’s best player at USA’94, it was Gary Kelly, Jason McAteer and Phil Babb who arrived home to an exaggerated fanfare, their charismatic personalities off the field almost obscuring Keane’s achievement on it. While they immersed themselves in the demimonde of pop biographies and celebrity lifestyles, he simply became the best combative midfielder in the world. The way that players like Babb and Sharpe, McAteer and, to a lesser extent, Kelly squandered so much of the promise they once engendered is anathema to Keane.
He cannot cope with people ostensibly showing less commitment than he does. This is what makes him such an indefatigable force on the field and such a troubled figure off it. The very stuff that makes him great has also proved his undoing on the many occasions he overstepped the mark, those cameos when the red mist descended and fervour gave way to foul play. It appears impossible to have one without the other.
A less intense individual might have looked at the FAI’s slipshod attitude to preparation, decided it was hardly fair to compare their approach to that of Manchester United, one of the leading sports franchises in the world, and got on with the job in hand. A less intense individual wouldn’t have been half the player he is. Alex Ferguson accepted that he had to take the good with the bad and never once complained about the deal. He knew the positives far outweighed the negatives, something emphasised by Keane’s colossal role in bringing seven Premierships, four FA Cups and, of course, the Champions League to Old Trafford.
Even that night in Barcelona when suspension forced him to wear a suit rather than a jersey, the way in which Keane celebrated afterwards gave an important clue to his character. In contrast to the animated antics of non-playing substitute David May, there was no real joy on the captain’s face when he perfunctorily lifted the trophy at the Camp Nou. For somebody who has always measured himself by his contribution once the whistle blows, watching his own team snatch victory right at the death must have been scant consolation. The competitor only ever wants to be in the arena competing. That is, after all, what he does.
In a similar vein, the saddest element of Keane’s departure from Saipan was that it cost him his last chance of playing in a World Cup at somewhere close to his peak. He was right about the laxity of Ireland’s approach but wrong to speak out then and ultimately deprive himself of his own day on the biggest stage. Subsequent revelations about the extent of his hip problem at the time lent credence to a conspiracy theory that maybe his unhappiness had its root in his own fear of failure. When a man has spent his entire career living up to the incredibly lofty standards he set himself, it’s reasonable to speculate he knew that this time round his body would not hold up as he would have wanted.
His eventual return to the Irish fold was equally significant. Throughout his career, Keane has shown the capacity to develop and evolve. The slight figure with ample space in the red jersey of Forest grew to fill out every one of United’s myriad strips. His physical enhancement was matched by his growth as a player. Within 12 months of his arriving at Old Trafford, Ferguson knew that he, rather than Paul Ince, would become the heartbeat of the side. The Guvnor only lasted one more campaign. Over time too, the nightclub-hopping, jowly young pro flitting over and back to Cork turned into the wise old owl, who preached the virtues of rest and yoga and became a contented family man.
Like anybody who leaves a city at 18 and then spends his entire adult life elsewhere, Keane’s relationship with his home town has been a complex and fluctuating entity. This is, after all, the city where Seán Ó Faoláin counselled that to succeed, “you have to have the skin of a rhinoceros, the dissimulation of a crocodile, the quality of a hare, the speed of a hawk”. When a native departs and covers himself in so much glory, for all those that applaud his achievement – witness UCC conferring him with a degree and his freedom of the city – there will be always some available to begrudge it. Such has been the way with Keane, at least until, in the bitterest moments after Saipan, there appeared to be a groundswell of support that started in Mayfield and washed down over the city.
“Like most Cork people, I am inordinately proud of my roots”, wrote Keane in his autobiography. “When asked about their origins Cork people invariably reply with a mischievous grin, ‘Irish by birth; Cork by the grace of God’. A superiority complex is the mark of a sound Corkman.”
At the start of the 2004 season, Keane was the only one of the 13 players who had seen active service in Giants Stadium the day Ireland humbled Italy in 1994 to still be playing in the top-flight of English football. By then, he was also one of just two of the 13 used by Alex Ferguson when clinching the 1994 double at Wembley to be plying their trade in the Premiership. For a footballer whose job has always necessitated a blood-and-guts element to his play, who has battled the sort of personal demons that curtailed so many other sporting lives, that longevity is one more arbiter of his greatness.
“He’s an incredible man, he really is”, said Ferguson after another gargantuan Keane performance at the age of 33 in February, 2005. “When you are talking about Manchester United in 50 or 500 years from now, Roy Keane will still be regarded as one of the greatest players ever at this club.”
Nothing more to be said.
(first published in Giants of Cork Sport, 2005)