Roy Keane versus Patrick Vieira. Roy Keane versus Arsenal. Roy Keane versus Sir Alex Ferguson. Roy Keane spent his entire career at war. He took on the opposition, his teammates, even his managers! He wanted to win and nobody was going to stop him.
There are many players who define the Sir Alex Ferguson era at Manchester United, but few could be considered more influential than Roy Keane. After joining United for a British record fee of £3.75m in 1993, it was Keane who set the standard. Only the best was good enough. You didn’t slack off, you didn’t stop working, you didn’t take it easy, not even for a second. United were expected to win, season after season. Led by their talismanic skipper, that’s exactly what they did.
Looking back on United’s dominance in the nineties and early 2000’s, it was the relentless nature of their success that was most impressive. That stemmed from Keane. He was aggressive, powerful and completely no-nonsense. United won multiple league and cup doubles, they dominated Europe and won the Premier League three times in a row. Roy Keane was the heartbeat of a side that refused to lie down and refused to be beaten. There was a reason he fought with anyone and everyone; Manchester United’s success was the be all and end all.
“We have one or two young players who have done very little in the game. They need to remember that and not slack off. They need to remember just how lucky we all are to play for Manchester United and show that out on the pitch.”
But of course, Keane was more than an aggressive thug. He was more than the guy who ended Alf-Inge Håland’s career. He was more than the guy who grabbed Patrick Vieira round the throat or threw punches at Alan Shearer.
He was a truly special footballer and a shining light in a truly special team.
His aggression was borne out of a hatred of losing. That was his playing style; hardest in the tackle and first to every loose ball. When he won it back, however, he was smart with it. Roy Keane was everything you could want in a modern box-to-box midfielder. He would run harder and chase further. He was the guy making a last ditch challenge in his own penalty area one minute and before you knew it, he was scoring the winning goal at the other end. His refusal to accept second best brought the best out of his teammates too. He could, and often did, drag his colleagues through a game when they weren’t playing well. Roy Keane was an absolute colossus. A modern great. What’s more, he inspired greatness in others.
Just like he did on the 21st April 1999.
In telling the tale of that one night in Turin, the legend of Roy Keane lives on and remains folkloric among United fans. Many consider it Keane’s greatest moment in a red shirt. Certainly, it was the most important. On the biggest stage, when the chips were down, Keane was there. Looking into his eyes that night, Keane was an immovable force of nature. Utter defiance in the face of an almighty foe. Two-nil down after eleven minutes, lesser men would have crumbled. Not Keane. He scored the first goal that gave United hope and it was his performance in the centre of midfield that convinced his teammates this was no lost cause. By the end of the night, United were 3-2 winners and were into the European Cup final. The first for 31 years.
Keane would miss that date with destiny in Barcelona. He had been booked in the first half with the score at 2-1 and knew he would be suspended for the final. It only adds to Keane’s legacy that despite his personal disappointment, he was able to rally those around him and take his team through to the final. Only thinking of those in his charge, Keane proved that night that he was a true leader. The most courageous of men.
“Pounding every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt as if it was an honour to be associated with this player.” – Sir Alex Ferguson on Roy Keane versus Juventus
That night Roy Keane was everything he needed to be and more. Sir Alex Ferguson’s testimony perfectly captures his performance and yet it is Keane’s response that is more telling. He didn’t expect plaudits or superlatives. He didn’t want kind words or a pat on the back. He was doing what was expected of him. I think that, more than anything else written or said about him, speaks to the true brilliance of the man.
Which is why the supporters embraced the aggression and the fights and the red cards. They embraced it because they knew when Arsenal or Liverpool or Leeds came to town, Roy Keane would defend his club and his teammates with every scrap of energy he had.
One of Keane’s most infamous moments, the bust-up in the tunnel at Highbury, illustrates that point. Charging after Patrick Vieira and being restrained by the referee, Roy Keane wasn’t just starting a fight or trying to wind up his Arsenal counterpart, he was defending his teammate. Keane was outraged that Vieira was ‘picking on’ Gary Neville and insisted he should have picked on ‘one of us’ instead. As he said himself, Keane was going to war and he would defend those in the trenches next to him, whatever it took.
I’ll end with a personal favourite of mine. A moment that truly defined who and what Roy Keane was at Manchester United. In 2005, in an FA Cup semi-final, United were 4-1 up against Newcastle and cruising towards the final. In the final few moments of the match, a Newcastle player won a corner because a United defender had been sold a dummy and turned his back when defending a cross, prompting Keane to put in a tackle and concede the corner. At 4-1, it was a non-event, irrelevant and completely forgettable. Not for Keane. He turned on his teammate, berating him for his mistake and reminding him to defend properly. You didn’t slack off, you didn’t stop working, you didn’t take it easy, not even for a second.
For Roy Keane, representing Manchester United was an honour and a privilege, and he would not let anyone around him forget that. In twelve years at Old Trafford, Roy Keane won seven league titles, four FA Cups, four Community Shields, one European Cup and one Intercontinental Cup. He was a true winner.