SOMETIMES we worry about Roy Keane.
Not so much about Roy himself, we’re sure he’s grand, but about his legacy.
In the same week he was voted on the ‘20 years of Premier league’ team, this column got in conversation with a young fella who only really caught the very end of Keane’s playing career and basically was wondering what was all the fuss about Saipan anyway for someone he knew only as a mostly-failed manager and media soundbite.
Where to begin?
How Roy Keane ought to be remembered:
1: As the most influential Irish soccer player (sportsperson even?) of all time – perhaps not the most talented, greatest maybe, but most influential, surely.
How Roy Keane tends to be remembered:
1: As the figurehead of the most divisive team in English soccer,
2: As the main protagonist in the craziest, most emotionally-charged, divisive week in Irish sport ever,
3: As a manager who’s yet to really prove anything and…
4: As a pundit who tends to shoot the mouth off on whatever topic is relevant.
See our problem?
Sometimes you have to recall the good stuff, just to remind yourself.
A listing of medals and accolades won could take the most influential argument in a moment, but it wouldn’t touch on the reality — through the foreign invasion era of the Premier league, Keane was the leader of its most successful team.
But more, the boy could play. Like, really play.
There can be a tendency now to remember Keane the player as some John Obi-Mikel, shuffling, holding midfielder who did nothing but sit, but that’s like remembering Ali as the tired old fighter who got beaten up by Trevor Berbick.
Keane in his pomp was pretty magnificent, taking on allcomers with a manic intensity, a swagger, yet the footballing ability to do the correct thing.
For today’s kids, Keane was a mix (a good mix) of Yaya Toure and Michael Carrick.
And the great thing was there were two comings, Keane 1991-97 evolved into Keane 1998-2005 to become more controlling, more adept at locking down the tempo of a game (it’s a trick that say, Steven Gerrard has never had the skillset or mindset to figure out, how to adjust from pure dynamism to something more).
In the Forest days and early United, nobody was better than Keane at arriving on to through balls behind a defence, at rampaging up and down all day, all unleashed energy; nobody was better than the later Keane at linking the play, keeping the side ticking over with simple pass after pass, Sergio Busquets with more drive; the wonderful link was that both models had the animalistic will to boss completely that central patch of the pitch and win every single loose ball that fell.
We hardly recall Keane getting a chasing (maybe at a push, Vieira at Old Trafford in 2000/Lampard at Stamford Bridge in 2003) and he could define a game with one tackle.
The Overmars one is infamous, but our favourite was a chase and sliding tackle on Vieira in the 2003 Community Shield; it screamed defiance and hunger and made a statement of intent (that it was the Community Shield summed it up, a battle was a battle to be won, no matter the setting).
He brought goals to the table. Two Champions league semi-final goals (you ought to watch the Leverkusen one to see the cleverness of the finish, after rounding the keeper, most players would have rolled the ball towards goal and hit the player on the line, Keane dinked it over the defender – try making the argument Keane was some bonehead enforcer after seeing it).
Other biggies in Europe against Fiorentina and Bayern Munich.
A late derby winner. Huge goals against title challengers — a double at Highbury in 1999, almost identical volleys against Arsenal in 2001 and Newcastle in 1995.
You think he couldn’t split a defence?
His clipped pass for Dwight Yorke in the Arsenal 6-1 game says otherwise.
You think he couldn’t whip in a cross? Check out his 50-yard crossfield beauty assist on the run for Mark Hughes in the game Paul Ince returned to Upton Park.
Truth is, there was little enough technically that Keane couldn’t do, and do very well; his range of passing ability was always particularly undervalued.
This writer was lucky enough to be in the old Lansdowne Road in June 2001 for the visit of Portugal in a World Cup qualifier; we’d be pretty surprised if we ever manage to see a more complete individual performance in the flesh (for the record, we were also in the San Siro when Thierry Henry tore Inter apart in the Champions League 2003 but that was different as Henry had a functioning team in support).
You know when people say he played them on his own and you think, ‘Nah, he’s exaggerating’.
Well, here it was probably understatement. Keane was Superman that day as Portugal threatened to tonk Ireland (and ought really have been three up by half-time) as he threw himself into saving a creaking Staunton-Dunne central defence with last-gasp interceptions while simultaneously being the only one with the gumption to take on the opposition with bursts forward.
He pitched in with the lead goal — though Figo later equalized — and you could sense the Portuguese being slowly worn down to the realisation they were dealing with something a bit special that day.
For United you could more or less pick a game from every season 93-05 where he was the man, but for some reason we remember most brightly a game at Anfield in early 2005 (Wayne Rooney scored the only goal, but that seemed a minor factor) where an apparently over-the-hill Keane simply put on a show of how to control a game and even hit the crossbar with a cracker of a strike from 25 yards.
There were some very special performances — he won championships for United, he dragged Ireland to a World Cup — just that they can be overshadowed by events since.
It’s not that Keane has gone into the ridiculous zone, he hasn’t become Pele.
But there’s this constant nagging that he might somehow sully all the great bits and become just another ex-pro talking head on TV, which would be an awful shame.
Imagine say, Lionel Messi going on to manage Barcelona in 20 years time and being exposed as a chancer with no tactical clue.
Imagine trying to explain the genius to the new generation; it’d be galling and disconcerting and plain wrong.
It feels like that with Keane at times, though it’s worth the fight for the memories.