“I dunno, Roy Keane? One of the greatest Premier League players from the 1990s?”
If you don’t think he’s elite, “You’re talking nonsense.”
For those of you out there who were too young to witness the Manchester United captain making grown men hide and cower with fear on the pitch, first of all: unlucky. Secondly, his career as a pundit tells you enough about just what type of player he was.
Aggressive, combative, tunnel visioned, consistent, and no-nonsense (there’s that word again). His drive, will to win and limitless expectations of his teammates made him the ultimate professional. The colleague who terrifies and inspires in equal measures, and a natural born winner. No one has ever wanted to win a game of football as much as Roy Keane, of that I’m 99% sure.
But don’t be fooled by his hard-man demeanour and Vinnie Jones-esque reputation for a set-to: the lad could play.
Dynamic in and out of possession, an excellent reader of the game and boasting the uncanny habit of being in the right place at the right time, he was one of the very best at sensing danger, snuffing it out and getting the game moving again.
He was an intelligent passer of the ball, able to pick defensive lines and set his side forward on blistering attacks, often ready to burst into the box and add his own physical presence to the mix. Not known for his ability to hammer a 30-yard screamer, the midfielder did make his name for getting on the end of a whipped cross or a loose ball in the penalty area and punishing his opponents with ruthless glee.
And of course, he was a warrior, a leader and a taker of no prisoners. The bloke loved a challenge and an altercation, but that’s not news to anyone.
Keane began the Premier League era as a promising youngster at the heart of a declining Nottingham Forest side, where he made his mark as an exciting box-to-box midfielder, hitting a remarkable 33 goals in three years. His final campaign was marred by a very public contract dispute, which saw him labelled ‘greedy’ by legendary coach Brian Clough, but he was still honoured as the fans’ 1992/93 Player of the Season.
The Irishman was powerless in stopping the Tricky Trees from being axed down to the second tier, but while their journey at the English summit had come to an end, their midfield maestro’s was only just beginning.
The starlet joined United in the summer of 1993, a landmark moment that would define the next 12 years of Premier League football. If ever a club’s moniker has suited a new signing more aptly than Keane becoming a Red Devil, then it’s flown under this particular writer’s radar.
The youngster had often made in the headlines for his antics outside of football, getting into alcohol-related scraps and not leading the life that was expected of a model professional. Yet, Sir Alex Ferguson, a man renowned for his ruthless nature towards tomfoolery, still took a gamble on the edgy, young hot-head from Cork.
The £3.5m man benefitted from injuries and ageing legs in the United midfield, featuring in the majority of the 1993/94 season, where he got his first taste of silverware – the Premier League title. Not a bad start, then.
The next year was less successful for both club and player, and we bore witness to the descending red mist that so controversially followed Keane off the pitch. The Republic of Ireland international reacted badly to a heavy challenge by Gareth Southgate, and as the now England coach lay on the ground, his adversary buried his studs into the defender’s midriff.
While it was clearly a sign of ill-discipline and a loose screw, it was also a clear message to the rest of the Premier League – do not get on the wrong side of Roy Keane.
In 1995, Keane became the leader of the United midfield. Bigger stars such as Mark Hughes and Paul Ince moved on, and the onus was now on the Irishman to drag a new generation of raw talents up to his impeccable standards.
These young kids, including David Beckham, Paul Scholes and a now first-choice Gary Neville, took the top-flight by storm under Keane’s deathly glare, mounting an incredible comeback in the second half of the season to oust Newcastle United and win another league title.
In 1997, he was named captain. Unsurprisingly, Keane was the ultimate leader. His selflessness knew no bounds, and his commitment to winning meant he would do literally anything to take three points back to Old Trafford. That could be said for a lot of footballers, but with the skipper, it was amplified ten-fold.
His altruism never came to the fore quite like in Turin, back in 1999. On the cusp of an unprecedented treble, the Red Devils travelled to Italy to take on Juventus in the Champions League semi-final. Having drawn the first leg 1-1 at the Theatre of Dreams, Ferguson’s men began the second battle on the back foot. This challenge would have been a step too far for most teams, against a star-studded Bianconeri, and it looked to be the case for the English giants.
After 11 minutes, United were two goals behind, and staring down the barrel of a heavy beating and European elimination. But when every chip is down, and ten men are looking around helplessly for a figure of reassurance and inspiration, they needn’t look any further than their captain.
Keane had only one thought in his mind. Lead by example. He picked his moment on 24 minutes, leaping higher than the other spectators on the field to meet a whipped corner with his deadly forehead. Goal. Game on. That joy turned to heartbreak only ten minutes later however, when the Irishman hacked down a breaking Zinedine Zidane and collected a yellow card, meaning he would play no part in the final.
Agony for any footballer, at any level of the game. It takes some unimaginable mental strength to play on for an hour, knowing that whatever the outcome, your moment of individual glory has been ripped away. That winner’s medal will forever be a reminder of what you didn’t see through.
Fortunately, Keane had no interest in personal accolades. Unshaken by the booking, he dragged United through the match, committing to every tackle with extra vigour and determination, perhaps safe in the knowledge that he now had nothing to lose.
It feels churlish to break it down to ‘desire and pashun‘, but Keano chased every ball harder, snapped into every challenge quicker and simply wanted it more. Not for himself. But for his teammates. For his manager. For Manchester United.
As we all know, that wonderful United side would go on to turn the deficit on its head, claim a 3-2 win in Turin, and go full speed ahead Barcelona. Ferguson’s legends took great inspiration from their absent skipper in the final, producing one of the most memorable comebacks in Champions League history, beating Bayern 2-1 and completing a sensational treble.
Without the heroics of their walking, beating heart, none of it would have been possible.
Don’t praise Keane to his face, though. He’ll take it as an insult, and insist that he was simply doing his job. And that’s what makes him so captivating to watch.
Of course, the United star would go on to lead the Red Devils to many more successes in the early 2000s, spark the greatest rivalry and midfield battle in Premier League history with Arsenal and Patrick Vieira, and eventually cause his own controversial departure with his sharp tongue and match-stick temper.
You can’t have one without the other – and we wouldn’t have Keane any other way.