By Dave Hannigan
The morning after Ireland’s 3-2 victory over Liechtenstein last April, this reporter accompanied an RTE television crew to Manchester United’s training ground at Carrington to interview the team captain for a documentary about Denis Irwin. Five days had elapsed since Roy Keane had been sent off against Manchester City, but the red mist still enveloped him. Storming into the MUTV studio we were using, he sat in his chair with that trademark po-faced glare firmly in place. Attempting to make small talk while the camera crew set up their equipment, I asked him whether he’d seen the previous night’s game on Sky Sports.
“Nah, was too busy,” he said.
Those who have not learned from history are doomed to repeat it. A week before Ireland humbled Italy at Giants Stadium in 1994, Jack Charlton frogmarched the then 22-year-old Keane into an Orlando press conference to specifically inform the media he had no problem with Maurice Setters. Obviously embarrassed at having to participate in a fraud — a fierce argument had ensued between the two on the training ground — the midfielder looked equal parts uncomfortable and indignant. Three weeks later, he was voted Ireland’s player of the tournament and nobody knew it then but the first phase of his international career had just ended. The player who went to the World Cup as one of the boys returned as the man.
While Keane was away in America, Alex Ferguson and Brian Kidd had decided upon reviewing the 1994 double victory that Manchester United’s future lay on his rather than Paul Ince’s shoulders. Although The Guv’nor lasted another season at Old Trafford, the days when anybody, apart from Ferguson, could bring Keane to book were over. The manner in which he subsequently went AWOL on Mick McCarthy before the U.S. Cup two years later can be seen at this remove as a marking out of territory. Keane would play for Ireland under the new manager alright, and give everything every time he did, but he would play on his own terms. An unspoken arrangement, it was always going to be stretched to breaking point once he had to spend anything more than a couple of days in a set-up he has so obviously come to resent.
The only surprising thing about his ignominious departure from Saipan is the
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manner of it. Most people who have closely monitored his 11 years in an Ireland jersey
would have wagered good money that when the day finally came to call it a career, it would be Keane and only Keane’s decision to go. During the World Cup qualifying campaign, it became obvious, though, that he had an increasingly cavalier approach to his duties as captain. Twice arriving into Dublin two days after the rest of his squad had gathered, he cut the most aloof figure in a group of players he might have been expected to be the heartbeat of.
In effect, he had evolved into one of those outsize characters who enable the national teams they grace to punch above their weight, but whose very presence creates an undercurrent of tension. Other countries singularly associated him with Ireland the way we used to associate Romania with Georghe Hagi, and Bulgaria with Hristo Stoichkov. Accordingly, opponents respected McCarthy’s side when Keane was in the lineup and reckoned it extremely vulnerable if he was absent. Of course, Hagi and Stoichkov never won any popularity contests in their own dressingrooms, and from what we know of Keane’s standing among his Irish, and indeed his United peers, he too embodies the age-old belief that the most important player on any team is rarely the most beloved and persistently the most controversial. Coexisting with contemporaries who are unable to reach the same heights on the field, and some of whom appear to care less off it, is never easy.
The truest measure of his ability, and the most fascinating aspect for the sports psychologists is that he was able to perform at such a high level for Ireland over the last six years despite despising the manager and disliking so many of the players. This is why if last week’s controversy had not culminated in his flight home, everybody would have expected him to shrug off the scandal and be one of the best players in the tournament. That he will likely be thousands of miles away when Steve Staunton leads Ireland on to the field next Saturday is the inevitable consequence of his own abrasive personality and a life lived in the unforgiving glare of the media spotlight.
It was truly Keane’s misfortune to come along in the era that he did. He was/is the first superstar of Ireland’s tabloid age, his actions subjected to a magnification and scrutiny never afforded any of his predecessors. After the U.S. Cup debacle in 1996, he found his trip home to his family in Mayfield the target of the paparazzi’s attention, newspapers subsequently publishing “shocking” photographs of him putting his daughter into a car seat and lifting her out of a pram in his mother’s driveway. This is not what he dreamed about as a kid. From the age of 10, he had been working to be the best footballer he could be but nowhere along the line did he prepare himself for the vagaries of fame. Some are not fazed by celebrity, others embrace it. Keane detested it.
Although the pressure they have exerted on him over the years has been immense, the tabloids are not responsible for what happened last week. That can be put down to Keane’s own unwillingness to put up and shut up about the FAI’s inadequacy and what he perceives as McCarthy’s shortcomings. His forthcoming autobiography would surely have been the perfect place to air those grievances. By speaking out at the worst time possible, he has squandered the opportunity to further enhance his standing on the international stage, and, remember, it is impossible to underestimate how much recognition the World Cup affords. We hoped Keane might become identified with this tournament the way past competitions are synonymous with Roger Milla, Toto Schillachi, Mario Kempes and others.
Although he was by some distance Ireland’s best player at USA ’94, he didn’t always get the recognition he deserved for that. 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 evolved into the player of his generation. The best that can be said of the “Three Amigos” these times is that a move might revitalize Kelly, Babb possibly deserved a second chance over the last few months, and McAteer has become the 21st century Paddy Mulligan; it doesn’t matter how things are going for him at club level, he will perform for Ireland.
Outstripping contemporaries is a theme common to all stages of Keane’s career. At Nottingham Forest, Scott 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 hasn’t exactly lived up to his advance billing either. As defined by the old soccer truisms, 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.
The way that players like Babb and Sharpe, McAteer and Giggs squandered so much of the promise they once engendered is anathema to Keane. Like the manager who cannot understand the twin virtues of the carrot and the stick, 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 ultimately proved his undoing. A less intense individual would have looked at the FAI’s slipshod attitude, decided it’s hardly fair to compare their approach to that of Manchester United, one of the leading sports franchises in the world, and get on with the job in hand. A less intense individual wouldn’t be half the player he is.
In any case, Keane has found it difficult to move on from anything of late. His verbal attack on Juan Sebastian Veron over the concession of a vital goal against Middlesbrough, and his series of public outbursts about United’s shortcomings are symptomatic of this. As his influence on the field at Old Trafford has grown, he has become a more and more isolated figure in that dressingroom too, his teammates understanding his value to their cause but privately questioning his constant public criticisms of them. For all the talk about this being a manifestation of how much he cares, there is increased evidence of a worrying inability to cope with the highs and lows intrinsic to the game he plays.
When the cameras finally rolled at Carrington that day last year the most amazing thing happened. Once the recording light went on and the first question was asked, Keane’s scowl was instantly replaced by a wry grin as he began to answer questions about Irwin. Ten minutes later, when the director shouted cut, the grin disappeared just as instantly as it had arrived. He walked out the door with the glare firmly back in place, the speed with which he moved between moods the enduring memory of the encounter.