Robson left United and Keane stepped in alongside Paul Ince, otherwise known as the Governor. And then the Governor had to move on. There was only room for one leader in the middle and Alex Ferguson found his man.
The Ferguson line-up was taking shape. The newest, most talked-about central midfielder in English football had arrived at Manchester. A very competitive Irishman predicted to be possibly the best central defender in the game. At the same time Brian Clough also predicted that Keane could play in the middle of the park.
Ferguson snapped Keane away from Nottingham Forest while every other club looked on not realizing how much it would cost them. The United boss had finally found the potential general he yearned for to guide his young team to glory. The Ferguson fledglings were now under control both on and off the field.
French superstar Eric Cantona was by no means playing second fiddle to Keano. But as games wore on Keane began to assert himself as the leader. Keane was becoming a real Red Devil in every sense of those words. Seeing red mentally was becoming one of Keane’s trademarks – something Arsene Wenger alluded too when interviewed upon Keane’s departure from United. But what a devil Keane had also become. He was putting the fear of God into not only his opponents but also his own teammates.
One time a new incoming player on the training ground made another decision rather than laying the ball off. Keane chased him down from one end of the field to another and lashed him out of it while the session was still in progress. Ferguson loved his new captain. Keane was exactly what Fergie wanted. The player was very much the embodiment of the manager on the field.
Forwards were brought in here and there as were central defenders. Another key changing of the guard along Keane’s way to dominance was the assistant coaches. The legendary Brian Kidd moved on while Steve McClaren took the coaching reins.
Under Keane’s leadership United began to dominate the new Premiership. The Corkman stamped his authority on domestic football. After a couple of EPL titles Ferguson announced that his Holy Grail was European success, a Champions League trophy. Ferguson the Scottish disciplinarian had the team he wanted in place. He felt he could go on and become the best club in the England, Europe and the world with Keane as his captain.
The core of the United team was the Irish star with the goal-scoring Paul Scholes in the middle. On the left Ryan Giggs frightened the life out of everybody with his speed. On the far side hanging out on the right was the educated foot of David Beckham arguably the best crosser of the ball in the world at this time. His direct free kicks and corners were also becoming a real threat. Three lethal weapons of a different nature and Keane right in the middle of all three pulling strings defensively so. What a midfield combination it proved to be. There was no stopping this foursome.
As United became unstoppable it became clear that Keane was the most influential player in this side. He ruled the roost on the field to such a high degree he began to become even more outspoken when least expected.
He was a tyrant in games and in training. His infuriated appetite to gain perfection rubbed off onto his teammates. No matter how furious he became, he was excused by all at Old Trafford. He was now the United ambassador and by no means was their room for softness. He was not your typical Mr. Nice Guy for United. He was Keano and he was a walking time bomb. Most if not all connected to United got a piece of his mind at some point. As long as he continued to inspire everybody was happy and Keane led on. The United fans adored him for his leadership and winning mentality. Most of all he was hailed for his brilliant defensive contribution to the team’s system. Many a United attack would start with a Keane interception and the fans would chant, “Keano, Keano.” They were still chanting his name before and during the Charlton game and Keano’s locker emptied out at Old Trafford.
As Keane became less of a box to box player he became famous for his defensive reading of the game, considered second to none in the world. And just when you’d think that Keane was learning to keep his mouth shut, out he comes bursting somebody’s chops. And it didn’t matter who it was. At times he was outrageously critical. It simply was never going to stop. Controversy was expected from him and it was now the norm to hear his opinion had once again exploded.
His departures form club and country are very much in line with his behavior throughout his career. When you really sit down and think about it are we truly surprised at the way in which he left United? Many are saying that they were shocked with the timing of it all, but is it not typical Keane? All the same, at least for the romantics, just when we thought he would go quietly he becomes even more outlandish.
Many a Keane fan had hopeful ideas that things would end well at United. That he would calm down and see his last playing days through, then join the coaching staff. Not Keano. He found his last situation as a player unacceptable and decided on severance, effective immediately.
Ferguson said he and Keane spoke and the departure was amicable. Then said Ferguson, “Keane was the best player that played for me. And probably the best player ever at the club.”
We cannot truly make sense of his sudden departure. Keane overstepped the line when he criticized his own players on MUTV. The interview was scratched from the air. It’s also believed that upon his return to play for the reserves he was told that his service was not needed. And that his captaincy was suspended. Then Keane supposedly said the coaching staff was incompetent. Sounds like another episode of the McCarthy saga on the eve of World Cup 2002. One needs to be on the inside of the club to really know what happened. Indeed one needs to be on the inside of Keane’s psyche to make sense of his controversial career. And should he move on to another club, Keane’s mind would be a good place to start for his new manager.
At the end of the day it is very easy to knock Keane for the things he has said and done. His outspoken ways and volatile actions may explain why he did not receive the Player of the Year award on more than one occasion. But in every walk of life somebody has to speak out or indeed lash out. It’s a necessary evil. That’s why there is only one Keano on and off the field.