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Roy Keane and Manchester United: Ten years after his acrimonious exit

Roy Keane

On November 18, 2005, Manchester United captain Roy Keane walked out of Old Trafford. He had been with the club for 12 years and their skipper for eight. Ten years on, the club's long-time leader is on the outside at a club that prides itself on tradition. Adam Bate assesses his legacy…

Who is the defining player of the Premier League era? Alan Shearer got the goals but his career was light on trophies. Ryan Giggs had no peer when it came to medal collecting but was never truly the key figure in his team. For much of his time at Manchester United, that status belonged to Roy Keane. The captain. The on-field incarnation of manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

Image: Keane's relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson has since disintegrated

And yet, the fracturing of the bond between the two men has left Keane appearing isolated. The contrast is stark. The home-grown Class of '92 continue to offer a conspicuous link between past and present. Indeed, Giggs and Nicky Butt still work for the club. Meanwhile the 'true red' credentials of Gary Neville and Paul Scholes have managed to survive their punditry careers. But what of Keane?

Having left the club aged 28, it was David Beckham who was supposed to be the prodigal son. However, even he seems closer to the Old Trafford hierarchy than his old captain. Keane lacks those political skills and can no longer stomach such deference to Ferguson. Instead, he is the dangerous outsider. It's a curious juxtaposition given that he was the central figure in United's dominance.

Roy Keane, lifting the Premier League trophy in May 1994 above, has been picked by Andrei Kanchelskis in his #One2Eleven in centre midfield
Image: Keane lifting his first Premier League trophy with Man Utd in 1994

United did end their long title wait in the season before Keane's arrival. But while Eric Cantona might have been the man with the skills to help the club ascend that particular mountain, it was Keane who ensured that the summit was where they would stay for the rest of his career, winning seven titles. He staked the flag, setting standards that only the best could come close to attaining.

As a result, it's worth reassessing what we mean by 'home-grown' when we talk of that Class of '92. Who really made them? United's academy has been rightly lauded but it was the unique atmosphere upon reaching the first team that elevated them. As Gary Neville puts it, Keane was the man who "took the squad to another level" by making them products of his insatiable desire for perfection.

Perhaps his greatest gift was to create a standard of performance which demanded the very best from his team.
Gary Neville

"He was a great player, beyond question," wrote Neville in his autobiography. "A midfielder of extraordinary tenacity and box-to-box dynamism, with a ferocious tackle and an underrated ability to use the ball astutely. But perhaps his greatest gift was to create a standard of performance which demanded the very best from his team.

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"You would look at him busting a gut and feel that you'd be betraying him if you didn't give everything yourself. There was a time, a match at Coventry, when Keano came storming at me after I'd taken an extra touch to steady myself before getting a cross over. Thrusting his head forward - I honestly thought he was going to butt me. It was like having a snarling pitbull in my face."

Manchester United's Roy Keane stands over Manchester City's Alf-Inge Haaland following his foul at Old Trafford in April 2001
Image: Keane's infamous foul on Manchester City's Alf-Inge Haaland in 2001

This image of Keane as rage personified is a seductive one and it has certainly endured. There's the assault on Alf-Inge Haaland in the Manchester derby and the battles - both physical and mental - with Arsenal's Patrick Vieira that defined a rivalry. But, as Neville alludes to, the beauty of Keane's beastliness was that it accompanied brilliance rather than substituted for it. He could play too.

The lessons punched into him - sometimes literally - by Brian Clough regarding the merits of simple passing were not forgotten. Those basic principles allowed Ferguson to focus on other areas. "With Roy Keane present, keeping the ball was never a problem," said the Scot. "I said so from the minute he came to the club. 'He never gives the ball away, this guy,' I told the staff and players."

 Patrick Vieira of Arsenal and Roy Keane of Manchester United battle for the ball during the FA Cup Final
Image: Keane's Premier League battles with Patrick Vieira were fiesty affairs

Amid the self-deprecation, what comes across in Keane's own autobiography is that he prided himself on feeling the rhythm of a game; on controlling its tempo. He could up it when necessary - it was work rate that he felt set him apart - but also developed the ability to slow things down when appropriate too. Either way, he was able to impose his will and skill on even the fiercest of contests. 

His man-of-the-match display in the 1996 FA Cup final against Liverpool was overshadowed by Eric Cantona's late goal and forgotten due to the disappointment of an overhyped clash. But it was a chanceless affair thanks to Keane's stranglehold on midfield. Alternatively, his celebrated showing against Juventus in 1999 was an example of how he could win a game as well as shut one down.

Roy Keane Manchester United Juventus 1999
Image: Keane's performance against Juventus in 1999 is the stuff of folklore

The booking that ruled him out of that Champions League final means the performance has entered folklore. Ferguson called it "the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field" but, naturally, Keane saw it differently. Driven by guilt, he spoke of "honouring the debt" to the team. "You could argue my indiscipline came very close to costing us the treble," he later claimed.

He was always tough on himself - and others. After picking up the Champions League winners' medal that he never felt he deserved, Keane was openly frustrated by what he perceived as the sated atmosphere of contentment post-1999. It has been suggested that this was a particular concern for the captain because he hadn't experienced that feeling of victory himself.

If Roy Keane thought you weren’t pulling your weight he would be right on top of you, straight away. Many players faced his wrath for committing that crime.
Sir Alex Ferguson

That seems to miss the point. Keane would surely have felt the same way even if he'd scored a hat-trick in the final. "If Roy Keane thought you weren't pulling your weight he would be right on top of you, straight away," said Ferguson. "Many players faced his wrath for committing that crime and there would be no place to hide from him. I never felt that was a bad aspect of his character."

7/11/93 - City 2 United 3: Having been knocked out of the CL by Galatasaray days earlier, United trailed 2-0 before Roy Keane capped a memorable comeback.
Image: Keane had a habit of driving his team forwards in key moments

Ferguson was to change his mind when Keane's ire found a target rather closer to home. In 2005, the infamous critique of his colleagues after a defeat at Middlesbrough precipitated his departure. It's commonly referred to as a rant but, more likely, was reminiscent of what Niall Quinn called the "surgical slaughtering" of Mick McCarthy that Keane had conducted in Saipan three years earlier.

Rio Ferdinand and Darren Fletcher were among those insulted, but the later criticism of Ferguson did for him. After arguing with Edwin van der Sar and Ruud van Nistelrooy at a follow-up meeting, Keane referenced the manager's racehorse row with John Magnier. "He saved the best for me," said Ferguson. "'You brought your private life into the club with your argument with Magnier,' he said."

 Roy Keane, Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes in action during a Manchester United training session at Carrington on January 14, 2004
Image: Keane criticised Darren Fletcher and was famed for his high standards

With supporters having chanted Keane's name, both in the stadium and as the players walked through the airport, following the defeat to Lille in the next game after their loss to Middlesbrough, it could not have escaped Ferguson that the skipper had become a divisive figure. That constant pursuit of excellence that was a driver for Keane, was now arguably stifling the more sensitive souls among the modern dressing room.

"He was wound up because he felt the younger players were falling short," suggested Neville. "He'd see them on their gadgets like their PlayStations and he couldn't get his head around it. He didn't have time to go through several seasons of rebuilding. You don't use a word like 'transition' around Roy Keane." On November 18 of 2005, his 12-year stay at Old Trafford came to an abrupt end.

Roy Keane (centre) unhappy with Howard Webb's decision against Newcastle
Image: Keane's leadership qualities were a key part of Man Utd's success

In the heat of their argument, Keane also accused Ferguson of having 'changed'. It was meant as an insult but, in truth, Ferguson would be entitled to regard it as a compliment. The wily old boss had adapted again, and subsequently delivered United's most consistent period of European success, utilising several of the players Keane had identified as not being up to the demands of the job.

The events of 2005 have shaped everything we've seen since from Keane. While Giggs and Scholes were afforded long farewell tours, Keane exited mid-season and through the back door. The man who Ferguson said "took a lot of the onus off me in making sure the dressing room was operating at a high level of motivation" was forced out once he'd become as much of a hindrance as an asset.

Roy Keane Manchester
Image: Keane has not been prepared to toe the line since leaving Man Utd

As a consequence of that subsequent success, creating heroes for a new generation of fans, there has been a slight shift in Keane's standing. Doubt has been created where there should be none. Giggs' form waxed and waned. Scholes didn't even make the team for the 1999 Juventus semi-final that his captain so owned. Throughout his time at the club, Keane's position was never in doubt.

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"There wasn't a player at United who could match Roy's influence in my time at the club," said Neville. And yet, a decade on, it is Keane's old nemesis Vieira who is being groomed for one of the top jobs in Manchester while the man who brought more league titles to the city than any other captain is on the outside looking in. He is Republic of Ireland's assistant manager.

And so, while it's Giggs, anointed by Ferguson, likely to bring the leadership continuity Old Trafford demands in becoming Louis van Gaal's successor, Keane is the cult hero; a maverick whose barbs are now deemed unhelpful to the cause. There's an irony there. For no player did more to reconstruct the glory of United than the man with whom the club diverged paths 10 years ago on Wednesday. The incomparable Roy Keane.

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