Sports

The Sad, Furious Solitude of Anger's Roy Keane

What's wrong, Roy? There's a party in your mind but no one ever came? Was anyone even invited?

by Oscar Rickett
20 November 2014, 6:10pm

Illustrations by Simon Reid

These days, when he's having pathetic tiffs with beer-wattle journalists and fans in hotels, it's easy to forget that no one brought fury to the Premier League quite like Roy Keane. He was the division's own cold operative, the kind of guy you see walking out of a council estate on a grey day, hands punched into the pockets of his MA1, face impassive as the car bomb explodes behind him. At other times he was the raging hound of Hades, eyes like tiny black snooker balls lodged in the depths of the solar system, Roy of the Rovers crossed with Bane.

He was a captain in the tradition of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, a philosophical psychopath who could dominate games and inspire men like no other. In match after match, again and again, he won the ball back, picked it up, moved it forward, pushed his team on. Turin, 1999, and the smoke hangs over Juventus' Stadio delle Alpi, the Italian fans waiting for the Champions League semi-final victory that is surely theirs.

Keane isn't fazed. He's hammering into tackles – of course he is – but his game was always so much more than that. He was a passer of the ball, a runner, a skilled technician, a supremely intelligent master of the space on a football pitch. He scores with a header. Flying in, in front of the keeper. "A captain's goal," cries Clive Tyldesley. Keane picks up a booking, which rules him out of the final he's got his team into.

It's not like that was Keane's only decent performance, though it is certainly his most retrospectively heralded. There's also the FA Cup final against Liverpool in 1996, which he dominates completely, swatting aside McManaman, Redknapp and Barnes single-handedly as the commentator grudgingly admits that, " taking aside his temperament", the Irishman has had rather a good game.

Then there's Highbury, 2005, less than a year before he leaves United, standing up for his little teammate Gary Neville in the impossibly small tunnel, telling Patrick Vieira he's a cunt and then going out there and battering him under the floodlights. "I hated them," he said of Arsenal, and that sweet hatred ran through the rivalry between the teams and the rivalry between Vieira and Keane, the greatest rivalries in the past 20 years of English football, rivalries that had the pigs at Sky Sports squealing merrily in their own filth.

Keane brought that same brilliance to Ireland, most notably in the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup: against the Netherlands, hammering into Marc Overmars in the first minute and bossing it from there on in, or taking Portugal on almost single-handedly, playing so well that the first thing Eusebio did at the end of the match was to come to the Irish dressing room and ask for Keane's shirt. But then, with Ireland qualified for the tournament and preparing on the island of Saipan, Keane tore into manager Mick McCarthy, calling him a shit player, manager and human being. Captain Roy was sent home, kept from playing in a World Cup by a dour Yorkshireman – and by the limitations, or perhaps excesses, of his own character. Today's midfielders – your Oscars, your Wilsheres, your Blinds – are all sprightly and talented in their own way, but they're bottle-fed, eunuch automatons in comparison.

Reading Keane's recent book, The Second Half, written with the novelist Roddy Doyle, this character comes out as a mass of contradictions. Many thought that while Keane had to make himself a great player through sheer strength of will, overcoming his small physical frame to cross the Irish Sea and join Nottingham Forest, he would be a natural great in management. But of course that's not how it's gone. The passion, perfectionism and fury that made him a brilliant player have made him an unstable manager thus far, like putting a volcano in charge of air traffic control.

The most obvious comparison, to me, was with Graeme Souness. There's a misty-eyed documentary about the great Liverpool team of the 1980s in which Souness talks about the joy of being a guy in your twenties, playing football for the best team in the world and how you think it'll last forever, how you can never quite replicate it once it's over. "When you start out in your career," Roy Keane writes, "you know it's going to finish at 34 or 35. You know it is. But I'm not sure that your emotions know it." Suddenly, your purpose is gone, you don't know what to do and you're paranoid, everyone is talking about you.

In many ways, Keane has turned out to be Souness' heir, on and off the pitch. Like the Scot, he was a dominant central midfielder, fiercely committed, often violent ( this classic Souness tackle is richly evocative of Keane on Haaland) but also very, very good. And like the Scot, he is a man of extremes who hasn't quite been able to recapture the joy of his playing days and who seems unable to accept the inability of others to match his own almost impossibly high standards. Souness tried to recapture those glorious playing days when manager of Galatasaray by inciting a Turkish riot with his flag-planting antics at the home of arch rivals Fenerbahce. As manager of Sunderland, Keane grabbed a member of Reading's backroom staff by his tie and pushed his face into a desk. We all have our own methods of motivation.

The book is full of these angry outbursts. Roy is constantly conflicted. He wants to go and have a nice walk with his dog, but then he'll probably have to beat up some kids along the way. He's down for some shopping with the wife but then, on the way home he's going to have to menace some old folks at the bus stop. These contradictions often come within the same paragraph, sometimes the same sentence. He's completely tormented, and torn between wanting to learn from his mistakes and accept he did things wrong, and "fighting my corner".

Roy Keane enjoys a selfie (Photo via stu_fraser)

The contradictions pile up. When he leaves Sunderland, Dwight Yorke, who played with him at United and for him in the north-east, gets in touch: "Yorkie texted me: All the best. I texted him back: Go fuck yourself... And it's sad, because I had great days with Yorkie. I could have handled things differently." When he's working for ITV as a pundit, he says: "... I don't like the label pundit. I don't like being labelled, generally. Although I never minded being called a footballer – because I loved being a footballer."

And then at Ipswich, he tells us: "I'd be talking to a member of my staff, and I'd have to remind myself that I'd played more games at the highest level, I'd managed at a higher level – and I was taking advice from people who couldn't match that experience. That's not to say they're not worth listening to – I don't mean that."

What do you mean, Roy? There's a party in your mind but no one ever came. Was anyone even invited?

On Clough and Ferguson, he's conflicted and contradictory, as any estranged son would be. He doesn't spend as much time on Ferguson as the headlines upon the books release suggested but the anger with his old boss runs deep. In fact, he was so angry and upset that when he left United he missed out on about £1 million because he just wanted to remove himself from the situation, cry in his car for two minutes and then put the warrior mask back on, shovel the pain into an already full reservoir of hurt in his chest and wait for it to explode at some other juncture. He drives the car United gave him, an Audi, for three more months. "Every little victory is vital," he writes, as you wait for him to tell you that he returned the vehicle with some empty crisp packets in the back and a box of Oasis: Live at Maine Road DVDs in the front.

"I think Brian Clough's warmth was genuine. I think that with Alex Ferguson it was pure business – everything was business," writes Keane. But then, a couple of paragraphs later, he needs to make a clarification. "I know Clough's warmth was business, too."

Was he being treated as a commodity when really all he wanted was to be loved as a boy? He was small as a child and as a friend from Cork once told the Evening Standard: "What you have to understand about Roy is that in those early days he had to try harder than anyone else to make up for what some felt was a lack of physical presence." That determination never left Keane, but with an explosive temper that he says he got from his father, he was always liable to press "that self-destruct button". This button, he admits, hurts him more than anyone else.

"We all want to be liked," he writes, and suddenly you feel as though being Roy Keane must be a very lonely thing, at times. I remember a surfer who broke some unfathomable record way out at sea saying that after he'd done it, no one in the boat going back to land with him was able to look him in the eye. They were afraid of him because of what he was capable of and he felt so alone that he started crying. Keane the leader is feared. People have their preconceptions about him. "As soon as I walk into a room, I know people are apprehensive... they are expecting some sort of skinhead thug." Sometimes he lives up to those expectations. He may as well be in that boat, separated from his fellow man by the force of his will.

It's lonely and again, it's conflicting. Keane is married and has five children, but it's a dad jumper he wears uncomfortably. "Maybe I'm like every man on the planet," he says. "I don't know; I want a bit more than what's on offer. My mid-life crisis has been going on for years. I can be sitting at home, the most contented man on the planet. An hour later, I go 'Jesus – it's hard work, this.'"

This man, who has tasted so much glory, feels like a suburban dad who just wishes he'd made a proper go of his high school band. At Sunderland, he lives out his own solitary version of The Young Ones, subsisting on Pot Noodles and beans. He rents a flat in Durham, in a student area, and goes into the cafés there convinced that no one knows him because students "aren't that interested in football". The world of guys on Twitter comparing John O'Shea to Samwise Gamgee would shock and appall him.

Elsewhere, this idiosyncrasy leaves him able to skewer the bullshit of the modern football dressing room, with its players glued to their phones and computer games. Keane's the dinosaur, the old warrior, wondering what the hell WhatsApp is, angrily confused by the sight of Wayne Rooney taking a selfie. "He was wearing Superman underpants" is all he needs to say about Stephen Ireland and of course he's not having Robbie Savage, with his Wazzup answer phone message, or the old guys making sure their cheques clear before they shuffle off to Legends matches. "I just didn't want to end up playing football with fuckin' JLS," is his final word on wanting to stay relevant in the football world.

And staying relevant means ageing with purpose and integrity. This book, which deals with the death of a career on the pitch and the troubled birth of one off it, is in many ways about ageing. This is there in Keane's fondness of innocence, which comes out at various moments. At United, he prefers Ronaldo to Rooney because Ronaldo has "an innocence and a niceness" to him, whereas Rooney is already "streetwise". Jordan Henderson is the same. As a manager, the delight of Sunderland is that the job seems fresh and innocent. Not so at Ipswich.

It all paints a picture of Keane sitting on a park bench, having a Holden Caulfield moment as he watches the kids on the carousel and wishes they never had to be tainted by the phoniness of the world. Roy Keane is a hard man but he feels as though the world is a hard place, almost unbearably so at times. As a kid, his under-12 football team wins a national tournament and the prize is being taken to see Ireland play at Lansdowne Road. In Dublin, he buys his first single, "Karma Chameleon", by Culture Club. For me, two lines stand out:

Every day is like survival

You're my lover not my rival

Every day can be like survival. For Roy Keane, will the world go on being his rival?

Writing by @oscarrickettnow

Images by @SimonReidArt

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