The Roy Keane Conundrum: Fragile Masculinity and Selective Nostalgia
Given the dominance of the Manchester United side he captained, it is easy to conflate Roy Keane's aggression with his ability to motivate. But this does not mean that his brand of ultra-masculine football would work in 2017.
There's a growing trend that you may have noticed in the Premier League this season. It's called WWRKS – 'What Would Roy Keane Say?'
Time and again, a video will surface of Paul Pogba or Jesse Lingard – sometimes both – having the temerity to enjoy themselves doing something that isn't directly related to football. Sometimes it's a haircut. Others it's messing about in a training session. Sometimes it's the simple act of smiling in a selfie. Whatever the activity, they're invariably having fun. But fun is bad – just ask Roy Keane.
The tendency to romanticise Keane's heyday isn't exclusive to Manchester United fans, but the club's current players provide a convenient hook for their nostalgia of misery. That local lad enjoying himself playing for his boyhood club? Keane would have seen to that and decked him, the absolute legend. It's nostalgia for what something stood for in their mind rather than what it actually means, in much the same way that Tony Soprano's "strong, silent type" spiel emphasises what happens when inspiration is taken from a stage-managed version of an individual.
Given the dominance of the United side that Keane captained, it is easy enough to conflate the Irishman's aggression with his ability to motivate. Indeed, the most iconic images of Keane – shouting at referees and teammates; launching into uncontrolled 'tackles' on Neil Pointon or Alf-Inge Haaland – are shareable and memorable enough to mask other aspects of his game. For all the criticism of Pogba as a 'Vine footballer', it is his predecessor whose achievements are readily condensed into a snackable format.
This ties in to the accessibility of games, something that has changed significantly since Keane's pomp. Between 1992-93 and 2000-01, just 60 Premier League games per season were broadcast on Sky Sports, and many people only consumed top-flight football through Match of the Day. This term that number has climbed to 168 between Sky and BT Sport. To dismiss someone as a 'highlights player' in 2017 ignores the fact that, among neutrals, many of Keane's generation often lived and died through their ability to make themselves noticed during highlights packages. Among their own supporters, they earned respect by being all-action enough to leave a mark on those who only saw incidents once and from a very specific angle. Even looking at Keane's later years, the stage-managed rivalry with Arsenal's Patrick Vieira tends to be recalled through a lens of 'my dad could batter your dad' playground one-upmanship. Victory reaffirmed Keane's status as the alpha, leading a raw 'attack, attack, attack'-minded United to supremacy over the soft southerners and their continental influence. Foreign ideas appeared to fall short against the very British concept of 'wanting it more'.
But while it ought to be easy to divorce Keane the Aggressor from Keane the Motivator, it is tougher to separate a multifaceted Keane from the team he captained on countless occasions. Rose-tinted memories of United's nineties success allow Keane's violence to be fetishized in a way that Marouane Fellaini's is not, even though both players have become victims of their own physicality.
In much the same way that Brexit voters selectively recall feelings of positivity about a past when things were intangibly 'better', United fans have fond memories of glory days that coincided with the presence of an angry bastard wearing the armband. They might therefore assume that: (a) one could not exist without the other; and (b) all other factors are purely coincidental. These glory days went hand-in-hand with a British and Irish core succeeding during the Cool Britannia era, when laddish banter went unchallenged on terrestrial TV without 'PC' intrusion – see the casual homophobia of They Think It's All Over, and the use of blackface on Fantasy Football League. It all becomes part of the same package.
Of course, Keane has done little in his post-playing career to diminish the mythology; indeed, he may well be aware that there is little to be gained by cultivating a placid persona if he wishes to continue in his punditry role. To a degree, the fear factor associated with his public image works well in player-facing coaching jobs, but could easily be exposed in a managerial position that requires constant interfacing with the media.
And it's not just Keane who benefits from this image: as recently as February, Robbie Savage invoked the Irishman in his criticism of Pogba and Lingard's social media posts, accompanied by the nebulous idea of discipline. Despite this, there has been little in the way of discussion about whether a fear-inducing captain is even that helpful for a team in United's position.
The system worked in the late nineties for three key reasons: United were England's dominant club, and champions of Europe at the end of the decade; they were all but guaranteed Champions League football every year; and they had the pull of a manager who – if not incomparable – at least had a different kind of allure to anyone on the continent. Flash-forward a few decades and you're dealing with a team outside the Champions League places who are just one of many good-but-not-great English clubs. They have not gone beyond the last eight of Europe's top competition since 2011, have cycled through three managers since the summer of 2013, and currently employ a man who has never exceeded three successive seasons at one club. While Keane's era was characterised by players being scared into staying at Old Trafford and knuckling down for Fergie, these days there is more risk of a top talent leaving United, or being deterred from joining in the first place.
The problem with applying a different era's mores to our own is that aspects of the game have moved on, and it is no longer possible to brute-force your way to success. Some fans may want to return to a time when men were men, women were absent and Manchester United were winning, but it doesn't work that way. You can't simply transplant the past into the present without understanding the factors that allowed things to work as they did in Keane's heyday.