Cultural Relatives: Roy Keane & Tom Brady

Keane and Brady must have learnt to channel discomfort. Perhaps, when you're getting so fucked over inside, you look at the straightforward slings and arrows of the outside world and think, 'that's not much.'

by Toby Sprigings
15 March 2016, 3:10pm

Illustration by Dan Evans

What makes a great? Luck, it would seem from these two – but a strange kind of luck. Perhaps a kind that would have found them whatever happened; a kind that makes you wonder if this primitive word 'luck' is more than it's cracked up to be.

The 'luck' in question put in their way people to make them feel insecure about themselves. For example, had a young Roy Keane not watched various teammates from Rockmount FC be sent over to England for trials – while he, 'too small' supposedly to make the trip, stayed home – who knows what would have happened? (Seriously though, they should just start summarily withdrawing the badges of any coach or scout who is still doing the 'too small' line. Presumably by now Lionel Messi has taught them an indelible lesson, but I bet a few of them still say it anyway).

The old world. Cobh Ramblers. £47,000. Brian Clough. Brian Clough punching Keane in the face when he had erroneously passed a ball in an FA Cup tie. The FA Cup as anything but what you get slightly annoyed at for delaying the Premier League schedule. Luck, of a more definable kind, intervened when Blackburn Rovers had agreed a fee with Forest for Keane; Kenny Dalglish mislaid the paperwork, couldn't get back into the office – there's an image – and in swooped Fergie.

Fun fact: Robbie Keane has more Premier League assists than Roy Keane; Steve Bruce has more Manchester United goals. He, like his French equivalent at Highbury, is a ghost on all the lists of definable football attributes; fitting, perhaps, given that the key attribute of each was to be the player least like a ghost on the pitch. I think various people over the years have pussyfooted around what Roy Keane brought to United – trotting out fatuous things like 'soul of the team' and 'born leader' – so let me have a go, in as flowery terms as I can manage.

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Say you're a painter, but you live in a rough neighbourhood. You know that, being as most of the people living around you can't paint as well as you, it would please them just to be able to kick over your easel every so often. You can never focus. You dab a few strokes then break off, fretting that someone is coming. Then one day, someone does come. He leans around the door and says, 'Don't worry lad, if anyone comes in here to bother you I'll stamp on their head until we can use what's on me boots as paint.' And because it's Roy Keane, you believe him. You settle down and start painting. And it turns out he quite often has some useful things to say about which paints go where – because this is elite sport, and the idea that Roy Keane didn't also have the kind of football talent that goes way beyond what you see in the park is crazy.

He says it's an act. He says it all over YouTube – with that terrifying angle to his eyes – that it's nonsense that he was cast in the role of terroriser-in-chief. To say you've never seen someone who seems so riddled with psychological issues is a misread, I think; you've never seen someone who has channelled so successfully the psychological issues they are riddled with. The impression I got from what I've seen of his book is that everything is about to ruin Roy Keane from the inside; that the drive he brought to each and every game was a slightly heroic demonstration of what he had to do to keep away from the self-destruct button. When you've conquered your demons, you can lead. Or, alternatively, the daily act of watching Roy conquer his demons was sufficiently scary that Becks and Giggsy made the sensible decision to play as well as they possibly could, so as not to disturb him.

The Relative

Here's a fun list of stats. In the red corner: one AFC Championship (as backup), one NFC Championship (as backup), one Superbowl (as backup). In the blue corner: six AFC Championships, four Superbowls, two NFL MVP awards, three Superbowl MVPs, about a million other NFL honours. The blue corner belongs to Tom Brady. The red corner is the combined achievements of the six quarterbacks picked ahead of him in the 2000 draft.

What does a great quarterback need? Nothing you can measure in the draft. Tom Brady's draft report was a litany of why he was too un-athletic to be a quarterback: can't run fast, can't throw hard, too skinny, etc. What it didn't ask – what it can never ask – is how he would react when he had about two seconds before eight of the most savagely primed athletes in America started aiming 300lbs of force at his head. For the six picked before him, their 'tangibles', as these draft dweebs have it, made Brady barely an also-ran. But as it turned out, he was the only one who could answer that question with 'Pick the right pass, make the right pass – and if I get my head knocked off, whatever.' He's Californian, see. They say, 'whatever'.

That's actually a complete fallacy. Of all the quarterbacks who superseded Brady in 2000 – the Chad Penningtons and Tee Martins and Spergon Wynns – he's the only one who doesn't seem Californian. They have easy ways about them – they were good at football, but hey, what can you do? So were lots of other people. Only Brady, laser-guided of eye, gives the impression that the fate life had in store for him would be the one he wanted.

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Like Keane, Brady must have learnt to channel discomfort. Perhaps, when you're getting so psychically fucked over inside, you look at the straightforward slings and arrows of the outside world and think, 'that's not much.' At University of Michigan, he was way back in the quarterback queue; by the end of his junior year he was the starter – and was still treated as if he was keeping the position warm for the arrival next year of one of the state's star athletes, Drew Henson. Drew was then installed as starter, until Brady shoved him out; a year after his New England Patriots went undefeated for the season in 2007, Henson was sometime quarterback as the Detroit Lions failed to win a single game.

And yet, three Superbowls in, Brady still recognised 'that feeling that maybe nobody wants you'. He actually wells up in recalling watching the 198 draft picks tick by in 2000, with him and his family still sat there. And, in the one of the most unexpected admissions I've ever heard from a sporting legend says, regarding his success, 'A lot of people would say 'hey man, this is what it is, I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me I think, god, there's got to be more than this.' And not as one of those goony Americans, implying that until they've won the moon and half of Mars they can't be sated; more like, he thinks there's something slightly tacky about what he's achieved. Which is utterly, compellingly bizarre.

For most sportsmen, their mind is something to use a bit of; any more than a light touch and someone like Lee Bowyer probably just short-circuits from overthinking. For Brady and Keane both, you feel they use a lot of it. And end up living both amid a dark enemy and a force harnessed to defy any limits.

The Hand of History – vs Juve, 1999/vs Alabama Crimson Tide, 2000

I watched a seven-minute vid of Keane's contributions on that night, expecting to be reminded of what a midfield stringpuller he was. He most certainly was not. He gets the ball and passes it on with the minimum amount of fuss. Like Michael Carrick, with a less impressive passing range. Except, you would never, ever count on Michael Carrick – or any of the other get-the-ball-give-the-ball also-rans – to score the goal to set in motion your comeback at the house of a European giant.

Those damn intangibles. Were they not such groupies for stats and data – who went .406 on season passing yards with a variable nine-game swing differential inbuilt – it's possible the NFL elders could have just had a good old think about Brady's final game of his Michigan career, at the Orange Bowl in 2000. And what kind of a person pulls his team back in the biggest game of his life from 14-0 to 14-14, 28-14 to 28-28; and then, with yet another pass – they only scored off Brady passes – makes it 28-35.

A Little Cultural Context

In the doc The Brady 6, regarding Giovanni Carmazzi, the second quarterback drafted in 2000, with wonderful deadpan: 'Carmazzi does not own a television, and declined to be interviewed. He lives two hours north of San Francisco... he has five goats.'

And never played a single NFL minute.

Words: @tobysprigings / Illustration: @dan_draws