Given their many years together in the pressure cooker of Old Trafford it would take some kind of mathematical expert to figure out how many thermonuclear explosions Sir Alex Ferguson may have witnessed while his erstwhile captain, Roy Keane, was knocking about the scene.
Keane was respected by everybody but a friend to nobody in that Manchester United dressing room. He said once that not one of his team-mates had ever been to his house and that he didn’t have the mobile phone number of any of them. He kept his distance at all times, apart from when he was in their faces demanding higher standards. And Ferguson loved him for it. That’s partly why he gave the Corkman the captaincy of United.
In his newly published autobiography, Ferguson rightly observes that the hardest part of Keane’s body was his tongue. There is no end of people – team-mates, opponents, managers, referees, linesmen, journalists and assorted others – who can testify to that. In his 2003 book about a year in the life of a sportswriter, Tom Humphries recounts a scene that took place when Keane realised that Humphries had passed his home number on to another journalist.
“I felt like I’d been splashed with battery acid,” wrote Humphries. “When it comes to giving a bollocking, Roy is world class. People have said to me since: ‘Why didn’t you stand up to him? I wouldn’t have taken that, no way’. I agree. Next time Roy Keane comes towards me at pace with murder in his eyes and asks me if I think he’s a fool, I will tell him straight out that yes, I do think he’s a fool, that I find him a comical and that his physical buffoonery just cracks me up… Bury me near water.”
Ferguson knew Keane better than anybody. Knew his great strengths and weaknesses, knew all about his will to succeed and revelled in it, warts and all. When Keane, in his pomp, bit the head off his team-mates for not being as good as they could be, then Ferguson stood back and let him at it because, for many years, he was the guy setting the standards in that Manchester United dressing room. When Mark Bosnich, their new goalkeeper, fetched up an hour late for training on his first day it was Keane who let him have it with both barrels. When something needed to be said about the muted atmosphere inside Old Trafford, it was Keane who lacerated the corporate prawn sandwich eaters. The reason Keane and Ferguson got on was because they were both driven in similar ways. They were almost demonic in their desire for success. Ruthless. Sparing of nobody.
The power of the relationship was captured memorably in Ferguson’s previous autobiography, Managing My Life. Writing about Keane’s remarkable performance in that storied Champions League semi-final, second leg with Juventus in 1999, where Keane got a booking that meant he would miss the final and yet played arguably the game of his life, Ferguson said this: “I didn’t think I could have a higher opinion of any footballer than I already had of the Irishman but he rose even further in my estimation at the Stadio Delle Alpi. The minute he was booked and out of the final, he seemed to redouble his efforts to get the team there. It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”
Now, there is a sadness because the pair are taking pot-shots at each other in public. There is a passage in Ferguson’s new book that has been well publicised in the past few days. He recounts the tale from 2005 when Keane was critical of some team-mates in a video for MUTV. Ferguson asked Keane to apologise, but Keane refused and then trained his guns on Ferguson for losing his focus. “The hardest part of Roy’s body is his tongue. He has the most savage tongue you can imagine. He can debilitate the most confident person in the world in seconds with that tongue. What I noticed about him that day as I was arguing with him was that his eyes started to narrow, almost to wee black beads. It was frightening to watch. And I’m from Glasgow. [Carlos Queiroz, the assistant manager] called it the worst imaginable spectacle in the life of a professional football club. ‘He needs to go, Carlos,’ I said. ‘One hundred per cent,’ he said. ‘Get rid of him’.”
Was that the first time Ferguson ever saw Keane in mega rant mode? No. Was it the first time he noticed his player’s eye widening to wee black beads? You can’t imagine that it was. Was it frightening? That’s a bit of a stretch, given the essential toughness of Ferguson and his familiarity with Keane’s personality going back a decade. The worst imaginable spectacle in the life of a professional football club? Worse than Eric Cantona jumping into the crowd at Selhurst Park? Worse than some of Keane’s previous scraps, like his assault on Alf Inge Haaland? Please.
The self-serving part of this is that Keane’s eyes narrowed to wee black beads on numerous occasions over the years but because he was playing brilliantly for United, because he was the inspirational leader and intimidating force, then Ferguson had no problem with it. On the contrary, he basked in the uncompromising authority of his captain. He let him away with a whole lot worse than some harsh words for team-mates simply because he was indispensable. Ferguson needed him. By the time that scene from 2005 played out, Ferguson didn’t need him any more. His legs were gone. He was surplus to requirements. Had Keane said those things three, four, five years before then Ferguson may have held him up as an example of the embodiment of the United standard-bearer. In October, 2005, Keane had outlived his use in Ferguson’s eyes.
So it’s a bit disingenuous to say that the reason Keane had to go was because he challenged Ferguson’s authority when criticising some team-mates. Frightening? Only if Ferguson had never seen that kind of anger from him before.
Keane’s biggest frustration back then wasn’t so much directed at individuals rather than a frustration at a collective. He thought that United as a team had lost their edge and that Ferguson had had his head turned by his rich friends in thoroughbred racing. He had a point, too. United had gone backwards in back-to-back seasons before that fateful end to Keane’s days at Old Trafford. They had failed to make it past the last 16 of the Champions League for two years running and had lost substantial ground in the Premiership, finishing third and third again in the two seasons before Keane’s exit, Arsenal finishing 15 points ahead of them in 2003-04 and Chelsea finishing 18 points clear of Ferguson’s team in 2004-05.
The Irishman was railing at a dramatic fall-off in standards in his own incendiary way. This was precisely the kind of thing that Ferguson once loved about him, but only as long as he was directing his ire at his fellow players rather than in Ferguson’s own direction. Ferguson didn’t appreciate being told some home truths about what had become of his team and his management. To the great man’s credit, he didn’t let the malaise that Keane ranted about last much longer. But it existed at the time. No question.
So to talk negatively of Keane’s savage tongue and his chilling intensity is a bit rich coming from Ferguson. He celebrated, and benefited from, the whole bloodcurdling package for long enough.
It’s like breeding and taking pride in an attack dog and then complaining when the thing turns on you.