How a selfless Roy Keane guided Manchester United to the 1999 Champions League final

How a selfless Roy Keane guided Manchester United to the 1999 Champions League final

This feature is part of Virtuoso

“The most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field,” Sir Alex Ferguson ventured. “Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt such an honour to be associated with such a player.” Roy Keane’s dominant performance had left a lasting impression on his manager.

The Irishman’s response? “Stuff like that almost insults me. What am I supposed to do? Give up? Not cover every blade of grass? Not do my best for my teammates? Not do my best for my club? I actually get offended when people throw quotes like that at me, as if I’m supposed to be honoured by it. It’s like praising the postman for delivering your letters. He’s supposed to, isn’t he? That’s his job.”

And there you have it. The 1998/99 Champions League semi-final second leg encapsulated in two retrospective quotes. Manchester United’s most successful manager praising their most competitive and driven captain. Subversively thanking him for a performance that kept the treble-winning season on track, whilst the recipient and protagonist is offended at his former manager’s temerity to praise him for doing his job. 

Roy Keane was a snarling presence on the football field, a player who was driven to succeed, a player who exhausted every ounce of his being in order to produce performances worthy of the captain’s armband at Old Trafford. He did not suffer fools, moreover accept anything less than 100 percent commitment and focus. Keane’s persona instilled a devoted following from his teammates out of fear and reprimand should they fall short of his expectations. Was he a player blessed with skill and technical perfection? No. Could he inspire a team? Absolutely.

Ryan Giggs’ stoppage-time equaliser at Old Trafford in the first leg had seen United salvage a 1-1 draw against reigning Serie A champions Juventus. The Italians had also appeared in the three previous Champions League finals. Needing a win or a high-scoring draw in the cauldron of the Stadio Delle Alpi seemed to be a footballing assignment more suited to Ethan Hunt. It was dubbed Mission Impossible by some.

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If the task at kick off appeared seismic, then after 11 minutes even Tom Cruise would have packed up and gone home. Filippo Inzaghi had put Juventus 2-0 up. Unlike the movies this was real life and, in a team of superstars, one man rose up above all others, literally in the 24th minute, to figuratively drag a stunned Manchester United back into the game; back into the tie, the competition, the treble, and folklore.

Against a midfield boasting World Cup winners Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane, Juve also fielded Edgar Davids, Antonio Conte and Angelo Di Livio in what was considered the best in European football. What followed was a systematic physical and technical dismantling of one of the best sides ever assembled in the modern game.

For the following 80 minutes, Roy Keane took it upon himself to produce a performance as brilliant as it was uncharacteristic. The intensity and the aggression were evident as any observer au fait with the Irishman would expect, but it was the technical aspect of the performance that shed an unanticipated light upon United’s captain.

As the clock ticked past 24 minutes, David Beckham swung in a corner. The Old Lady’s watertight defence covered the perceived ariel threats of Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen. A delayed run to the near post by Keane saw him time his jump to perfection; the twist of the neck and a glance of the ball off the perpetually scowled forehead and United had reduced the deficit. The celebration was functional and reminiscent of the 1930s: a one-paced run back to his own half, a touch of hands with teammates who came near him, minimum fuss, minimum reaction. Just doing his job.

Fear and apprehension had gripped the Bianconeri and Keane, like a predator stalking his prey, took full advantage. The United captain was everywhere, breaking up the Juventus rhythm time after time with well-timed tackling or astute positioning to intercept the ball.

Zidane was the man the Italian side looked to wrestle back control. On 34 minutes a so-called tactical foul by the Irishman on Zidane brought the inevitable yellow card. Keane would miss the final due to it being his second booking in the competition. Not for Keane, the tears and histrionics of Gazza at Italia 90 in the same Turin stadium. A readjustment of the armband, an assessment of any imminent danger, and the United captain was back in the game.

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Led by Keane’s metronomic passing when in possession, United had taken complete control of the game – not only had Roy Keane physically dominated the Juventus midfield, his passing, speed of thought and constant desire to move United forward whenever he was in possession had thrown the game completely off its predicted axis.

A second United goal only a minute after Keane’s booking reinforced the perverse effect of losing their captain should they reach the final. At half-time, United had one foot in the final on the away goal rule. In the second half, Juventus made the inevitable tactical changes to try to arrest control away from the red machine and their indomitable leader, but United and Keane withstood everything that was thrown at them. Zidane, Davids and Deschamps were reduced to bit-part players in this cinematic blockbuster. The final act saw Andy Cole stroke the ball home from a narrow angle to win the tie and a place in the Champions League final.

The game was one of many pivotal moments in United’s inexorable march to their iconic treble-winning achievements, but it was a defining moment in Keane’s career and legacy. That semi-final in Turin demonstrated the footballing ability and intelligence he possessed. It forever dispelled the myth that Keane’s game was technically limited and based on fear and intimidation. The incessant passing and outplaying of World Cup winners laid the foundation for the rest of the Manchester United side to elevate their performance in the most intimidating atmosphere.

Roy Keane certainly did not win the game for United but he was the undoubted catalyst for a performance, which is still talked about in reverential tones. The YouTube footage of the United dressing room straight after the final whistle is a glimpse into how Keane’s psyche seemed to permanently sit at odds with the rest of the squad.

As the jubilant side return to the sanctuary of the dressing room, cheering, shouting, dancing, back-slapping and high-fives are all in evidence. Butt, Sheringham, May and Beckham pose for pictures with shirts off. Dwight Yorke sambas his way around the dressing room, congratulating the entire team. Through it all, Keane sits quietly in his place sipping water from a bottle almost incredulous at the scene playing out in front of him. Players approach him reservedly to shake his hand before taking their leave and continuing their raucous celebrations.

The final shot sees the entire squad assembled on the floor for photographs and further celebration. In the top left-hand corner, a forced smile and an ever so slight display of aloofness sees Keane sat on the bench. This had been his doing – a man just doing his job.

By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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