Roy Keane is known the world over for being a straight-talking, fearlessly obstinate man, who would seemingly rather impair his own sense of hearing than suffer a minute listening to any fool’s nonsense, and recollections based upon encounters with the Irishman are often based around the idea of trembling under his stare or waning under the pressure of his mere presence. This often leads people to forget just how great a player he was.
The 1990s highlighted that Keane was a supremely talented footballer; the decade beginning with his move to England and ending with his role in one of the greatest team achievements in English football history. In the intervening years, though, Keane experienced his fair share of hardship.
At the start of the decade, Keane was still plying his trade in the Republic of Ireland, representing Cobh Ramblers. It was while playing in an FAI Youth Cup game that he caught the eye of Nottingham Forest’s scouts. They gave him his Premier League move, after he’d been turned down by multiple English clubs for being too small. He’d only been playing League of Ireland football – which was semi-professional at the time – for some 14 months before making his move to Nottingham at 19 for a fee which would rise to just £47,000.
Upon first arriving in England, Keane was put into the under-21 side to start with. He initially suffered from homesickness but impressed on the pitch regardless, quickly working his way into the reserves. His first-team debut came in just the second game of the 1990/91 season against a star-studded Liverpool side. He was deployed on the right-wing for Forest as they lost 2-0, but Keane didn’t disappoint. There was already an arrogance in his play and there were signs of the fiery figure we all know today. When he put in a tough challenge on John Barnes, he is said to have followed it up by shouting “fuck off”.
Before playing, newbie Keane had needed to introduce himself to the majority of the first team players, given that the reserves, at the time, trained in a separate facility to the main squad. It wasn’t long before Keane required no introductions whatsoever and was seen as one of the team’s most reliable men by manager Brian Clough.
Theirs was a relationship based on mutual respect, though this was put on hold after an FA Cup third-round game against Crystal Palace. Keane had under-hit a back pass and gifted Palace the goal which took the game to a replay. When the Irishman returned to the dressing room, he was greeted with a punch in the face from Clough which knocked him to the floor.
The bad blood didn’t last though, as Keane played his part in getting Forest to the FA Cup final that season, though they’d ultimately come out second best against Tottenham Hotspur. When Keane retired, many years later, he cited Clough as the greatest manager he ever played under. It was mere misfortune that saw the pair join forces with Clough on the decline – and unlucky for the club that so too was his squad. Keane was the side’s second top scorer in his final season, despite playing large parts of the campaign at centre-back.
Keane fought on in what turned out to be Clough’s last ever season as a manager but was unable to drag Forest to Premier League safety. He’d scored against Arsenal to earn a draw and give the club hope of survival with three games of the season remaining, but a loss against Sheffield United in the following match confirmed that Forest were going down. This also signalled Keane’s departure.
The Irishman had long since negotiated a clause into his contract that meant relegation for his club would mean his permission to leave. As one of the hottest prospects in the league, Keane wasn’t ever going to be short of suitors. Even so, the transfer storm that followed was expected by few.
Blackburn had agreed a deal with Forest and Keane had given his word to manager Kenny Dalglish that he would sign. The deal had seemingly been settled on the Friday afternoon and, content with their job well done, the Rovers admin team headed home for the weekend. This allowed Alex Ferguson the chance to hijack the deal. By Saturday, Keane had signed a British record deal of £3.75m to play for Manchester United, and that is where he would stay for no fewer than 13 years.
Despite being a record signing, and one of the most exciting talents in the league, there was no guarantee that Keane would be starting at Old Trafford; Paul Ince and Bryan Robson had just helped United to their first league title since 1967. However, Robson, who was now 36 years old, spent a considerable amount of time injured, giving Keane the playing time required to establish himself in the side.
While at Forest, Keane had made a habit of putting in impressive performances, but with the foundations falling away around him he had little to show for it. By the end of his first season in Manchester he’d won his first two trophies, as United retained the Premier League title and added an FA Cup victory with a 4-0 final win over Chelsea.
An unsuccessful season followed the initial glory, but great change followed, which saw added responsibility placed upon Keane’s shoulders. There was a mini exodus of experienced and talented stars as Ince went to play for Inter, Andrei Kanchelskis was sold to Everton and Mark Hughes joined Chelsea. Rather than investing in expensive imports as replacements, the manager trusted youngsters David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt to step in.
The Class of ’92 was about to make its first mark, and this meant that Keane was now the most experienced man in United’s midfield. There was a slow transition as United struggled in the early stages of the season. Come the season’s end, though, they managed to battle back from 12 points behind Newcastle to win another league title.
Keane wasn’t known for his goalscoring exploits, but he struck two of United’s most important goals that campaign. The first of those came against title rivals Newcastle in December, when he controlled a Phil Neville long ball with his first touch and smashed it in with his second to secure a 2-0 win. The second strike came in the third-last game of the season, against Leeds. The Irishman collected the ball on the edge of the box, jinked past a defender and finished his solo effort by guiding the ball into the near post for the only goal of the game, one which the commentator called “priceless.”
The next couple of seasons saw injuries and suspension severely cut Keane’s time on the pitch. In the 1996/97 campaign, he even missed the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Borussia Dortmund after picking up too many yellow cards – and United would go on to lose both legs. He was named club captain in the summer of 1997 after Eric Cantona’s retirement, but only managed nine league matches that season.
In a game against Leeds, Keane sustained a season-ending cruciate ligament injury when challenging Alf-Inge Håland. During the incident, the Norwegian stood over Keane as he lay in agony on the floor and reportedly accused him of faking it. The Irishman never forgot this moment and retaliated by hitting Håland with a career-ending tackle in 2001.
United let an 11-point lead slip that season, with Arsenal taking the title – and Keane was dearly missed. He came back determined to make up for lost time. In the final full season of the 90s, Keane proved to be a central cog in the greatest achievement of any English club during this period as United went on to win the treble. While the dramatic end to the final of the Champions League is what most people remember about that run, Keane’s performance in the semi-final second leg was arguably the greatest of the campaign.
The teams went into the second leg in Turin with the score at 1-1. Filippo Inzaghi had scored twice in the first 10 minutes to give the Old Lady a convincing lead, yet it was Keane who got the men in red back into the game in the 24th minute, leaping through the air to head in Beckham’s corner. It was shortly after this that Keane received a yellow card for a foul on Zinedine Zidane, which meant he would miss the final. It was at this point he put his own involvement in the competition’s culmination aside. Keane dragged his team to an incredible 3-2 victory with what many call his greatest performance.
Following the game, Ferguson spoke about his captain’s contribution: “It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I’ve seen on a football field. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.” There were mixed emotions for Keane, though, as he later recalled: “Although I was putting a brave face on it, this was just about the worst experience I’d had in football.” That Keane wasn’t able to fully revel in the victory of United’s Champions League win, after such a heroic effort to get them there, is synonymous with his entire career.
Keane was Clough’s last great signing but suffered relegation with him. He won more trophies as Manchester United captain than any man in history but left among continuously rising tensions in 2005. In spite of it all, the 90s were the making of Roy Keane: the inimitable midfielder who began the decade as a semi-professional footballer in Ireland and ended it as Manchester United’s historic treble-winning captain.
By Danny Lewis @DannyLewis_95