The relationship has long been uneasy; once hero to the massed hero-worshipers, now the cynic and the increasingly cynical. But Manchester United supporters have not yet fallen completely out of love with Roy Keane, the player who remains the finest all-round midfielder in the club’s modern history. Indeed, the player – and man, some might say – that United has not genuinely replaced since the Irishman was forced out of the club by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2005.
The affinity has, of course, evolved, not least with the publication of Keane’s second autobiography, The Second Half, last week. No longer an Old Trafford insider, Keane’s vocal and public spat with Ferguson over the past nine years often divided loyalty. Lurid headlines have run with the Irishman’s criticism of Ferguson’s management, while Sir Alex’ analysis of his former player’s personality has often landed below the belt. This, a tiresome spat, has often threatened to turn ugly in an era of sweeping media focus. Two giants of the modern game that cannot find a reason to make nice.
Little wonder Keane should address the relationship with his former manager so thoroughly in the new book. Yet, beyond the tabloid headlines and pithy quotes The Second Half is a remarkably frank work in Keane’s now familiar vernacular. Ghost Roddy Doyle has captured both Keane’s complexity and frustrating superficiality: “Take that you c*nt,” said the Irishman of Alfe-Inge Haaland in his first biography, Keane. It is a quip now replaced by an equally blunt assessment of one John O’Shea performance – he played “like a f*cking clown.”
The Second Half is both an exercise in self-effacing honesty and laboured self-pity. “There are things I regret in my life and he’s not one of them,” says Keane of Haaland, the former Leeds United and Manchester City player, on whom a 2001 tackle earned Keane a substantial fine and double-length ban. The passage contrasts unfavourably with a lengthy account of Keane’s “self-destruct button” – a tendency towards heavy drinking and an inability to think clearly in times of stress.
There is an admission of Keane’s failings in management at Sunderland and Ipswich Town, but also the pitiful bellyaching when it comes to his dismissal by Mackems’ chairman Ellis Short. And then there is the implicit criticism of Ferguson’s managerial failings, including a deconstruction of the Scot’s relationship with, among others, Ruud van Nistelrooy. Ferguson and Keane hold very different accounts when it comes to the Dutchman.
To varying degrees Keane berates Robbie Savage, Peter Schmeichel and Carlos Quieroz, while admitting to admiration – of sorts at least – for the former pair. Keane is at once angry, melancholy and seemingly without empathy. Make of those contradictions what you will.
The Second Half opens with the topic that dragged the Irishman into trouble with football’s authorities in Keane – that studs-up challenge on “the absolute prick” Haarland. It earned United’s captain a four-match suspension, followed by a further five game ban when biographer Eamon Dunphy claimed at an FA hearing that the midfielder had “without a doubt” set out to injure the Norwegian. It is a claim that the midfielder continues to deny.
“Was I going around for years thinking: ’I’m going to get him, I’m going to get him’?” asks Keane in his new book. No, comes the answer. “Was he at the back of my mind? Of course he was. Like Rob Lee was, like David Batty was, like Alan Shearer was, like Patrick Vieira was. All these players were in the back of my mind: ‘If I get a chance I’m going to fucking hit you, of course I am.’”
The passage is typical of the book; forthright, entertaining – and often self-serving.
Yet, the real value is in another perlustration of Keane’s relationship with Ferguson – a man for whom the 43-year-old seemingly has little respect. Would he forgive Ferguson for prior criticism; and for driving the Irishman out of United in 2005?
“Not sure, not sure. Football is a small world, you will cross paths with people again,” said Keane at last week’s book launch. “But to criticise people who have earned him success … would I forgive him? I don’t know. When you think what he made out of it, millions of pounds, statues. Lots of stuff I let go, but eventually you have to go, enough is enough. You have to defend yourself.”
This is Ferguson characterised no longer as the father-figure of lore, but as a duplicitous control-freak; untrustworthy and ungrateful. And where self-interest comes to the fore it is worth noting Keane’s admission to profiting from the 2005 Glazer takeover. The Irishman owned “a few” shares as part of his package and – like more than 30,000 small-holding supporters (Rant included) – had no choice but to sell when the Board accepted the Americans’ 300p-per-share offer.
It opens up an interesting question: whether Ferguson also owned shares as part of his compensation pre-2005 and, more importantly, whether profit influenced the Scot’s decision not to speak out against the takeover. It is certainly a nuanced argument; one that has admittedly been raging without resolution for nine years.
The Second Half offers no further clue, although Keane’s defenestration of Ferguson’s character and motives is complete. Not least in the description of the end-game, after 12 years as a United player. Did that MUTV interview really end more than a decade’s service at Old Trafford? No, says the Irishman – it was a decision driven by personality clash above all.
“Even now people still say: ‘The video had to be destroyed.’ Like it was a nuclear weapon or something,” writes Keane. “Did someone drive out to the countryside and bury it in the f*cking ground? Or did a bomb disposal unit come and explode it? It had to be destroyed.
“I wasn’t worried about the dressing room. It was getting a bit silly so I got the players together in the dressing room and told them it was f*cking nonsense. Not one of them had an issue. Not one.”
In this The Second Half reflects Keane the post-United personality more than Keane the player. The Irishman’s tough talk as a pundit on ITV has often demonstrated less bite than his tackling. Somehow, after largely failing as a manager, Keane became a parody – those piercing eyes and unrelenting intensity failing to find the right balance between critique and analysis required of top pundits. Not that many reach that rare status.
The enduring impression that The Second Half brings is of a man who regrets little, but still holds a keen sense of injustice. “The hardest part of Roy Keane is his tongue,” wrote Ferguson in 2013’s My Autobiography. There is something in the analysis even if Ferguson’s quip is not entirely true. Yet, at no point does The Second Half descend into petty one-upmanship in the manner of Ferguson’s error-filled, narcissistic, tome.
One nil to Keane? Perhaps so.
The Second Half by Roy Keane and Roddy Doyle is published by W&N Books.