Greatest Transfers: Roy Keane – ‘The Engine Room Enforcer’

Manchester United Career Details:

Signed From: Nottingham Forest, July 1993 for £3,750,000 by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Position: Centre Midfield
Appearances (Goals): 480 (51) between July 1994 & November 2005.


F.A. Premier League Winner (7): 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003.
F.A. Cup Winner (4):1994 (4-0 vs. Chelsea);
1996 (1-0 vs. Liverpool);
1999 (2-0 vs. Newcastle United);
2004 (3-0 vs. Millwall).
U.E.F.A. European Cup (‘Champions League’) Winner: 1999 (2-1 vs. Bayern Munich).
Intercontinental Cup Winner: 1999 (1-0 vs. Palmeiras, Brazil).

Individual Honours:

P.F.A. Premier League Team of the Year (5): 1993, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002.
P.F.A. ‘Team of the Century’ member.
F.W.A. ‘Player of the Year’: 2000.
P.F.A. ‘Players’ Player of the Year’: 2000.
Inductee to the English Football Hall of Fame, 2004.

I introduced the previous ‘Greatest Transfers’ article on Bryan Robson by stating that you could probably count the number of players who had pulled on a Manchester United shirt in the last 35 years who were better than Robson on one hand…. Roy Keane was arguably one of those elite few.

Raised in the Mayfield area of Cork in the Republic of Ireland, Keane was pretty much born a ‘fighter’! Despite his relatively small stature, the young lad showed great promise as a boxer, and but for his even greater ability on a football pitch, he may have gone on to become a star of the canvas ring. As it was, he followed the family tradition into local football with junior club, Rockmount, and quickly progressed through the ranks to feature for the 1st team, with whom he was voted ‘Player of the Year’ after his debut season!

Ironically it took quite a few years before Keane was noticed by any senior clubs; indeed, he was turned down for inclusion in the Irish schoolboy squad for being “too small”, but was finally picked up by local side Cobh Ramblers. Such was Keane’s physical prowess by this age that he often played for both Cobh’s reserve team AND 1st team in the same weekend, with seemingly no ill effects. It was whilst playing in an F.A.I. Youth Cup game for Ramblers that he was spotted by Nottingham Forest scout Noel McCabe, who asked him to travel to Forest for a trial…and the rest, as they say, is history.

Keane duly impressed Brian Clough, and signed for a reported £10,000 in June 1990…. now there’s a bargain if ever you saw one! However, as hard as it is to believe now, Keane didn’t initially settle well at Forest, constantly plagued by homesickness, but his outstanding ability as a player soon had him turning out regularly in midfield for Forest’s 1st team, making his debut in a 0-2 defeat at Liverpool in the 1st Division on 28th August 1990. His first goal for Forest came in a 2-3 defeat at Sheffield United on 22nd December.

By the time he travelled with his team-mates to Wembley for the F.A. Cup Final against Tottenham Hotspur the following May, Keane was an integral part of a vibrant young team under legendary boss ‘Cloughie’, including scoring the winning goal in a 1-0 Quarter-Final victory at Norwich City. However, the season would end in disappointment for all at the City Ground, as the North Londoners won 2-1 in extra-time through a Des Walker own goal; Keane memorably fought a running battle with Tottenham’s left-back Justin Edinburgh throughout the game, showing he would not be intimidated by any opponent.

Keane established himself as a permanent fixture in the Forest midfield during the 1991-92 season, noted already for his insatiable hunger to cover every blade of grass and put in tackles when and where necessary. Clough reportedly told him to keep things simple in the centre of the park, win the ball and pass it to one of his more accomplished team-mates, but a return of 8 goals from a central midfield position in both the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons was proof that the young Irishman was more than a mere ‘water-carrier’. Again, however, his season would end in disappointment, as Forest lost out in the League Cup Final to Manchester United, Brian McClair claiming the solitary goal of the game.

The following season, the inaugural Premier League campaign, was a defining point in Keane’s career. By now unquestionably the best player at Nottingham Forest, the Irishman quickly found himself in a side that was alarmingly short of the quality required to be competitive in the top league, and a season of struggle ensued, with Forest winning only 10 games out of the 42 played, finishing in bottom position. Keane, however, had negotiated a new, improved contract with the club before their relegation battle had become obvious, a contract which had had a ‘relegation release’ clause inserted in it. By now attracting the attention of top clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal and wealthy Blackburn Rovers, Keane was clearly not going to be playing lower division football with his City Ground team-mates the following year.

Blackburn Rovers, then under former Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, were the first to make an approach for Keane in early July 1993, and had apparently agreed a fee with Forest and personal details with the player himself; hearing about the potential deal, United boss Ferguson intervened, met with Keane, and persuaded the Irishman that Old Trafford was the best destination for his talents, not Ewood Park; it was a pivotal moment for both the player and Manchester United. The following week, Keane was unveiled as United’s new number 16, for a British record fee of £3.75 million; it turned out to be one of the bargains of all time.

Ferguson had been looking for a replacement for ageing and injury-prone club legend Bryan Robson for a couple of years, and in Keane he struck gold. The Cork man quickly adapted to life at United, scoring twice on his home debut as the Red Devils beat Sheffield United 3-0, and establishing a great partnership at the heart of midfield with Paul Ince; it was a foretaste of what was to come, as the Champions lost only 4 games all season to reclaim their Premier League crown with a 92-point total for the season. Keane memorably endeared himself to United fans in his first ever Manchester Derby, scoring the winning goal as United rallied from 0-2 down to beat City 3-2 at Maine Road. The season’s only low point domestically was a disappointing 3-1 defeat to Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa in the League Cup Final at Wembley, but United made sure they wouldn’t be Wembley losers twice in the same season by thumping Chelsea 4-0 in the F.A. Cup Final to claim their first ever domestic ‘Double’.

Of course, by now Roy had established himself as a fairly permanent fixture in the Republic of Ireland midfield as well, though he couldn’t hide his disdain for what he perceived as a lack of proper preparation and facilities for top professional players whilst on duty with his country, and this became a theme throughout his entire International career. He also despised the style of football implemented by then Republic manager Jack Charlton, which relied heavily on long-balls to the forward players and a high-tempo pressing game; the success of this method, which allowed the Republic to combat the fact that their players were often less technically able than more illustrious opponents, was perfectly illustrated in their opening 1994 World Cup defeat of Italy in New Jersey; Keane finished the tournament as Eire’s top player, but was scathing of the celebratory mood in the country that followed their second round exit, declaring that “there was nothing to celebrate, we achieved little.”

The following season was another one of personal progress for Keane, as he continued to add to his reputation as one of the top midfielders in England, and United once again looked destined to claim silverware for their efforts, especially after capturing striking sensation Andy Cole from Newcastle United in January 1995; Keane opened the scoring on the day Cole scored five goals as Ipswich Town suffered a record 9-0 defeat at Old Trafford. However, the season would end in heartbreak for all at United when a failure to collect maximum points from several home games allowed Blackburn Rovers to climb to the summit before the last day’s fixtures. United then conspired to drop two more points in a 1-1 draw against West Ham United at Upton Park (their goalkeeper Ludek Miklosko having the game of his entire career), allowing Rovers to claim the title despite losing 2-1 at Liverpool. It got worse a week later as a fatigued Red Devils side succumbed to a Paul Rideout header to lose the F.A. Cup Final 1-0 to a mediocre Everton team. The Champions League campaign had fared little better, United failing to emerge from their Group behind I.F.K. Gothenburg and Barcelona. The absence of talismanic leader Eric Cantona (banned for 9 months by the Football Association for attacking a racial abuser in the stands at Crystal Palace in late January) was seen as the main factor in United’s failure to win a major trophy.

Alex Ferguson was determined that standards wouldn’t slip, and the disappointments spurred him into action; established stars Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis were all controversially sold that summer, with Ferguson instead choosing to place his faith in the crop of brilliant young kids emerging through the Club’s academy. Keane found himself as the midfield partner to youthful Nicky Butt on many occasions, but after an opening day defeat at Aston Villa (after which one TV pundit famously mentioned ‘not winning anything with kids’….), United quickly moved into top gear, winning most games comfortably with Keane a menacing presence in the engine-room.

Despite this, United found themselves 12 points adrift of runaway league leaders Newcastle United by early 1996, and hopes of another Premier League title looked forlorn. However, with Keane and the returning Cantona driving them on, the youthful Reds side went on an incredible run of form, reeling in Kevin Keegan’s Geordies (including a 1-0 win at St. James’ Park) to claim the title by 4 points with a 3-0 win at Middlesbrough on the final day of the league season. Keane then added a second F.A. Cup winners’ medal to his collection as he helped the team beat Liverpool 1-0 at Wembley, Cantona with the goal.

Season 1996-97 was one of frustration for Keane on a personal level, as a series of niggly knee injuries and suspensions restricted his appearances, although the team itself didn’t appear to miss him too much with teenage sensation Paul Scholes announcing his arrival as a top-level player with some sparkling performances in midfield. Despite his own patchy season, Keane collected a third title-winners’ medal as United lost only 5 league games all season, although the disappointing Champions League Semi-Final exit to Borussia Dortmund took a bit of gloss off the season as a whole, as did the shock news of Eric Cantona’s decision to retire that summer.

Cantona’s exit paved the way for Keane to get the United captain’s armband for 1997-98, which seemed the most natural choice in the world for Alex Ferguson, given the manner in which Keane demanded the maximum from both himself and his team-mates in every game. However the new season would turn into a personal disaster for the Irishman after he sustained a season-ending cruciate ligament injury as he attempted to tackle Leeds United’s Alf-Inge Haaland at Elland Road in late September (an incident that would have implications with Haaland later in both their careers!). In his prolonged absence United conspired to throw away a sizeable points lead over Arsenal, losing the title to the Gunners by a single point; in Europe they cruised through the Group stage, but floundered against AS Monaco in the Quarter-Finals, going out on the away-goals ruling. The Republic of Ireland missed Keane too, making it to the play-off game against Belgium in attempting to qualify for World Cup France ’98, but ultimately losing out 2-3 on aggregate.

The lengthy absence served to focus Keane’s mind for the 1998-99 season; he was simply a man possessed, flinging himself into tackles, determined to prove that he was as physically strong as ever. After an indifferent start to the season, which included a 3-0 hiding at Arsenal, United clicked into top gear, suffering only two more defeats in the entire league campaign as they held off the fierce challenge from Arsene Wenger’s defending champions to win the title by a solitary point. Keane was the ‘rock’ on which it was all built, bullying and cajoling the mostly younger players around him into giving their all, week after grueling week, and also leading by example. The league campaign dovetailed perfectly with the form in Europe, where United emerged undefeated from a strong Group containing both Bayern Munich and Barcelona, Keane having scored the all-important goal to secure a point at home to the powerful Germans in the final game of the series.

After Christmas, United moved up another gear, playing some of the most exhilarating club football ever seen in the U.K. Both domestically and against Inter Milan in the Champions League Quarter-Final, opposition teams were battered into submission, the usual midfield quartet of David Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Ryan Giggs simply oozing class and quality. Going into April, United faced Italian giants Juventus in the Champions League Semi-Final, and bitter rivals Arsenal in the F.A. Cup Semi-Final- it would be a pivotal month.

Giggs snatched a late equaliser for United at home to Juventus in the European 1st leg, which left most Reds gloomy about the prospects of overcoming the Italians in their own stadium. The players’ reserves of stamina were further depleted by a hard-fought 0-0 draw with the Gunners in the F.A. Cup game; the replay at Villa Park three days later was, quite simply, one of the most dramatic, emotional games of football ever witnessed, Beckham & Dennis Bergkamp exchanging wonderful goals, before Keane found himself dismissed for a second bookable offence by ref Elleray, who later awarded Arsenal a last-minute penalty when Phil Neville tripped Ray Parlour, only for Peter Schmeichel to save Bergkamp’s spot-kick. In extra-time, the ten men dug deep and found a winner in Welshman Giggs, who slalomed through the Gunners’ defence to score one of the all-time great goals.

Having no doubt felt he had let his team-mates down with his early bath at Villa Park, the stage was set for Roy Keane to try to redeem himself in Turin a week later, but after the hosts had stormed into a 2-0 lead after only 11 minutes, it looked like he and United had run out of steam at the crucial moment. However, what followed was one of the greatest individual performances ever produced by any player at the highest level of the game as Keane almost literally grabbed the game ‘by the scruff of the neck’ and inspired his men to a famous 3-2 win, scoring the first goal himself with a brave header. It was truly “Roy of the Rovers” stuff, as United progressed to their first European Cup Final since 1968.

What followed is the stuff of legend, as United secured the Treble, comfortably winning the F.A. Cup 2-0 against Newcastle United (captain Keane famously forgetting he was in Royal company, screaming “you f**kin’ beauty” as he held the old trophy aloft!), before stunning Bayern Munich in injury-time at Camp Nou to snatch the European Cup, with a 2-1 victory. For Keane, it was a bittersweet moment. Along with Paul Scholes, he found himself sitting out the Final after picking up a booking when securing victory over Juventus, but unlike his English team-mate he would not get the chance to compete in another European Cup Final. He later described missing out on that game as ‘the worst experience’ he’d had in football. However, no-one was in any doubt that without his brilliance in Turin, United would not even have been in Barcelona on that balmy May evening….

Going into 1999-2000, Keane made history as the first United player to score the winning goal in a World Club Championship decider as the Red Devils became ‘world champions’ by defeating Brazilians Palmeiras 1-0 in Tokyo. However, his own life was being dominated by tensions with United over a new contract, with talk of Juventus trying to lure him to Italy; that ended when Roy signed the new deal just before Christmas, a deal which secured his family’s future financially. On the park, he was flying, along with his colleagues; he scored both goals as United won 2-1 at Arsenal early in the season, and then embarked on a storming run which seen the Champions easily reclaim their title with only 3 defeats all season. Despite a disappointing 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford which saw United relinquish their European crown to Real Madrid at the Quarter-Final stage, Keane’s own form was more than good enough to see him crowned both the Professional Footballers’ Association “Players’ Player of the Year” and the Football Writers’ Association “Player of the Year”. He was now at the peak of his powers, undoubtedly one of the top midfielders in world football, though he continued to suffer frustration at International level, the Republic failing to get past Turkey in the play-off game to qualify for Euro 2000.

Never one to hide from controversy, Keane was single-handedly responsible for introducing the phrase ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ into football parlance when he criticised the lack of atmosphere inside Old Trafford after a Champions League game with Dynamo Kiev in November 2000; quite right he was too, with regular time-served fans being priced out of the grounds of top clubs around England by rising ticket prices as the clubs chased the moneyed, fashionable “new fans” who had latched onto the sport in recent years. Despite the seeming lack of fervour from the stands, United again stormed to the Premier League title, losing only 6 games all season, and finishing 10 points clear of runners-up Arsenal.

However, the personal ‘highlight’ of the season for the skipper himself came in late April, in the dying moments of the Manchester Derby at Old Trafford. With the game locked at 1-1, and looking to settle an old score from years before with Alf-Inge Haaland, by then a Manchester City player, Keane lunged into a reckless knee-high challenge on the Norwegian, which saw him subsequently red-carded after the melee that followed. His initial fine of £5,000 was later increased to £150,000 by the F.A. when he admitted in his autobiography that he’d intentionally tried to hurt Haaland in retaliation for the sneering derogatory comments made by the Leeds United player when he’d stood over the badly injured Keane at Elland Road back in 1997.

Whether distracted by controversy or not, the following domestic season was poor from both Keane and his side, a disastrous run of results during the autumn period undermining any chance of catching runaway leaders Arsenal, who finished the season as undefeated champions. Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision, and subsequent ‘u-turn’, on early retirement was blamed by some, along with the bizarre decision to sell defensive lynchpin Jaap Stam and ‘replace’ him with 36-year-old Laurent Blanc. For Keane, the season ended in more controversy, as United unexpectedly crashed out of Europe at the Champions League Semi-Final stage to Bayer Leverkusen, despite leading 3-2 on aggregate after Keane himself had found the Germans’ net at the Bay Arena. Afterwards, Keane could hold his temper no longer, and launched into a tirade in which he openly questioned the hunger and desire of some of his team-mates, claiming they had ‘forgotten’ what had enabled them to have Rolex watches, cars and mansions.

His temper didn’t improve at all when he arrived at the training base in Saipan as part of Mick McCarthy’s Eire squad for the 2002 World Cup in Japan & South Korea; he was angered that the squad’s equipment hadn’t yet arrived, and likened the training pitch to a ‘car park’. After stating that he wanted to return home, but being talked out of such drastic action by team-mates, he later had a blazing row with McCarthy in front of the whole squad, during which ‘pleasantries’ were heatedly exchanged; afterwards he flew back to Manchester, and swore to family and friends that he’d never wear a Republic shirt again while McCarthy was manager.

His behaviour didn’t get any better at the start of 2002-03, sent-off for a late elbow offence at Sunderland, after which he was banned for 3 games and fined by his manager. When the F.A. added a further 5-game ban for the comments about Haaland in his newly published autobiography, Roy decided to have an operation on his hip that he’d been putting off for some time. During his convalescence, he decided he needed to cool his temper on the field if he wanted to prolong his career; by the time he returned in December, United had managed to stay in touch with league leaders Arsenal, and the return of the skipper galvanised the side such that they remained undefeated after Christmas, Ruud van Nistelrooy’s goals firing them to the Premier League title, 5 points clear of the Gunners. Notably, however, Keane had failed to score a senior goal for the first time in his career, and it was the first sign that perhaps his career was now in decline.

The following season saw his own form improve, but a poor second half to the season by the team meant they finished a disappointing 3rd in the Premier League; that was offset, however, by a strong showing in the F.A. Cup, with victories over Manchester City and Arsenal in earlier rounds, before seeing off lower-league Millwall in the Final at Cardiff, helped by a goal and starring performance from a young Portuguese lad called Cristiano Ronaldo. As Roy lifted the trophy, he couldn’t have known it would be his last as a United player. Earlier in the season, United had suffered a cruel knock-out blow in Europe when FC Porto, led by a young manager called Jose Mourinho, had scored late at Old Trafford to advance via the away-goals rule.

Season 2004-05 started with a narrow defeat at Chelsea, who were under a new manager called…Jose Mourinho. By the end of that season, it would be a name United fans didn’t smile at the mention of, as the Portuguese led the West Londoners to their first league title in 50 years. Keane and United were left trailing in 3rd position, their inability to turn 11 draws into victories telling. Again, the Irishman’s most memorable incident was something that happened off the pitch. As they lined up in the tunnel at Highbury ahead of the clash with Arsenal on 1st February, Patrick Vieira, the Gunners skipper and long-time foe of Keane, made intimidating remarks towards Gary Neville, indicating his intention to ‘get’ the United full-back during the game in retaliation for a foul Neville supposedly made during an earlier game on Jose Antonio Reyes. Keane overheard the comment and flew into a confrontational rage in defence of his team-mate, referee Graham Poll having to physically restrain the United skipper from attacking the Frenchman… it had all been caught live on the Sky Sports TV broadcast, and set the scene for a thrilling, bad-tempered affair which United won 4-2. Vieira had the last laugh at the end of the season, though, as United contrived to lose the F.A. Cup Final on a penalty shoot-out to the Gunners, despite dominating the goalless game itself from start to finish.

As had been the case with his departure from the Irish World Cup camp in 2002, Keane’s last days at United in the opening months of the 2005-06 season were full of controversy too. The skipper was not averse to ‘having a go’ at his own team-mates, even in a public forum, and when he voiced his displeasure at the lacklustre performances of several colleagues on MUTV after a heavy defeat at Middlesbrough, it was deemed so damning that it was pulled from the transmission by club management. Apparently, a blazing row with Sir Alex Ferguson followed, and Keane was told he was free to join his childhood heroes, Celtic, with whom he had been linked for several years. Roy Keane departed for Glasgow on 15th December 2005; he was, and remains, one of the all-time great players of Manchester United, a man who was single-minded in his focus to win football matches at any cost, both to himself and those around him, one of the fiercest competitors you’ll ever see.

Keane only lasted around 6 months at Parkhead before announcing his retirement as a player on medical advice, yet managed to pick up Scottish Premier League and League Cup winners’ medals in that short time.

He has since had spells as a manager at Sunderland (where he won the ‘Championship Manager of the Year’ award for 2007 in guiding the Wearsiders to promotion to the Premier League) and Ipswich Town, and is now assistant manager to Martin O’Neill with the Republic of Ireland, as well as making frequent appearances as a TV pundit on ITV… as ever, Roy rarely keeps his opinions to himself!