The Greatest XI: There’s Only One Keano

Football began over 150 years ago. For myself, personally, it began in 1990. At the age of ten, I fell in love with the sport and of course Manchester United. Watching the FA Cup Final with my father and his mates, followed by Italia ’90, it really did capture my imagination. This got me thinking, what or rather who would be my dream Manchester United eleven? Over the coming weeks, I shall be selecting my one to eleven.

7. Roy Keane – Central Midfield ( Captain )

“He looked like a Manchester United player as soon as I saw him. We played him at Forest and the way he played told me a lot about the lad. His determination, his energy, his attitude to losing and winning told me something about him before we even got him.” — Sir Alex Ferguson

The summer of 1993 saw Sir Alex Ferguson break the then British transfer record by spending £3.75 million on a young Irishman by the name of Roy Keane. Keane had been playing for Brian Clough, down at Nottingham Forest, when Sir Alex first saw the man from Cork. Keane had been brought over from Ireland and Clough gave him his chance to shine in England. Two seasons at Forest gave Keane a grounding of English football, a chance to show all the scouts who had dismissed Keane as being “too small”.

Nottingham Forest would be relegated during the inaugural season of the Premier League and with Keane having signed a new deal midway through the season, a contract clause was triggered to allow clubs to talk to him. Blackburn Rovers, awash with Jack Walker’s millions, thought they had the deal in the bag until Sir Alex got wind of the deal and swooped in at the last second.

Keane would go on to score two goals in a home victory over Sheffield United, an impressive debut. His partnership with Paul Ince would be the engine room to what would turn out to be a very impressive team. In Keane’s first Manchester derby and with United losing 2-0, Keane would go on to snatch the winner in the dying seconds. A domestic double of Premier League and FA Cup would go onto Keane’s honours list.

Although the following season would see United trophy less, The 1995/96 campaign would again see United lift a Premier League and FA Cup double. Having hunted down Newcastle, who had a twelve point lead at one stage of the season, and then dispatched of arch enemies Liverpool in the FA Cup final, Keane was again adding medals to his ever expanding collection at Old Trafford.

Eric Cantona would drop the mother of all bombshells when announcing his retirement in 1997. Roy was given the captains armband by the boss and from there, Keane never looked back. A low point during the Irishman’s career at Old Trafford would come in autumn on 1997. A lunge on Leeds United player, Alfe Inge Haaland, would see Keane miss the remainder of the season with a serious knee injury. An incident which would later come back and explode into the public domain. Haaland, leaning over Keane accusing the Irishman of feigning injury.

“If Roy Keane thought you weren’t pulling your weight he would be right on top of you, straight away. Many players faced his wrath for committing that crime and there would be no place to hide from him. I never felt that was a bad aspect of his character.” — Sir Alex Ferguson

The beginning of the 1998/99 treble season saw the return of the skipper. United had squandered the title to rivals Arsenal, in the previous season, and set about winning it back. Keane had begun his on pitch battles with Arsenal captain, Patrick Viera. The two power houses clashed on more than one occasion, and with neither man backing down, always provided fireworks. The tunnel incident in 2004, when Viera had singled out Gary Neville over some rough house tactics from the previous encounters. Keane had heard about this and made sure that Viera knew this. Keane let his rival have both barrels, before leading United to a 4-2 win.

Keanes indiscretions with refs would come back to haunt him when he saw red during the FA Cup semi final replay against Arsenal. United would hold on with ten men, cue Ryan Giggs wonder goal. But it was another semi final that season which would be a match in which Keane would land legendary status, from the Old Trafford faithful. United had draw 1-1 with Juventus in the semi final first leg of the Champions League. United traveled to Turin to face the Italian giants. Juventus were two goals up inside twelve minutes and with the Old Lady, already having an away goal, a mountainous task was put in front of United. Captain Keane would roll up his sleeves and single handedly drag his team from a losing position, into a final. A goal from the skipper would be the start of the comeback. All was going well, the match of dreams, until a trip on Zinedine Zidane, saw Keane receive a booking which would keep him out of the final. Did he sulk? No way! Keane snarled at his team mates and led them to one of the greatest nights in Europe in United’s history.

“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.” — Sir Alex Ferguson (about Keane’s legendary performance against Juventus in the second leg of the 1998-9 UEFA Champions League season)

Two more Premier League titles followed that magnificent season. Cracks were now starting to show in both Keane’s body and his relationship with Ferguson. Keane had already taken a swipe at some of the fans at Old Trafford, calling them the “prawn sandwich brigade”, and then releasing a book in which Keane would get into hot water with the FA. His incident with Haaland back in 1997 was still laying heavy on Keane’s mind and when Haaland, now of Manchester City, visited Old Trafford in a derby match, Keane saw his chance, with revenge and sent six studs straight into the knee of Haaland, while going for a bouncing ball. Keane then shouted at Haaland before departing the pitch.

“I’d waited long enough. I fucking hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you cunt. And don’t ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries” – Roy Keane, Taken from his book, Keane.

A hip injury during Keane’s later seasons at United would really hamper the performances of the Irishman. This coupled with his disciplinary record growing longer, current record holder for most red cards in England with thirteen, had pundits questioning whether Keane could still lead the team by example. Keane had led the team to a sixth title in eight years by the end of the 2002/03 season.

Keane’s time at United was cut short after the infamous MUTV video. Keane was injured and as a squad player had duties of commentating on the clubs tv channel. United were thumped away at Middlesborough and Keane didn’t hold back on his team mates. The plug was pulled on the video and Sir Alex gave Roy his p45. Keane would sign for Celtic on a short term contract.

The end of the season would see United grant Keane a testimonial, against his current club, Celtic. Keane would play the first half for Celtic and then the second half for United. Ronaldo scored the only goal in a game in which 69,591 people attended, including myself, a record for a testimonial in this country.

Keanes honours at United would include 480 appearances, 51 goals, seven Premier League trophies, four FA Cups, Champions League and Intercontinental Cup, in which Keane scored the winning goal in the final.

“Every training session would be like a cup final; he would drive you on in every single game, and he was one of the reasons we got so many late goals, he would drive the team forward. With him in the team, you always felt like you had a chance.” — Ryan Giggs

Roy Keane epitomises what I believe a captain should be. A leader on the pitch, off the pitch and brutally honest to boot. The captain of my greatest eleven. Lead them out, Roy.

About the Author

John McNicoll
Southern Red and Football enthusiast.