I was recently profiled on the blog of Norman Geras (link here), Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Manchester and author of Marx and Human Nature, amongst other works. Bear with me here, this isn’t some massive self-promoting ego trip, it turns out that Mr Geras, having moved to Manchester from Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) in 1962, is a big United fan. Come on, he wasn’t going to choose City, was he?
Norm normally blogs on political and philosophical matters, such as this superb piece he did recently, putting forward the case for the spread of Western liberal democracy, by force where necessary (link here). However, his blog also has the odd piece on United, one of which I would like to share below. Written by Morris Sheftel in 2005 (link here), it is a tribute to Roy Keane, in my eyes arguably the greatest player in United’s history, and a man people would be foolish to write off as a manager. Hope you enjoy it.
“Sir Alex Ferguson marked Roy Keane’s departure from Manchester United last week by describing him as the best midfielder of his generation in the world and the greatest player he had ever managed. Alan Hansen, in the Telegraph, described him as being ‘in a class of his own’ at his peak; he was, wrote Hansen, ‘the best player the Premiership has seen’. These are powerful recommendations, not least because of the calibre of the men offering them. That they make such claims for one who scored only 50 goals in twelve and a half seasons, whose main role on the field was defensive, even destructive, that they place him ahead of the likes of Cantona, Giggs, Bergkamp, Henry or Zola tells us that he really was something special. Nor have there been any dissenting voices; even the London press last week took time off from its habitual war against United, Ferguson and Keane to echo these tributes.
At his peak, Keane was a player of the highest skill, power and technique but it is the passion and intensity of his play that lifted him to the level of greatness. He played (and plays) almost every minute of every game with a commitment that can be frightening. No cause was lost, no challenge shirked until the final whistle. During his peak years, he was the dominant figure in the finest midfield quartet in Europe (and the best midfield I saw in British football in over 50 seasons). David Beckham, Keane, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs combined between them a unique blend of skills, athleticism and commitment. And, although he did not have the passing range or dead-ball skills of Beckham, the goal-scoring instincts of Scholes or the wizardry of Giggs, there was never any doubt that Keane was their leader and dominant figure, the man who dictated the pattern and tempo of play, who drove the team forward and who imbued the others with an indomitable will to win.
It was that will that made him an exceptional captain. He led his team with complete dedication, always putting the collective cause first, and he expected everyone else to match his courage and commitment. If they didn’t, there was a fierce reprimand and a snarling reminder of duty. When Keane was appointed captain in 1997, many held that Ferguson would come to regret his decision to appoint such a rough diamond. Keane himself expressed doubts about whether or not the role suited him but he grew into one of the greatest of the club’s many great captains. United supporters need little encouragement to talk about his contribution to that European semi-final in Turin when they came back from a 2-0 deficit to beat Juventus 3-2 and reach the 1999 final. Keane led and played heroically, despite knowing that a yellow card meant he would miss the final. That week, starting with a remarkable victory over Arsenal in the semi-final of the FA Cup and ending with the semi-final win in Turin, United achieved a level of excellence they’ve never equalled before or since. By winning the Treble then, United recorded the greatest achievement of any English club. And at its heart, leading the team with a ferocity that was sometimes awesome, was Keane.
There were, of course, costs resulting from the passionate nature of his game. One was a string of red cards (though his transgressions were, with one exception, minor when set against the type of routine tackles one saw in the eighties) – rather too many of them for running on the grass, and produced by just one referee whose name does not deserve to be remembered. Another was a fundamental change in the nature of Keane’s style of play. As the only member of the midfield quartet who was a ball-winner and strong tackler, Keane increasingly shouldered defensive duties, tracking opponents, protecting the centre-backs, and winning enough possession to feed the attackers ahead of him; progressively he rationed those surging runs into the penalty area which had been his hallmark in his youth. A third consequence was that the warrior suffered an increasing number of injuries, some of which threaten to disable him in later life. In the last three years these have reduced his pace and running power. At his peak, opponents often flooded the midfield to try to negate Keane’s strength with numbers and, at his peak Keane ‘handled’ them. Now he can’t do that anymore and Ferguson has been forced to abandon the two-wing attack of the glory years in order to shore up central midfield; in the process, much of the quick counter-attacking play for which the team was noted has been lost. Thus the desperate, and unsuccessful, scramble to find a ‘new Keane’.
Perhaps that is why Keane has seemed increasingly depressed and angry, ready to lash out at team mates and supporters alike. Eventually, it seems to have produced a fundamental rift with a manager with whom he worked closely for so long and with whom he shared a common outlook. Why it was so, we can only guess at, but it might be that as Keane’s powers waned and as his hopes of making it to a European cup final receded his frustrations grew – not least with Ferguson, whose decision to rebuild the team after June 2003 has not met with anything like the success anticipated. For Keane, recognizing he was on borrowed time, this might have led to an erosion of confidence in the manager. When Keane lambasted his team mates in the MUTV interview that was never broadcast, he must have known that he was breaking Ferguson’s cardinal rule, that of group solidarity and total loyalty. Contrary to the media image of him as a tyrant, Ferguson consults his senior players regularly and invites their input every week. He has relied enormously on Keane, a man he once described as standing for the same values as himself. But his rule is that debate ends at the club’s doors. A disciplinarian, he has never attacked individual players publicly and says he never will. The solidarity of the group is everything: it has permitted United to withstand numerous crises and attacks from outside. When Beckham was fluttering his eyelashes at Real Madrid in midseason before decamping to them, Ferguson commented sourly that ‘loyalty is a 100% thing; you can’t have 70% loyalty’. When Stam ‘wrote’ a book in which he made derogatory comments about team mates with whom he shared a dressing room, he was out just months after signing a new contract. However good you are, if you don’t defend the group to the outside world, you go. So Keane’s outburst made his departure inevitable. But, given his closeness to Ferguson, perhaps he knew that and perhaps it was his way of forcing the break.
For United, the loss of such an inspirational figure comes at a bad time (sadly now including the death of George Best). The team is struggling. It lacks the spine and commitment of Ferguson’s previous sides. The take-over of United by the Glazers has divided the club and its supporters. Among these there is a tendency, relatively small but very vocal and with contacts in the media, which has turned against the manager because he did not walk out when the Glazers took over (as if any of them would have walked away from their life’s work had they been in his position). They tried to get Ferguson sacked in 1989 and again in 1995. Some of them have been desperate to be allowed to behave like Manchester City supporters for a long time now but had to bite their tongues when the club was winning everything. Keane’s departure adds grist to their mill – and they have allies in the media with their own grievances against Ferguson (not least on The Guardian). Ferguson, too, is no longer as young or resilient as he once was.
So Keane’s departure could well be just the start of a period of instability at the club in the short term. Longer term, however, it has to be recognized that his time at the club was running out. As Hansen writes, United would not have been so quick to part with a fit Keane in his prime but ‘Keane is no longer the great player he used to be’ and once he had acted to weaken team spirit his departure was inevitable. In many ways we must recognize, also, that his presence had become the sort of problem Bryan Robson was at the end of his illustrious United career. In both cases the team was so in thrall to the captain that it did not function when he was out injured – and he was often injured. There is a need not so much to replace Keane as to find another style of playing which is not dependent on him.
None of this should detract from the stature of the player who has just left. The United tradition exalts in wonderfully creative players like Best, Law, Charlton, Giggs, Cantona, Scholes and Beckham. But it also venerates those who played with passion and fierce courage, men like Stiles and Whiteside. In that pantheon, Keane stands alongside Duncan Edwards and Robson as one of United’s greatest ever players.
For the majority of United supporters, there is a moment they all remember as the one that sums up what he meant to us. It took place in the tunnel at Highbury as the teams were waiting to come out for the now institutionalized hate-fest with Arsenal last season. Viera, it seems, had decided to threaten Gary Neville with physical retribution on the pitch (no one seems to remember why). Keane overheard the altercation and immediately challenged Viera, calling on him to pick someone his own size, naturally volunteering himself (Keane is 5 inches shorter than Viera). Television has recorded the altercation for posterity. One sees Keane’s anger, Viera’s ashen and fearful face, as he is made to look a coward and a bully. Keane’s eyes never leave Viera, even as referee Poll dances about trying to soothe his anger. United won that game 4-2 and any United supporter will tell you that mighty Keano won it before a ball had been kicked.”