“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.