Even now, several years after his playing career ended, Roy Keane is still a highly prominent footballing figure, and that tells you all you need to know about his presence in the sport. Not a single bit of the fire and fury that defined him during his playing days has faded away; he’s still as passionate as ever, still setting an example, and still regarded as one of the toughest men in football.
Plenty of people are born with footballing talent, but very few are blessed with the select set of skills of a player like Roy Keane. A tenacious box-to-box midfielder, the Cork-born man began his career with Cobh Ramblers in his homeland before catching the eye of Nottingham Forest, teaming up with a man who would have a great influence on his career and mindset: Brian Clough.
Clough and Keane shared a lot of similarities and Clough helped to gradually guide the initially homesick Irishman into a leading role at the club, despite the manager once punching his player square in the face after a bad back-pass during an FA Cup defeat. In spite of this violent act that could have soured the sweetest of working relationships, Keane remained highly respectful of Clough, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, Clough was going downhill right as Roy was reaching for the stars. Forest got relegated and Keane joined Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford for a British record of £3.75 million, going on to become an undisputed legend of the club. He scored twice on his home debut and quickly dislodged more experienced players from the first eleven, winning his first two trophies in his first season, and adding many more to his cabinet over the years.
Keane’s time as a Red Devil, like so much of his career, was a real spectrum of highs and lows. On his day, like in the Champions League semi-final against Juventus in 1999, his ability and influence to the team were simply unmatched. Covering every blade of grass with a warrior-like spirit that few players throughout history could hope to contend with, Keane was an indomitable presence.
Unfortunately, the same dogged determinism and tough tackling also proved to be his downfall on more than one occasion. He collected 11 red cards during his stint with United, with arguably the worst incident of all coming in the 2001 Manchester derby. The final whistle was only a few minutes away when Keane lunged into a horrific tackle on Alf-Inge Håland, later admitting that he’d fully intended to injure the Norwegian as an act of revenge.
At international level, it was the same story. Keane played a total of 67 games for Ireland, but his temper and confrontational attitude led to a lot of disputes, most famously during preparation for the 2002 World Cup in which Keane walked out of the training camp and openly insulted manager Mick McCarthy, resulting in the player missing out on the tournament.
The controversial moments of Keane’s career can’t be overlooked, but his brilliance as a player is what he deserves to be best remembered for. The anger he showed was often a simple by-product of his immense passion for the sport and an innate need to see his fellow professionals show the same levels of desire and hard-work that he became famous for.
Keane was the most successful captain of Manchester United, leading the team to nine trophies and winning 17 in total at the club. He’s a man who lives and breathes football, quickly heading into management at the end of his playing career and winning the Championship with Sunderland, eventually becoming the assistant manager of the Irish national team, bringing his ferocious spirit and leadership to a new generation of players. He will forever be remembered as one of the finest players to ever step foot on the hallowed turf of Old Trafford.