It is hard to sum up the experience of watching Roy Keane captaining Manchester United in words. There is a kind of mythic quality to watching a leader of such resolve. A talented player, yes, but more than that a player whose will to win was so powerful it acted as an airborne virus, contagious to his team-mates.
When Sir Alex Ferguson spoke of Keane in his first autobiography, Managing My Life, he referenced his former captain's career-defining performance in Turin, during the second leg of United's 1999 Champions League semi-final tie with Juventus. He said, (h/t Vice): "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 such an honour to be associated with such a player."
Consider the words "I felt such an honour to be associated with such a player." They were spoken by quite possibly the greatest manager in the history of the game. A man who, even by the time he had written them in 1999, had achieved a level of success worthy of sporting immortality.
And this sporting giant among men was honoured to have Keane as his on-pitch alter ego. That makes sense, given the ex-Republic of Ireland international was the only one who ever matched him for desire—for not just will to win but for need to win.
With all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, the relationship between these two imploded, and their later years have seen them take plenty of potshots at each other. But long before any of that was a midfielder in United red who embodied every trope, every myth, every stereotype of what it meant to be part of United at their best.
Keane arrived at United in the summer of 1993. A then-club-record fee of £3.75 million was required to prise him away from Nottingham Forest. He had been close to signing for Blackburn Rovers, then a Premiership force, managed by Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish.
In May 2006 Dalglish told FourFourTwo, "We were very close to signing Roy, but he eventually decided to go to Manchester United. I suppose his decision was vindicated with all those Premiership titles, the Champions League and the great career he had at Old Trafford."
A great career indeed. Keane made 480 appearances for the Red Devils, scoring 51 goals—a little over one in 10 being a decent average for a player who dropped deeper and deeper into midfield as his career progressed.
One of the most remarkable things about those numbers is that just 22 of his appearances came as a substitute. Even in the age wherein squad rotation became ever-more important, even in a career that lasted until he was 34, during which he had dealt with more than his share of injuries, Ferguson almost always thought of Keane as a starter.
And those trophies mentioned by Dalglish? Six Premier League titles, four FA Cups, the Champions League and the Intercontinental Cup in 1999. He was the football writers' and players' player of the year in 2000 and probably should have been the year before too, when Tottenham Hotspur's David Ginola sneaked the award because the vote for Manchester United's stars was split thanks to their shared treble heroics.
It feels something of an anathema, though, to talk about individual awards in a Keane retrospective. Ferguson used a variant on "selfless," and nothing could have been more suited to the Irishman's playing style.
He is clearly a fierce individualist in terms of temperament—the way he talks about the game makes it clear he does not much care what other people think about his opinions. However, he obviously recognised that in order to attain the thing he desired most—winning—he needed the players around him.
It is an obvious conclusion, but for someone wired the way Keane seems to be as an outside observer, the extent to which he embraced it is significant.
The standards he expected of his team-mates were the highest ideals of what Manchester United came to represent during his time at the club. Professionalism, commitment and excellence—the sense that the club was special in some way, as it clearly was during his peak years.
Those standards meant he was not necessarily an easy team-mate to play alongside. There is an infamous story of an early training session then-new signing Dwight Yorke participated in.
As Daniel Taylor wrote in the Guardian in 2011: "Keane booted the ball at [Yorke], deliberately too hard, and the new signing miscontrolled it. 'Welcome to United,' Keane hissed with that Tommy DeVito stare. 'Cantona used to kill them.'"
But in spite of that, he was hugely valued by his colleagues. In 2011, Paul Scholes told FourFourTwo:
Roy was unbelievable to play alongside and someone you could always trust. I soon learned that if you weren’t on your game he would be on top of you to make sure you were playing your part for the team. I had a few [dressings down] from him, but that made you work harder to avoid them. He was a great leader and captain: he drove us on and he was our manager on the pitch.
Keane was part of two of Sir Alex's three truly great United sides and was there to witness the birth of the last.
He was a vital piece of the jigsaw that elevated the Eric Cantona-inspired Premier League-winning team of 1992/93 to the all-conquering, dominant double-winners of 1993/94.
That team, which featured Keane, Paul Ince, Steve Bruce, Cantona and Mark Hughes, was built around a core of tough individuals. In the FA Cup final that year, Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis lined up on either flank, adding mercury around the edges of all that solid matter in the middle.
Chelsea made it a contest until the 60th minute, when Cantona opened the scoring from the penalty spot, but their spirit was broken by full time. They had lost 4-0, and United had won the double. Keane was at the beating heart of the whole endeavour.
His role in the 1999 squad was a little different. In his first autobiography, Keane: The Autobiography, he talked about the '94 team being full of his peers, whereas he felt a little separate from the crop that came to be known as the Class of '92. He was now a senior player rather than one of the lads. He took to the leadership role like it was the role he was born to play.
In that same book, published while he was still at United in 2002, he said he hoped that the game known simply as "Turin"—the aforementioned Champions League semi-final in which he so impressed Ferguson—would not be the one for which he was most remembered because that would mean he had already peaked.
Thus, it is with apologies to Keane that it must be noted that for those who saw the breadth of his United career, it is impossible not to flash to that moment upon hearing his name. It is impossible not to see in the mind's eye the Stadio delle Alpi: floodlights casting a perfect glow over the black-and-white stripes of the home team and United's red.
The two teams had drawn the first leg 1-1, a 90th-minute Ryan Giggs goal levelling the tie but for away goals. Juventus were the toughest opposition going. Beating them would mean United had ascended to a position among the European greats.
Filippo Inzaghi scored twice in 11 minutes. It should have been all over, but it was not. Keane scored. When his team needed him most, he was there. United were back in it and another would be enough. Seconds before United's 34th-minute equaliser, Keane was booked, meaning he would miss the final.
Somewhere in his frustration, he found the best of himself.
"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 such an honour to be associated with such a player."
Words that bear a second airing.
Keane was many things. He could be vicious, as many of his foes found out. Yet he was extremely technically adept, as gifted a passer of the ball as he was a destroyer. Listen to Darren Fletcher waxing lyrical about Keane's passing during his appearance on Graham Hunter's Big Interview podcast for a firsthand view of this.
He could be ultra-critical of his team-mates, but he gave everything he had to help them win trophies. He stuck up for them if they came under attack—think Gary Neville and Patrick Vieira in the tunnel at Highbury in 2005.
The end of Keane's United career is a saga in itself. In Taylor's 2007 book This Is The One: Sir Alex Ferguson: The Uncut Story of a Football Genius, he casts Keane's departure as a moment that gave Ferguson a new lease of life, consequently freeing him up to build that final great team.
Whatever the truth of that, the key members of that lineup, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney in particular, were both blessed with a similar drive, with a similar will-to-win. Keane's presence at the club during their development is perhaps not a coincidence.
However it ended, Keane would be a sure bet for a place on United's Mount Rushmore were such a thing to exist. The fact he has not been at the club for 11 years and has not come close to being replaced hints at the impact of his presence.
And never mind just his standing at United. He is one of the all-time great midfielders, one of the all-time great footballers. He is one of the all-time great sportspeople.
It is hard to sum up the experience of watching Roy Keane captain Manchester United in words.
But everyone watching knew they had seen something special.
Appearance data per the Website of Dreams.