Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Fergie and Keane: no fairytale finale to this relationship

By Andy Ritchie
BROADWOOD, January 8 2006. Roy Keane’s glorious career was suffering more than mere signs of distress: it was falling apart in front of the sad eyes of a sell-out crowd.
He’d joined Celtic - the club had always dominated his boyhood dreams - and had taken part in the famous huddle. But the narrative was short of a Hollywood script writer.
I mean, if you were looking for a superstar on this day, you’d be sorely disappointed. The superstar of yesteryear had been left at Old Trafford. This vintage model was struggling very badly against a young and very energetic Clyde side in the Scottish Cup.
You remembered better times when Keane was robust, physical and appeared to have all the athleticism in the world. You knew that these attributes had disappeared, and that he was never going to get the ball down and stroke it around the middle of the park.
I was watching all this and attempting to analyse how I felt. I was going to say sad, but truly I wasn’t sad, because before me was this multi-millionaire who’d had a decent run round the racetrack. In your heart, it’s hard to feel sorry for rich men.
Besides, having been a footballer myself with Celtic and Morton, I knew you’ve got to be man enough to face reality: when your best years are over, that’s it. Nothing can recreate them. Cancel all thought of fairytale finales.
No, this wasn’t the Roy Keane I saw charging through the middle of Bayern Munich’s midfield, causing mayhem in German ranks. Nor the same Keane who stared down the big Arsenal boy, Patrick Vieira, saying: ‘Come on, you and me, we’ll sort it out on the big green bit.’
But I also knew another thing. When Fergie saw that incident in the Highbury tunnel, he would have had a great big smile plastered all over his face. For this was the Fergie modus operandi - the way he wanted men like Keane to be. It was all part of the master plan of domination for Manchester United.
So you can imagine my surprise this week when I saw Sir Alex, publicising his new book, turn round on television interviews and take more than the average length of stick to the character that Keane became. I don’t think it was really on. It was a bit tacky.
You imagine he should have been saying: ‘He was my leader. He was the guy who pulled me clear of the compost heap so many times.’ Instead, here was him savaging him, calling him a bully and insisting that the other players were frightened of him.
It may have been a bit more prudent if he’d just relegated that particular matter to a few inconsequential words - much like his version of the Rock of Gibraltar affair. He said that his row with John Magnier had been a misunderstanding. Some misunderstanding. It almost brought the club to its knees.
But rejoining the Keane debate, I’ll never forget the contribution he made to United’s glory years, or, for that matter, how quickly Ferguson forgot.
To bite the hand that fed him so consistently was somewhere over the top. When Keane was in the team, half of Fergie’s job was being done for him. And if I remember it right, the manager defended him tooth and nail when his skipper was putting himself about. Fergie wanted it that way. If he didn’t he wouldn’t have had him there in the first place. Hey, Fergie was the top man and he could have had him out of there as quick as manure off a hot shovel.
At his peak, any club in Europe would have taken Roy Keane. I’ll bet Arsenal would have taken him. But think on it: would you sell a Trident submarine to Iran, or North Korea? No, you wouldn’t want to be doing that unless your head was residing in your nether regions. So Keane stayed and his gaffer prospered.
Ferguson shares a lot of similarities with Jock Stein, my old boss at Celtic. The latter bullied players, without question. There were big personalities in the Celtic dressing room, but they weren’t bigger than Big Jock. Yes, there was fear at times and apprehension. But there was another factor: to be praised by him was something else. And see if he smiled at you. Haw! Bloody hell! You felt about 8ft tall, almost on equal terms with King Kong.
I saw him do it when I was a wee boy. Smiling and putting his arm round wee Jimmy Johnstone and others. These guys were great players, but you could take a tape measure and confirm that their chests were swelling with pride.
Now you could take that to the other extreme. When he went for you, it was like an early form of cage fighting - and there was no chance that you were going to exit that cage in one piece. There again, he could bring you down to an area when you could inspect snakes’ bellies. It only took one statement from him to do it.
I got a bit of Stein at the end, not the best years. But the aura was still there. And I imagine it was with Ferguson. He is a man with a phenomenal record and it’s been glory all the way with him, except for those first few years when his feet were encased in Old Trafford quicksand.
No doubt just one encouraging word from him would put the cap on a very satisfactory day. It would have driven players on. And I’d imagine that Keane, as his captain, was there to do just that: drive and cajole the team on to new platforms.
Keane, of course, has responded on television by questioning Ferguson’s interpretation of loyalty. I suppose he feels a bit betrayed and thinks his contribution has been diminished.
After all, can you imagine Ferguson going into the dressing room and telling him to pull out of tackles, encouraging him to let someone else boss the midfield?
Listen, when Fergie got out of that dug-out, came romping down the touchline and put his fist up, he wasn’t doing it to Olly Gunnar Solskjaer. He was doing it to Roy Keane. You can listen to the snarl if you indulge your memory.
There’s no getting away from it: he’s dumped on his first lieutenant. Which begs the question: would he have said the same about another of his great lieutenants, Bryan Robson? I think not.