Time is a great healer, so they say, its medicinal properties strikingly on show on the box this week as Roy Keane and Kenny Dalglish amicably revisited the transfer row which had put them at odds with each other in the summer of 1993.
(Mind you, that there are strict limitations to those healing powers was also evident in the same programme, as Keane and Thierry Henry had to agree to disagree about which set of players was most culpable for the volatility which characterised the meetings of Manchester United and Arsenal back in their playing days).
The protracted saga of how Keane had arrived at the brink of becoming Roy of the Rovers before Alex Ferguson intervened at the 11th hour to crush Blackburn’s hopes by making the 21-year-old Nottingham Forest player an offer he couldn’t refuse — at a then record-breaking cost to Manchester United of £3.75m (€4.1m) — had dominated the back pages in the run-up to the new Premier League season 24 years ago.
It was also the story which, following Keane’s debut for his new club in the Charity Shield — a game which ended in a penalty shoot-out victory for United against Arsenal — had prompted the late and great Sunday Press Sports Editor Mick Carwood to send me off to Manchester on the trail of an exclusive: A face to face interview with Ireland’s newest Man United man.
Since nothing had been arranged in advance with either the player or the club, my concern was that the trip would turn out to be a wild goose chase but at least there was some modest hope of success in the knowledge that, professionally, I’d gotten to know Keane a little bit since his breakthrough days at Forest as well as in the fact access to Premier League stars then was nothing like as tightly controlled as it is today.
Thus it was that, having flown into Manchester, a quick call to a friend in the city turned up the name of the hotel in which the most wanted man in English football was temporarily holed up. In the spirit of nothing ventured, nothing gained, I rang reception and asked to be put through to Mr Keane. The familiar Cork voice duly came on the line and, to my relief, readily agreed to an interview, less out of any particular desire to spend time in the company of a journalist, I’m sure, but more because, if I remember his words correctly, he said that he was, at the very moment I’d rung, “bored out of my skull”.
Within the hour, I was sitting across from him in a hotel room which had about it that air of organised chaos characteristic of those whose professions embrace the nomadic lifestyle. The tray containing the debris of a room service meal, the Manchester Evening News
open at the property pages, the piles of clothing and mountains of luggage — all the evidence pointed to a man on the move but who was now clearly intent on putting down roots.
One item in the room, above all others, magnetised the eye — draped carefully on the back of a chair was the scarlet jersey he’d worn in the previous weekend’s Charity Shield game, a special edition proclaiming on its sleeves Manchester United’s status as the 1992/93 champions. Here then was the very symbol of what had seen Keane pass up bigger bucks at Ewood Park for the prospect of glory at Old Trafford.
“It’s true that I agreed personal terms with Kenny Dalglish,” Keane told me, as he propped himself up on his bed, “but, all along, I’d made it clear I was still keeping my options open before signing. There was a lot of talk in the papers about United but, in fact, they were fairly slow in approaching me. But as soon as they did I couldn’t really say no.
“I was in Cork when I got the phone call from Alex Ferguson and when he told me that United wanted me, well, it was unbelievable really. I was hyper after he rang me, all the family were. It was brilliant.”
Revisiting a yellowing clipping of that interview this week, I was struck by Keane’s disarming mix of diffidence and determination as he set out on the next stage of what would prove to be a momentous career.
Of the perceived burden of what was then considered an eye-watering transfer fee, he remarked: “I think it’s crazy money and already I read that I’m not worth it but that’s what the clubs agreed. If it was up to me I’d have probably said I was worth about what I went to Nottingham from Cobh for — a £15,000 (€16,442) down payment!”
He also said his new team-mates hadn’t wasted any time in cutting the newcomer with the big price tag down to size.
“If I give a bad ball in training, the shout is ‘how much?’ When I first signed, I was brought into the dressing room and introduced to the players but they were all in the bath so it was a bit awkward. I couldn’t just go over and shake hands with everyone. The manager said, ‘This is Roy’ and I said ‘Howya, lads’ and a voice from the bath went, ‘Oh, lend us a fiver, would you Roy?’ That was it, that was my start, the first words any player ever said to me at Manchester United.”
Reflecting on the scale of the challenge he now felt he was facing, he observed: “The talent in the squad is unbelievable. In the first couple of weeks in the five-a-sides, I wasn’t even getting a kick, just running around in circles trying to get the ball off players. And I was coming back to the hotel here thinking ‘I’m out of my depth here’. But that was only the first few days, I’m getting more settled in now.
“When I first came here and said I would have to battle for my place people laughed at me and said United hadn’t paid that much money for me to be on the bench. But look who was sitting on the bench for the Charity Shield — Bryan Robson, Brian McClair, Lee Sharpe. And then there were the players who travelled and didn’t even get stripped — Clayton Blackmore, a Welsh international, Mickey Phelan, Dion Dublin. And there are some great young players coming through too.
“What I’ve done for three years at Forest has virtually gone out the window. This is a new start for me now and it’s going to be hard. I know how hard it will be. But I think I’m ready for it.”
With the benefit of 24 years of hindsight, even Kenny Dalglish has to ruefully admit that indeed he was.
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