In the first of a series of excursions into his football reporting past,revisits a couple of memorable early encounters with Roy Keane.
I might be a Dubliner through and through but I was never happier to play the Cork card — for which I claim entitlement under the parentage rule — than the first time I met Keano.It was in the weeks leading up to the 1991 FA Cup final — in which Nottingham Forest would lose to Spurs and Gazza would hog the headlines for all the wrong reasons — and thehad dispatched me to Nottingham on the trail of the rising young Irish star.
Being relatively new on the football reporter beat, I hadn’t previously met Keane and, since no interview had been arranged in advance, I knew I was going to have to wing it by the Trent and try to ambush him on the ground. Or, outside the ground, as it turned out.
At the time Keane was nursing an injury and had to sit out Forest’s league game at the City Ground the afternoon I was there but, at the final whistle, a friendly local source told me my quarry had been spotted in the car park.
I think it’s fair to say that his initial reaction to being, as we say in the trade, ‘door-stepped’ by an entirely unfamiliar face, was of the distinctly wary kind.
Which is why, at the earliest feasible opportunity in the stilted introductions, I just happened to let slip that my mother had hailed from Mayfield.
His frown disappeared. “Your mother was from Mayfield?”
“Yeah, on the Old Youghal Road. I used to play football in the Tank field when I’d go down to the relations on summer holidays.”
His face brightened. “You played football in the Tank field!?!”
And with that, you could also hear the ice crack, and an interview was smoothly arranged.
Flash forward two years and thewere sending me on a similar mission but this time to Manchester, where Keane had just recently become English football’s hottest property, having left Forest for United for a then record fee of £3.75m. The stakes, on every level, were getting higher. Again, nothing had been arranged in advance, and United, protective of their new acquisition, were not playing ball but, on arrival in the city, I was able to find out from a football friend that Keane was billeted in a hotel in Altrincham.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained — but fully expecting to be stonewalled at reception — I rang the hotel and asked to be put through to Roy Keane, please.
Next thing I knew, the familiar Cork voice was on the line and, doubtless to relieve the boredom of a quiet Wednesday afternoon as much as anything else, he readily extended an invitation to drop by. (Pause to consider that those were the days, right enough).
When I got there, Keane’s room had about it the air of a man on the move: a tray containing the debris of a room service meal, piles of clothing and a small mountain of luggage, the TV humming in the background and — confirmation that he was clearly determined to be in Manchester for the long haul — on the bed the local paper opened at the property section.
But the item which, like The Dude’s rug in the ‘The Big Lebowski’, held the whole room together, was a bright red garment that was carefully draped on the back of a chair: The Manchester United jersey, bearing the insignia of 1992/1993 champions, which was Keane’s souvenir from his recent involvement in the Charity Shield.
Lying back on the bed, his head propped up on one elbow, Keane reflected wryly on his arrival at the Theatre of Dreams with a whopping price tag attached.
“I think it’s crazy money,” he told me, “and already I read people saying I’m not worth it. But that’s what the clubs agreed. It wasn’t up to me.
“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. Anyway, the manager said: ‘This is Roy’, I said: ‘Howya lads’, and then 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.”
Nor was that the end of the ‘bantz’, as Keane initially struggled to adjust to his all-new, all-star surroundings.
“If I give a bad ball in training, the shout is ‘how much?’” he smiled. “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. I was coming back to the hotel thinking: ‘I’m out of my depth here’. But that was only for the first few days. Obviously, 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. Then there were the players who travelled and didn’t even get stripped: Clayton Blackmore, a Welsh international, Mickey Phelan, Dion Dublin. It’s such an incredible squad here 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.”
When I asked him about his hopes for the season ahead, his initial response was delivered deadpan.
“Yeah, well my dream is to win the league, the League Cup, the European Cup, the FA Cup and the World Cup.”
Then, after a pause: “But my main aim is to get in the starting line-up against Norwich and after that to get a start against Sheffield United. And the same for the next match and the one after that…if not, I’ll be playing in the rezzies!”
Off the pitch, he also recognised that, having already had some unhappy experience of the tabs keeping tabs on his every move, he was now bound to come under even more intense scrutiny in the goldfish bowl of Manchester.
While, by his own admission, he was “no angel”, Keane insisted that he didn’t recognise the caricature of himself as one of football’s burgeoning ‘bad boys’.
“I’ve only just turned 22 and a lot has happened,” he said. “The reputation I have now is such a wrong image of me. Even when I’m back in Cork now I can see that people are dead wary of me. But I go out with the same people I always did, with my brothers and my friends.
“But yeah, I know now that I’ve got to be careful and not do stupid things. If somebody does say something to try to wind me up, I’ll just have to walk away. 99 out of a 100 people are genuinely nice but there’s always one idiot no matter where you go. Always. You’re waiting for a taxi or you’re in the chipper getting a bag of chips — and there’s always one person you have to be wary of. I expect it now, to be honest.”
However, he did concede that he might find it that bit harder to exercise self-control on the field of play.
“People say I get involved in stupid things but if people have a go at me, I’ll have a go back. You know, I’ve been told to count to 10…”
The idea amused him greatly.
“In the middle of a match, that’s the last thing you’d think of. ‘One…two…’”
Young Roy Keane shook his head and laughed heartily.
“I wouldn’t get past one and a half!”