Alex Ferguson’s new book — only his 104th since retirement — has this week “reignited” his feud with Roy Keane, so we’re told, on the back of the most headline-grabbing extract revealing that his former captain and on-field leader did not make the shortlist of United players the manager deemed “world class” during his 26 years at Old Trafford.
Whether this really is fresh fuel to the feud will, of course, depend in large part on if and how and when Roy Keane chooses to respond, and since blowing his own trumpet has never been a hallmark of the Corkman — you get the sense that he’s always more comfortable detuning others’— it will be interesting to see how, if so inclined, he might go about defending himself against the accusation that he was somehow a lesser light in United red than Fergie’s Fab Four of Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona.
True, on the BBC, Ferguson did concede that Keane, along with other Fifth Beatles — like Peter Schmeichel, Japp Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy — were “great players, fantastic” but, if not quite damning with faint prase, it still meant no compromise on excluding Keane from the pantheon of those who, as Fergie would have it, “elevated themselves above all that.”
To which one is almost inclined to quote him back at himself — “bloody hell!” — and just leave it that.
But I think it might actually be worthwhile to step back from ringside for a moment and consider the bigger picture. As in: What do we mean by “world class” anyway?
It was a question posed this week in response to his former manager’s comments by Rio Ferguson who, after a self-deprecating “where was mine among a few other names, boss!!!”— well, at least I hope it was self-deprecating — fell to wrestling with the conundrum of how you can possibly compare and contrast the varied input of a dazzling dribbler, a clinical scorer, a tough-tackling midfielder, a commanding defender and a shot-stopping ‘keeper, let alone decide which of them ranks higher as a class act. And that’s also before taking into account how the game has changed over even more years than Ferguson was, himself, indisputably world class as a manager at Manchester United.
In the end, Ferdinand settled for the idea that a world class player “must be someone who could walk into any team in the world and improve them”, which is not a bad working definition so long as we don’t take it too literally and begin listing all the players who might improve our good friends Gibraltar.
As it happens, this business of the greatest of the great was already on my mind this week, since we happen to have a seven year old in the house who has fallen hard for the old footie and, as befits her tender years, is unassailable in her belief that there can never have been and, in all probability, never will be, a footballer to compare with her beloved idol, Lionel Messi. (Needless to say, I haven’t yet found the right moment to inform her of that unfortunate little setback Barca suffered at Celta Vigo on Wednesday night).
But having indulged her old man blathering on for some considerable time about alien types like Pele and George Best and Maradona, she finally requested this week that some evidence be put forward in support of the clearly noxious theory that they might have been as good as, if not (whisper it) even better than, her golden boy.
So it was out with the old YouTube clips the other day and a few minutes of wide-eyed wonder and shrieks of delight — and that was just me — as we basked in watching the blessed trinity perform their wonders on pitches bereft of grass and in the face of what used to be called “the close attentions of” defenders, a level of intimacy which, nowadays, would warrant a custodial sentence for common assault.
And then the piece de resistance: That almost supernatural split-screen footage of Maradona against England in 1986 and Messi against Getafe in 2007, two astonishing solo goals by two Argentine superstars, separated by 21 years but joined at the hip in terms of their eerily similar construction and execution — a case for football’s ‘X Files’, if ever there was one.
Even if we were limiting the debate to the greatest Manchester United players of all time, Mr Keane would still only be trotting after the likes of Bestie and Bobby Charlton and — so those who saw him in his all too brief prime will insist — Duncan Edwards.
And what of Rio Ferdinand’s definition of world-class as it might apply to Keane? Well, off the top of my head, I can certainly think of a couple of sides who would hardly have benefited in any significant way from his inclusion, if only on the grounds that you simply can’t improve on perfection: Brazil 1970, say, or the Barca brigade which swept United aside in the Champions League final at Wembley, or the Spanish team which dominated European and world football — and, yes, Ireland — during their untouchable 2008-2012 reign.
On the other hand, Keane would definitely have made the difference to the greatest team never to win a World Cup — those doomed Brazilian romantics of 1982. Because quite apart from the way he in which he would have imposed himself on Paolo Rossi and his chums, can you possibly imagine the Brazilians so self-destructively “fannying about at the back”, as Jack used to have it, with Keano on their case?
If I would struggle to compile a short and sweet highlights reel for an uninitiated young ‘un that would convince them of Roy Keane’s greatness, it is only because he wasn’t the kind of player to lend his name to a greatest hits of mazy dribbles, overhead kicks, frees curved into the top corner and all the other gloriously lethal tricks and flicks which thrill football followers to the core and, more than anything else in the game, keep us coming back for more, please.
Yet everyone knows that Roy Keane defined his own kind of greatness, as a complete all-rounder who elevated a mastery of the basics of the game to a virtual art, and whose driven refus.al to settle for second-best made him the heartbeat and inspiration of the United team in the greatest years of Ferguson’s reign.
And if it’s not necessarily true that he would have walked into any team in the world, then it’s certainly the case that the team has never existed which would have been happy to see Keano lining up in the opposing ranks.
That’s the real reason why Fergsuon’s ‘world class’ stricture can only be seen as a petty sin of omission, and one which, in the final analysis, diminishes not Roy Keane, but only himself.