“This is our last gig tonight. Thank God!”
It has been a busy fortnight for Roy Keane. Having been away on international duty with the Republic of Ireland and touring the country promoting his latest autobiography, The Second Half, Aston Villa will be glad he can return to focusing solely on being their assistant manager.
But for one final hour on the penultimate day of the London Sports Writing Festival at Lord’s, he took centre stage. Kevin Pietersen had vied with the Corkman for supremacy as the sports writing season’s bestseller, but at the home of cricket he was always going to be cast as the favourite.
The BBC’s Matt Williams introduced both Keane and his ghostwriter Roddy Doyle to a lively audience, fresh from consuming El Clásico in the Thomas Lord Suite’s adjacent bar. Despite the tired appearance of that opening exhale, there was still more bite on show than Barcelona.
The annual Lord’s spectacle had once again shown the literary world how much good sports writing is being recognised, but when the subject largely centres on a controversial player’s acrimonious exit from one of the country’s greatest clubs, there is enough subplot besides to fill a fictional classic.
The benevolent mood was set from the moment the players entered the stage to rapturous applause. Williams moved swiftly in asking Keane for a motive behind writing another book. “I wasn’t doing much at the time of the offer,” came the honest response. “There was a chance that Roddy was going to write the book. I met him in Dublin to say that I wasn’t interested. But once I met him, I knew he would look after things.”
Doyle arrived at the Grafton Street location of that first meeting with an open mind, unsure of what to expect from a man who had been left somewhat hung out to dry by Eamon Dunphy, the ghostwriter of Keane, for his choice of words to describe the player’s reaction to that foul on Alf Inge Haaland which led to a heavy court fine and an additional five-match ban by the FA.
Despite the fellow Irishman’s love of the game, Doyle boasted no previous works on sport – but he told the audience that the warmth and humour he found in relaying Keane’s sequel may have come from being a ‘lay person’, as he described himself, rather than a sports journalist.
“It’s the only time I’ve done it and it’s probably the only time I will,” Doyle admitted. “I had just finished a work, and I was humming at home over what I’d do next, and this short email came from Alan Samson, the publisher [at Weidenfeld & Nicholson] asking if I’d be interested. As somebody who’s never written about sport or played it since I was about 13, I wondered if that could be an advantage or a disadvantage.
“I asked him questions that somebody who was immersed in the world of sport wouldn’t – very simple questions. There was one time when Roy was talking about recovery, and I asked what that was. It was brilliant, because he said it was basically doing nothing. It’s what I’d been doing for the past five or six years…I thought I was just fucking around. But I was actually in recovery. So the meeting went well.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to doing what I normally do. But I think in years to come, when I ever think of Sunderland going out to play a match while listening to Dancing Queen, it will always make me laugh, and it will probably be what props me up through the last minutes of my life. One of the shitest songs ever recorded. That to me is the comic high point of the book.”
Whether Keane’s sharp sense of humour had increasingly rubbed off on Doyle with each copy signed or whether the process of writing the book had been the natural coming together of similar minds from different walks of life, the chemistry between the two was delightfully refreshing given Keane’s happy knack of falling out with people.
But, as Williams rightly prompted, the person who takes the biggest pounding in this book is Keane himself.
“I was a bit harsh on myself, particularly with the job I did at Ipswich,” Keane added.” Whenever I’ve looked at a disagreement and been critical of something, I’ve also said that I can’t talk highly enough of Alex Ferguson either. Obviously, that doesn’t grab the headlines.
“But stuff like that doesn’t keep me awake at night. I don’t hope to bump into him and ask for a cup of tea but I know that football is strange. I had the same scenario when I ended up working with Niall [Quinn] at Sunderland. We’d had a big disagreement at Saipan, so I wouldn’t be shutting any doors on myself.
“It’s slightly different with United, because I felt they wronged me. They let me down badly, and I’ve got a good memory. Those who do read the book will see that it’s fairly balanced.”
A cleanly shaved Keane admitted that his honesty has often led him into trouble in the past, but that without his intimidating image he wouldn’t have been the player he became. In Saipan, he lost out on playing in the 2002 World Cup. It was also his undoing at United, even if a crunching challenge from Steven Gerrard, which broke the midfielder’s toe, played its part.
“People talk about my playing career, the injuries and the sending offs, but the big issues which people will remember me for was off the field stuff – missing out on the World Cup and leaving Manchester United,” said Keane.
“When you are in the middle of a disagreement, the worst anger for me is the justified anger. If you feel like you’ve been wronged, it’s really hard. Ferguson knew which buttons to press.
“The manager spoke about loyalty, and all that nonsense, but they treated me that morning with pre-planned statements. I think I served the club OK, I was well paid for it and they said they’d like to thank me for 11 and a half years at the club. Obviously I’d been there 12 and a half…United would’ve done their homework…so I’m thinking, well this is going well. David Gill said to me that I was injured…I’d broken my foot against Liverpool playing for Man Utd…I didn’t get injured skiing!”
Keane, who said he found working with Doyle offered him greater freedom than in his first autobiography given he was no longer attached to any club, was left incensed by how the club depicted him through the media in what he described as a ‘carryon’.
“There was a lot of nonsense that I wasn’t a good lad in the dressing room, that I was very hard on younger players. In 12 and a half years at the club, everyone was OK with my temperament. If people think I was going to United every day and shouting at people, I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes.
“Ferguson had digs along the way, not just in his book, but also in the United programme and one night on ITV. I know some people may think I could’ve shown a bit of class, but there comes a point when enough is enough. You have to fight your corner.
“The two words he always worked with were ‘power’ and ‘control’. I had no problem with that as a player, but if you think you can have that over me when I’m not at the club, forget it. That’s why I’m here.”
That was why many of us were drawn to our local bookshop, but what has kept us hooked to the turning Keane carousel while the Pietersen’s score settling saga has ground to a halt are the many anecdotes besides.
There were more on Saturday night, with Crystal Palace’s Damien Delaney – who had an unfortunate knack of scoring own goals under Keane at Ipswich – bearing the brunt of the banter.
The sight of shirt swapping and back-slapping between rival players in the tunnel this past week is also timely given this nostalgic reminder of how Keane used to play the game, 12 years on from his first book.
“I see nowadays how players are quite pally with each other in the tunnel,” continued Keane. “They meet after for a bite to eat, play X-Box and all that…fucking hell man! Even with some of the lads I’d played with for Ireland, I didn’t want that. It’s why I couldn’t get worked up for pre-season friendlies. I had to always be on edge with matches.
“It was to do with my image. I was always on edge with matches, but I had to be on the edge. It cost me a few Cup Finals, but that was the way I played. Part of my role was being ‘the actor’. At United there were so many distractions, commercial deals and media interests.
“Running a really tight dressing room was what I’d been doing for years. The responsibilities came with years at the club…I didn’t go looking for it. I couldn’t have helped us win the trophies we did had I not been on edge.”
Keane faces another former United player on Monday night, but as Rio Ferdinand’s fall in valuation reached a new low following his recent admission that he is contemplating retirement this summer, it would appear that having taken time out from the game, the hunger has been rediscovered in the man who once led him into battle.
“I enjoyed my time off,” said Keane of his time after being sacked at Ipswich in 2011. “I wasn’t missing football that much. I wasn’t missing being out on the grass, getting the cones out and the bibs ready! I haven’t put myself under pressure over what I’m doing for the next five years. I didn’t think I’d buy a house in Ipswich, or do a lot of TV stuff. I’m doing a lot of stuff I didn’t think I’d do, so I’m not looking too far ahead. I always knew that I wanted to become a footballer as a kid…I don’t think you ever dream of being a coach or a TV pundit. All these things have panned out for me the past few years.
“It’s scary to think of being tired at 34 years old. I achieved nothing at school. Football was my love and that was it. The punditry kept my brain busy even if there was something just to moan about. I was getting dog’s abuse at a City game, being called a wanker for three hours. I was thinking, ‘Am I living the dream here?'”
Keane might yet fulfill his goal of emulating the success he enjoyed as a player in the dugout. While he may not admit it, there is always room on the top table for a manager who oozes such personality. Recalling his awkward run-in with Alan Shearer on the media circuit as a TV pundit, he was asked if he would replicate the successful Vieira documentary with the former Newcastle striker. With a steely gaze came the response, “have you been drinking?” Keane still detests those he detested as a player. Our intrigue in the man, like his playing days, lives on.