It is more than 20 years ago now that I interviewed Roy Keane for the only time. Manchester United had not yet moved to their training ground and so we sat on chairs on the balcony above the indoor pitch at The Cliff. I was younger then and intimidated by his reputation but he spoke as compellingly and as honestly as he does now.
After the talking was done, the photographer asked Keane if he would mind having his picture taken outside. Keane looked wary. He muttered something about what the manager might say. He didn’t want the hassle of provoking Sir Alex Ferguson’s volatility. So we ducked out of sight of the manager’s office windows. Keane had his picture taken with his back to a brick wall.
It was my only real snapshot of the way the two men co-existed away from the pitch. Football is full of strong characters but in the history of our game, there were few stronger than them. Keane tolerated Ferguson’s volcanic moods and Ferguson wielded Keane’s simmering rage like his prized weapon. Last week, Gary Neville said he feared it would always end badly. He was right.
Roy Keane has this week hit out at former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson
Keane and Ferguson worked alongside each other at Manchester United for over 12 years
The duo have been at odds ever since Ferguson told Keane to leave the club in November 2005
It was a coincidence that Keane should sit with Neville on stage at a theatre in Dublin last week and eviscerate Ferguson at the same time Michael Owen was taking a sledgehammer to the reputation of his former friend and fellow goalscoring legend, Alan Shearer.
Unlike some, I didn’t see any particular sadness in the fact that Keane and Owen had chosen, in their different ways, to speak out. Keane’s intensity is mesmeric and, if his candour unsettles people, that is their problem. If he is asked about how he feels about Ferguson, why should he lie? I agree with some of what he said. Why should he dissemble?
But it is also true that both Keane and Owen are fighting wars they cannot win. They are going up against men whose achievements in the game transcend their faults. Ferguson won 13 Premier League titles and two Champions League titles in his time at Old Trafford. Shearer is the greatest goalscorer in Premier League history. They are both untouchable.
Keane made no concessions to Ferguson’s age or his recent health problems when he was asked about their relationship. He attacked the way the manager handled Keane’s exit from Old Trafford.
He was still stung by the fact that, when Ferguson and former chief executive David Gill called him in to end his time at the club, they thanked him for his 11 and a half years of service when he had been with United for 12 and a half years. He was also scathing about the idea that Ferguson always had United’s best interests at heart.
He went after his family. He implied that Ferguson’s son, Darren, owed his playing career at United to nepotism. The same for Ferguson’s brother, Martin, who was chief scout. Keane said Ferguson would have given his wife a job at the club if he could have.
Owen’s line of attack, partly through the pages of his new book, Reboot, and partly through Twitter, was to question Shearer’s loyalty to Newcastle. He accused him of trying to engineer a move to Liverpool when Sir Bobby Robson was manager. He said loyalty in football was a myth. He said it made him want to vomit when he saw players kissing the badge on their club shirt.
Both Keane and Owen seem to be trying to fix something. They want to correct something that has been eating away at them. And in both cases, it is not enough for them to talk about themselves. To achieve the vindication they seek for their conduct in careers that ended years ago, Keane and Owen appear to feel a need to take down someone else.
Michael Owen questioned Alan Shearer’s loyalty to Newcastle in his new autobiography
Owen and Shearer were good mates but they are also now fighting a battle against each other
It is something that goes beyond football. It is a fight for reputation. It is a fight for revisionism. It is a fight for truth. Or their version of the truth. It is a fight for something that has been lost. If there is anything sad about it, it is that that which has been lost cannot be rediscovered by attempting to undermine another.
History will not judge Ferguson because he was a ruthless man who could be bullying and greedy. It will judge him for the trophies he won. It will not judge him because he signed Eric Djemba-Djemba. It will judge him because he made youth-team lads the cornerstone of his team.
And history will not judge Shearer because of some machinations at Newcastle. It will judge him for the goals he scored and the records he set. It will embrace him because he eclipsed Jackie Milburn and embodied all that we admire about an English centre-forward.
Keane and Owen want us to see the foibles, too, though. To them, Ferguson and Shearer have got away with it. They have been judged less harshly. They have reputations they do not deserve. They have been lionised and their faults airbrushed away. Keane and Owen have become consumed by their perception of the injustice of that. They have become avengers for their own reputations.
One day, maybe, they will realise that the fight was a waste of their energy. One day, hopefully, they will realise that they did not have to attack Ferguson or Shearer to repair their own reputations.
Owen may be stung by the accusation that he was a fickle player never loved by the fans of clubs he played for but history will not remember that. It will remember that goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, his hat-trick against Germany in Munich, it will remember that he won an FA Cup final for Liverpool and that there was a time when his brilliance made him the face of optimism and joy.
Keane may be stung by the manner of his departure from Old Trafford but that will recede in the public memory, too. I still regard his performance for United against Juventus in Turin in the 1999 Champions League semi-final second leg as the greatest display I have seen by a player for an English club in Europe.
History will remember him for that and for being, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, the best player in United’s years of dominance in the Nineties and beyond.
That’s the irony in all of this. The reputations of Keane and Owen are safe. History will love them, too. It is just that they do not know it yet.
RAFA IS ACE… BUT IT’S FEDERER FOR ME
Rafael Nadal is the hot favourite to add a 19th Grand Slam title to his incredible record when he plays Daniil Medvedev in the US Open men’s singles final on Sunday.
If he wins, it will bring him within one title of Roger Federer’s mark of 20, heightening the debate about who is the greatest of all time.
Nadal is an amazing talent but he could win 25 Grand Slams and I would still choose Federer as the greater player. For his grace, for his elegance, for his ability to lift the soul with a swing of his backhand, for the sheer beauty of his tennis, Federer cannot be surpassed.
Rafael Nadal will be just one Grand Slam title behind Roger Federer if he wins on Sunday