August 10 marks the birthday of Irish sport's most divisive character of all time. This is no exercise in hyperbole to convey a point; Roy Keane truly split the opinions of a country, not just for one summer in Saipan* but throughout his entire career. Viewed as an inspirational leader who merely asked for the optimum performances from those around him by some, and as a narcissistic thug with no regard for anyone else by others, Keane was never a player who pandered to the public. His confidence in his convictions was (and still is) unparalleled among his playing peers and it is for this reason, above all else, that Keane is still regarded as one of the Premier League's defining players.
Everyone has heard the story about Brian Clough, while Keane's manager at Nottingham Forest, punching Keane in the dressing room after he had committed a mistake that led to a Crystal Palace goal. Rather than falling out with Clough, the 19 year-old Keane resolved to atone for his error by scoring three goals on the way to the FA Cup final. Though Nottingham Forest would ultimately lose that final, this determination would prove to be the defining characteristic of Keane's career in football. He would later admit to sympathising with Clough's actions as he could understand the stress of management at the highest level.
Keane's performances had impressed Sir Alex Ferguson enough to warrant a transfer to Manchester United for a British record fee. Not one to be cowed by any price tag, Keane helped United to a Premier League and FA Cup double, scoring a derby winner against Manchester City along the way. Still only 22 years old, Keane had firmly established himself as a first-team starter and an indispensable part of Ferguson's squad. Keane would go on to win yet another double in 1996, his dynamism playing a crucial part in catching a cavalier Newcastle team that had amassed a twelve-point lead. When Eric Cantona retitred, Keane was the obvious choice for the captaincy and was duly awarded the armband by Ferguson.
Perhaps Keane's most famous display was in the Champions League semi-final victory over Juventus during the treble season. Booked for a trip on Zinedine Zidane and 2-0 down (3-1 on aggregate) after ten minutes, Keane dragged United back into the game with an inspirational performance, archetypal of the Keane who won both Players' Player of the Year and Writers' Player of the Year in 2000. His header to make the score 2-1 was the catalyst for the most unlikely of comebacks. United won 3-2 and booked their place in the Champions League final, though Keane's earlier caution meant he was suspended from playing any part. United owed their place in the final largely to Keane's selflessness and his unapologetic will to win, without which that 1999 treble could never have been won.
There was another side to Keane's game of course. Never one to shy away from 50-50 tackles or confrontations, he often found himself on the wrong side of referees. Keane was responsible for his fair share of "questionable" tackles in his career (though not all of them were punished with a red card), most notoriously for a horrendous tackle on Manchester City's Alf-Inge Haaland. Keane admitted in his autobiography that the tackle had been an act of vengeance after Haaland had accused Keane of feigning injury in an earlier match against Leeds. Following his admission, Keane was banned for five matches and fined £150,000.
This was not Keane's only feud with a fellow player. When Arsène Wenger's Arsenal side emerged as serious challengers to United's Premiership-era dominance, the pre-existing rivalry between the two teams intensified to unprecedented levels. The rivalry was embodied by the two clubs' respective captains, Keane and Patrick Vieira. Not only did the players viciously lock horns on the pitch, but they bore a mutual loathing for each other off it as well. The tunnel altercation between the two (with added Gary Neville) is the most famous product of their rivalry and is something that seems almost inconceivable in today's comparatively timid Premier League, little more than five years after the incident occured.
Characters like Keane are virtually non-existent in top-flight football today. Whatever your opinions on Keane, it is next to impossible to argue that he didn't make football a whole lot more entertaining during his playing career. Sir Alex Ferguson once said that Dennis Wise could start a fight in an empty room; if this is true, Keane's replacement Michael Carrick could scarcely provoke a mutter of disapproval in a pub brimming with alcoholic hooligans. Compared to Keane, almost all of the Premier League's best footballers are utterly devoid of personality. The quality of matches suffers as a result, with no real edge to even the fiercest Premier League derbies. Where Keane once clashed with Vieira, Michael Carrick now locks horns with Jack Wilshere. Football is the worse for it.
Currently without a job after an underwhelming period at Ipswich Town, Keane's managerial career has not been decorated with the same success as his playing days. Though taking Sunderland to the Premier League was a thoroughly commendable achievement, the money he spent during his time at the club suggests that he could have left them in a better position than in the relegation zone when he stepped down in December 2008. However, I believe he has shown sufficient positive managerial traits during his time at Sunderland and Ipswich to tempt a chairman into offering him another shot at management. Football fans should hope that that chance comes soon; love him or loathe him, football is more fun when Roy Keane's involved.
* I ignored the events of Saipan in this post because I'm sure you've all read the avalanche of articles written in its aftermath. If you would like to read about it, Soccer Ireland has an impressively comprehensive account here.