The satire on the 2002 World Cup is not particularly subtle. This is a play set in a corner of the Roman Empire where a dull, stubborn general called Macartacus falls out with his greatest warrior, Keano, who arrives on an island to find their troops too busy partying to fight and a distinct absence of weapons. What happens next is described in the subtitle to I Keano: He Came, He Saw, He Went Home.
There is, however, more than something of the Roman in Roy Keane. Had Russell Crowe wanted to know what it is to be a gladiator before filming his epic, the actor could have done worse than speak to the captain of Manchester United. The Romans prized men who were physically strong, selflessly brave, who despised luxury and softness and who could speak without hypocrisy. The average Roman hero was also capable of acts of wanton savagery.
When people write about Keane, they usually refer to his will to win. But against a limited but hard-working Birmingham City, deprived of too many leading players to be a real threat, Keane displayed some surprisingly delicate touches.
When Julian Gray dispossessed John O'Shea, who was again successfully employed by Sir Alex Ferguson as a midfielder, Keane won the ball back with a single sweeping movement. The way he checked inside a defender before driving home his 50th goal for Manchester United was a delightful way to end a week that had begun with his facing down of Patrick Vieira in the tunnel at Highbury.
After he had led United to a resoundingly comfortable victory at Middlesbrough on New Year's Day, Steve McClaren, his former coach, said that Keane had changed since the treble-winning season of 1998-99 when McClaren first began work at Old Trafford. He was no longer a box-to-box midfielder but had adapted to becoming a great holding player.
This is essentially true. Keane's previous goal for United had come on 1 November 2003 against Portsmouth, but here he punched his way into the box and as Ferguson remarked, it was like seeing the Keane of a decade ago. "He's got something inside that can revisit old times," the United manager reflected. "He's an incredible man, he really is. No matter what happens in 30 years' time or 500 years' time, he'll still be one of the greatest players of this club."
The Birmingham manager, Steve Bruce, who spent five years as in the same dressing-room as Keane thought that the United captain may not now retire for some time. "How long he wants to go on is probably up to Roy but, knowing him, he'll want to go out at the top."
Bruce exploded with laughter when asked if he would advise Keane to consider management. "What and end up with grey hairs like me? But if he does, there will be plenty of takers, that's for sure. He might end up old, bitter, twisted and angry though."
Goals: Keane 55 (1-0); Rooney 79 (2-0).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll; G Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Heinze; Ronaldo, O'Shea, Keane, Giggs (P Neville, 82); Saha (Fortune, 68), Rooney (Miller, 82). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Bellion.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Melchiot, Cunningham, Martin Taylor (Tebily 82), Clapham; Pennant, Johnson, Nafti (Carter, 72), Gray; Blake (Morrison, 72), Pandiani. Substitutes not used: Vaesen (gk), Kuqi.
Referee: D Gallagher (Oxfordshire).
Booked: United Heinze. Birmingham Johnson, Pennant.
Man of the match: Keane.