Football: Keane the last jewel in Clough's treasure chest: Norman Fox reports on the rapid rise of the Rambler from the Emerald Isle whose midfield power and running make him Nottingham Forest's most prized possession

Click to follow
The Independent Online
OF ALL the players Jack Charlton knows to be indisputably Irish, or have become eligible for the Republic of Ireland by virtue (or otherwise) of forgotten ancestors, the one England's manager, Graham Taylor, most envies is Roy Keane, the 21-year-old Nottingham Forest midfield player. Taylor is not alone. Many managers in Britain, as well as those from Real Madrid, Seville, Barcelona and even Milan, have him as a target when the bidding begins in earnest, probably next summer.

Taylor has no equivalent of Keane, but who has? Here is the latest and best of Brian Clough's many 'nice young men' who for years have been appearing from nowhere and almost overnight become fully fledged first-team players and internationals. For the moment, though, the difference is that this particular young man is carrying struggling Forest and the reputation of their troubled manager. That in itself makes it imperative that he does not deviate form the straight and narrow. Any promising young Irishman is inevitably linked, however unfairly, with others who have lost their way along the path to fame and fortune, and late-night incidents outside night-clubs are something he obviously needs to avoid, especially when so many good judges see him as a rare jewel in British football.

Taylor says Keane is 'the outstanding find of recent years'. For him and those of a certain age, comparisons with Duncan Edwards are irresistible, but a young Bryan Robson also comes to mind. As Taylor points out, the assets of all three are similar: power, control, fitness, a fine sense of timing and positioning, and the ability to score goals.

You would not expect Charlton himself to go overboard about anyone, but even he says Keane is 'amazing', a mere boy in footballing experience yet learning so fast that he could become the core of the Irish team if ('when', says Charlton), they qualify for the World Cup in the United States in 1994.

Everyone now gossips about Clough no longer being the talent-spotter he may have been and that the present generation of Forest players have stopped being in awe. Be that as it may, Keane knows he may well be the last of several generations of footballers who owe Clough plenty. Clough also knows that in the club's present precarious situation he has to tread carefully with his most prized and valuable asset.

He usually puts down players as quickly as he raises them from obscurity, but, significantly, his criticisms of Keane have been comparatively mild. He says there have been times when he felt it necessary to keep the young man's feet on the ground ('I mean that literally after that circus stunt at Norwich when he did somersaults after scoring'), but he acknowledges that a player who can come straight from Cobh Ramblers in the Irish First Division and help a Premier League club reach an FA Cup final and within a year of leaving Ireland establish himself as a full international is, as he says, 'living a fairy-tale'.

Clough likes to think that Keane was out of work when he arrived at Forest, which in a way was true since Irish professional football hardly offers all the comforts. That appealed to the old 'Rolls-Royce communist' who thinks of himself as a saviour of lost souls. 'I saw him for 20 minutes in a reserve match and I knew he was ready for the first team.' That was in late August, 1990, three months after Keane signed for Forest. The next game just happened to be against Liverpool at Anfield, and Steve Hodge was injured.

When they heard the news in Cobh, a harbour town near Cork, they probably thought the pounds 25,000 their local club had received was all too little, yet it could have been nothing at all. As a schoolboy, Keane wrote to Forest asking for a trial, but the club replied to say their allocation for that season was full. At the time he was in the charge of Liam McMahon, then manager of the Cobh club. McMahon recalls that as a teenager Keane was a quick learner and had to be ('the first division in Ireland is no place for anyone who can't look after himself'). But it was not McMahon who could honestly put his hand up and say, 'Me, sir,' when Steve Coppell said, 'Whoever it was who spotted Roy Keane should be made scout of the year.' That was Eddie O'Rourke, local carpenter and Ramblers' youth team manager. He first saw Keane playing for Rockmount FC on a rough pitch near the Cork estate where the family lived. 'Never in my life had I seen anyone like him - up and down the field, defending then scoring goals.'

After a season, McMahon was greatly impressed by Keane's progress both at the club and in coaching courses run by the Irish FA. Many people in the town now claim that as soon as they saw him they knew Keane would make good. He was, after all, the son of Massie Keane, a highly regarded local inside-forward. McMahon is one of them, but he was far from convinced that success would come as quickly as it did.

When Forest changed their minds and decided that perhaps they had made a mistake in refusing Keane a trial, others were also interested, so they had no option but to make an official approach. Cobh were not used to such high-powered negotiations, so they asked John Hollins, the former Chelsea player, to help them. Hollins had played a few times for Cobh and agreed to go with Keane and club officials to the City Ground. The only thing that left any lasting impression on McMahon was that Brian Clough's only involvement

seemed to be to look in, kiss the Cobh chairman and tell everyone in the room they could call him Brian, except Keane ('He's to call me Mister Clough').

In fact Clough and his assistant, Ronnie Fenton, gave Hollins and the Cobh officials an interrogation, demanding to know what they would do with the pounds 25,000 they were asking. Johnny Meade, the Cobh honorary secretary, won the debate. 'Pay them the money, Ronnie,' Clough told his deputy, and Meade promptly informed Clough that he had done a good bit of business - 'He'll be in your first team inside a year.'

Meanwhile in Ireland the local big club, Cork City, were kicking themselves. They claimed to have signed Keane and were about to sign two more players so they thought they would save a couple of postage stamps by registering all three together. By the time the false economy dawned on them, Keane was at Forest impressing Clough in third-team games and, equally important in the manager's eyes, arriving for work in his best suit and shiny shoes.

The idea of giving Keane his debut at Anfield was frightening but typical of Clough. At that point the height of the lad's achievement in England was to appear on the bench in a reserve game at Rotherham. To him the first-team players were just names, and they were unaware of his. 'People said I'd flipped my lid,' Clough said, 'but he did well and after that even Enid Blyton couldn't have written a better script.'

Keane's powerful performances were enormously important to Forest's 1991 FA Cup run but Clough was, as always, waiting his chance to stop him getting ahead of himself. The somersaults at Norwich after scoring the winning goal in the sixth round brought the rebuke from Clough that, 'If I'd wanted a clown I would have gone to the circus.'

The fairy-tale Clough hoped would be his own, Forest's and Keane's did not quite have a happy ending when they lost to Tottenham Hotspur in a Cup final remembered mainly for the injury to Paul Gascoigne. For Keane there were probably to be more opportunities, but most people thought it would be Clough's last chance to win the only major trophy to have escaped him.

At Cobh they say that all they did was recognise a talent, and that it was Forest who turned it into something special. Certainly Keane is a more complete player now than he was 18 months ago. He still runs from end to end with a colt's enthusiasm, but his timing, knowing when he can move forward successfully and link up with Nigel Clough, is now based on experience as much as instinct.

Forest in their present state are glad of that. With the defence conceding soft goals and the attack not scoring enough to compensate, Keane's responsibilities are wide and his strength is crucial.

There is an element of misfortune in Keane's ascent being associated with Forest's decline, but he says: 'I still find it difficult to believe where I am. It seems only yesterday that I could only watch teams like Manchester United and Liverpool on the television.

'The lads at Forest have helped me tremendously. I remember being so disappointed when Forest turned down my first request for a trial, but in the end they gave me my chance sooner than I expected - I didn't even have time to get my dad over for the game at Anfield. That day one or two of the first-team lads came up and asked me who I was.'

Someone who also asked to know more about him when he played so brilliantly for the Republic of Ireland against Spain in a World Cup qualifying game last month was Diego Maradona. 'He impressed me with everything he did - nobody could touch him that day. He is for the future.' Forest are more concerned about what more he can do for their present.

(Photograph omitted)