Yesterday the Manchester United captain confirmed he would be retiring from football when his contract expires at the end of next season, which will find him a few months short of his 35th birthday. If he maintains two thirds of the form he has shown when dismissing Steven Gerrard from his presence in last month's encounter at Anfield or in driving United to victory at Highbury, then Keane can fairly say he retired at the top of his game. Typically, when asked to assess his performance this season, Keane replied: "I feel I'm doing OK".
Like Alan Shearer, another who has achieved iconic status among his own supporters, Keane has paved the way for a long goodbye. And yet, as the Newcastle captain nears the end of his playing career, the lack of a credible long-term successor has meant he has been subjected to some fierce arm- twisting from his manager, Graeme Souness, to reconsider. A poll in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle found nearly three-quarters of Newcastle fans wanted their captain to continue.
So it is likely to be with Keane. Sir Alex Ferguson has not groomed an acceptable substitute, let alone a potential replacement for a man he rates more highly than any other footballer he has dealt with. Nicky Butt and Eric Djemba-Djemba have been sold and Kleberson will almost certainly leave in the summer. Steven Gerrard is unsignable and there are few holding midfielders of the quality of Xabi Alonso out there.
Keane's announcement on the eve of the Manchester derby gave the match an air of mortality. The Manchester City manager, Kevin Keegan, is unswerving in his insistence that he will retire next year while, if the protests and the pledges fail, it might be the last such fixture before Malcolm Glazer mounts his intended takeover at Old Trafford.
When, in November, the derby was last played Ferguson concluded publicly that regaining their title was now beyond United. Then, they were 11 points adrift of Chelsea and now three months, 14 matches, 12 wins, 32 goals and no defeats later the gap has narrowed by only two points. Should they lose tomorrow at the City of Manchester Stadium, then Ferguson may again concede the title. This time, however, there will be no coming back.
Ferguson remarked yesterday that he failed to understand why Keegan was so determined to go next season and given the swift demise of Gordon Strachan, Sven Goran Eriksson and Gary Megson when announcing long-term retirement dates, it could conceivably be the last time the two men line sides up against each other. Although the Scot's great managerial rivalry is with Arsene Wenger, the Frenchman has never inflicted defeats on Manchester United as numbing as the virtuoso 5-0 thrashing balletically played out at St James' Park in October 1996 nor as painful as the sight of Shaun Wright-Phillips crashing the ball in off the crossbar for a fourth goal at the City of Manchester Stadium 11 months ago.
Under Keegan, Manchester City have done remarkably well when motivated but generally they have only appeared bothered against the Premiership's big teams. This season they have taken four points from Chelsea and returned from Highbury and Old Trafford with honourable draws. They have also taken one point out of six against West Bromwich Albion, lost to an Arsenal youth team in the Carling Cup and been humbled by Oldham in the FA Cup.
Last week David James, the only man to have kept two clean sheets against Chelsea this season, remarked that if United were given any hope by City's display at Stamford Bridge when holding Chelsea to a comfortable goalless draw, it would be quickly snuffed out at Eastlands tomorrow. His manager concurred.
"The title race is still up for grabs because without Arjen Robben I don't think Chelsea caused us as many problems as they probably expected to last week," Keegan said. "But they can probably afford to lose three of their last 12 games while others must not slip up. It's definitely Chelsea's title to lose. Our job on Sunday is to do everything we can to win it for them."Reuse content