James Lawton: End of the road for defining character of Premiership era

The brilliance and brutality of Manchester United's driving force
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The Independent Football

Forget Alan Shearer, with the greatest respect and some difficulty, of course, but let's be sure about the status of another man who yesterday finally put an end to all his own his rampaging glory on the field.

Roy Keane, we should be honest, whatever our tribal passion, was the Premiership's most influential player for so long. Shearer was voted into the title but it was a myth. He hit the vital landmark of his career, the goals mark of his local hero Jackie Milburn, but compared with the achievements of Keane that was a romantic story which unfolded in his own corner of the world.

Keane chose the big time with Manchester United, and by a distance he was Sir Alex Ferguson's most vital signing, the man who enforced the club's dominance of English football as a raging article of faith.

Of course, the story is not uncomplicated. Keane had demons as well as stars in his eyes, and we cannot know how many of them he had to discard yesterday when he accepted medical advice and ended his contract with Celtic. Not the least poignancy of his admission that he was operating in the shell of a once mighty talent is that it came four years since the controversy of his retreat from Ireland's World Cup team in Saipan. Keane was at his most extreme then, acting with a wildness that no doubt he will always believe came from professional conviction.

Others, including at least half of Ireland, didn't see it that way but then it had always been Keane's burden, no doubt largely self-inflicted, that he could never be accepted, even on the best of his days, without a certain ambivalence.

For some, and until the dying of the player's raw force, Ferguson was the leader of the group, Keane was the ultimate professional, a warrior player from whom you accepted the best - and lived with the rest. The best was Keane in Turin leading United to their European Cup final in the Nou Camp, and with no less commitment after he took the yellow card that would exclude him from the game which would have been the perfect reward and expression of his tremendous leadership. It was Keane in Dublin, carrying Ireland to victory over the prodigious talent of the Netherlands and into the World Cup at which his reputation as an icon of Irish sport was so blemished.

And the rest? It was bullying and breakdowns in discipline. It was the necessity of Ferguson to bail him out of a Manchester police cell one night when the demons were on the march, and drink was taken. It was the shocking brutality of his settling of scores with Alf-Inge Haaland, and his shameless admission of it in his autobiography. It was the image of him hounding down referees with a pack of team-mates behind.

But then as long as Keane could keep the flame burning, before it stuttered for the last time at Old Trafford last season, there was a belief about him that for some of us was impossible to reject. It was that, whatever the effects of time and injury, he was one of those players who would conjure from deep in his will a way to win. He knew the game, he knew how to exploit strength and prey on weakness, and if he wasn't the most talented player in the game, even Manchester United, he represented something a manager could only weigh in gold.

In the season before last at Highbury he gave us the last ferocious example of his effect on his own team - and his opponents. He faced down Patrick Vieira in the tunnel before a game United needed to win to keep alive their belief that they were still a major team. They won, all right, and that point Keane made as the teams went on to the field was augmented with the effect of an avalanche - one tackle on Vieira seemed to drain the Frenchman of all self-belief.

Keane believed in himself as a player right until that point when the doctors finally gave him the hard, irresistible word. The idea that he might have one last run to glory with an old favourite team of his youth was always against the odds. Celtic, no doubt though, was a more competitive place for his presence.

Whether it was as amicable, as ready to accept the realities of sporting life, as before Keane's arrival is a different matter. There was no comfort around Roy Keane and very little reflection on the gentler side of life that lay beyond the touchline. Perhaps that will happen now. It must, at least, be the solemn wish for an often troubled but ultimately brilliant sportsman.