Even in this week of autobiographical unburdenings, nothing quite matched the moment on Thursday when Roy Keane was asked to elaborate on his decision to turn down an invitation to Sir Alex Ferguson’s statue unveiling. Keane’s words said plenty in what was substantially more than a book launch – an experience which will always be up there on the list of the great assassinations – though the look on his face said far more.
It began as feigned indifference to whether he had received an invitation from Ferguson in the first place – “I think I did, yeah… Did he have a do at Old Trafford…? Did he have a do at the cricket [ground] as well?” – and gravitated into something which cut brutally with its coolness. “I don’t think he did invite me,” Keane said, incorrectly. “It was probably his committee or his son or whatever but why should I go to that…?” But it was after someone had put to him that Ruud van Nistelrooy was there – “But I’m not Ruud van Nistelrooy” – and that the Dutchman had fallen out with Ferguson too –“Not as badly as me!” – that we reached the image Keane wanted to paint of Ferguson, all “power and control”, walking up to the statue in November 2012 with his doting players awaiting him. “So... he comes in and we’re all standing there,” he said, gesturing sycophantic applause with the tips of his fingers. “And he’s: ‘I’ve got you where I want you.’”
The Irish Surgical Trade Association was sharing the Aviva Stadium, where Keane sat down to talk, for a drinks reception, and they could hardly have sliced Ferguson better. He adopted the geography teacher look – corduroy brown jacket and jeans – and the beard had been slightly trimmed but there was no more mellowness than usual. The menacing edge is always there. The last question for him concerned whether Jose Mourinho’s conduct had been disrespectful recently. “What do you think?” Keane replied, not first the first time. “That’s a stupid question. Yeah.”
Yet the whole point about choosing novelist Roddy Doyle as his ghostwriter, Keane says, is to take the journalistic edge off his second memoir. That same edge which, as the opening chapter of The Second Half reveals, left him thinking his compatriot Eamon Dunphy overcooked the story of his deliberate foul on Alf-Inge Haaland, in his first book. “I didn’t want to go down the standard… sportswriters’ route,” Keane said with a pause and a smile. But here, in the raw, with Doyle taken out, was the complex blend of enmity, fury and a whole lot more which he feels for the man who was his manager.
It was Ferguson’s own autobiography – and its characterisation of Keane as an individual whose “tongue is the hardest part of his body”– which is plainly eating away at Keane. “I didn’t read his book,” Keane said. What did he think of the tongue gibe? “What do you think?” It was “a cheap dig,” he said. “He was never critical when we were winning trophies and he was getting his new contracts, getting this after him and ‘Sir’ [before his name]… For him to criticise that when you think of what he made out of it: he made millions of pounds out of it, he got his statues, he’s got his stand named after him... to come back and criticise people who brought him success was just ridiculous…” Never has Keane attacked Ferguson like this.
But then the really significant answer. “Will I ever forgive him? I don’t know. Listen, I don’t know. We’ll see if we ever cross paths again. I’m sure we will – cross paths…”
Though Keane’s cold, eviscerating narrative rolled on, drawing into its ambit the notion that Ferguson runs a British managerial mafia – “I think [Roberto] Martinez reckons he was misquoted a few years ago that Ferguson had his disciples” – it is Doyle, in the book, who teases out the moment when Keane came close to a rapprochement with Ferguson. That was on Boxing Day 2007, when United beat Keane’s Sunderland 4-0 on Wearside and Ferguson called into his office for a drink. “When he was leaving he said to me, ‘Give me a call about [a loan deal] for Jonny Evans,’” Keane related in the book. “He could see I was down in the dumps after the game. I think he looked at me and thought, ‘He needs a digout here.’ It was the one time he showed me – I suppose – affection: ‘I’ll watch your back.’”
But then Ferguson’s autobiography killed Keane all over again. “Don’t think he gave us Jonny for nothing,” Keane reflected on that episode. “There was a pretty big loan fee involved. That was the time I felt ‘all right, maybe’ but maybe I was wrong; maybe that was business. You have to defend yourself. A lot of people are sitting around here and people are frightened of him. You can’t go against him because you’ll never be allowed to speak to him again but, thank God, I don’t have them problems. Why do people let him get away with that? People sit back and are frightened to death of him.”
Keane’s suspicion stretches to a conviction that the media is in concert with Ferguson. “Obviously, Ferguson had friends in the media,” he said. “There are a few of them here today. I can spot them a mile away…”
It was not always “Ferguson” he talked about. A passing reference to “the manager” was telling. So was Keane’s disclosure of the surprise distance which always existed between Ferguson and Keane. “If people think I was in his office every week having little chats, they’re sadly mistaken. I reckon there was five, six situations in my 12 and a bit years at United that I was actually having a one-to-one with him.”
Keane wanted to say that this book was not supposed to be purely about enemies. “I’ve had some great stories, great days. It’s not all about falling out... I don’t think I fell out with that many people.”
He was right. It has a depth that Kevin Pietersen – absorbed and obsessed by the enemies within – does not hold a candle to. Doyle says he feels the project benefited from the distance which existed between him and football, a sport which has not obsessed him. But to the question of whether the anger Keane expresses in public belies something more complex between him and Ferguson, his suggestion was effectively “yes”. “I only know what is there, in the book,” he said.
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