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Sam Wallace: Keane - Is he really so fearsome, or just a cranky uncle?

Keane the enigma

Roy Keane's flaw is that he can only see himself like a character in an Alexandre Dumas novel – death or glory and nothing in between. Hamlet without the prevarication. As a player at Manchester United it was beguiling, impressive, even inspirational because Keane was protected from his own worst instincts. As a manager those instincts just look self-destructive and unnecessary.

Now he has left Sunderland, the feeling today is the same as when Keane gave that MUTV interview that presaged the end of his United career or walked out of the World Cup finals in 2002. It is a feeling of waste. The waste of a perfectly good career because of the inability to reconcile the occasional failure, to compromise or to accept the irritating details of life such as the fact that sometimes Pascal Chimbonda can behave like a prat and there is nothing any manager can do about it.

Keane is suffering from a masochistic tendency to take the worst out of every situation. He suffers too from having been mythologised as a great prophet who does not hesitate to tell the truth among what he himself has referred to as the "spivs and bluffers" of football. That reputation has weighed heavy on him. His press conferences – although always entertaining – had become like a confessional, with Keane unwilling, or indeed unable, to say anything but his innermost thoughts.

His blasts at television pundits, players' wives or at his treatment by United were admirable because they were truthful. Unfortunately, the currency of successful managers is rarely the truth; rather, they play their hand much more cagily. Keane has been unable to do that. He went into every press conference as if a club official had just injected him with a truth serum. And that is before you even try to figure out how his battle with the booze and a recent reconnection with his Catholic faith affected him.

His former team-mates at United had a much more realistic view of the man they called "Keaney". They regarded him like a much-loved but occasionally volatile uncle prone to speaking out of turn at family gatherings, a bit embarrassing but essentially harmless. Ryan Giggs, in his autobiography, recounts with glee how he watched Keane's walkout from the Republic of Ireland squad at the 2002 World Cup on television. "There was Keaney scowling at the airport. There was [manager Mick] McCarthy at the press conference looking like he'd seen a ghost. There was Keaney back home walking the dog. Great entertainment." It is not exactly the words of a team-mate who lived in fear of his fire-breathing captain.

Lee Sharpe said much the same about Keane in his own autobiography, recalling how he once put him in a cab home after a drunken night out in Alderley Edge during which Keane had berated a group of Liverpool players in the same bar. Sharpe recalled: "He said 'I love you Sharpey' as he got in. 'I love you too, you mad bastard,' I said. 'Now go home to bed.'" Keane's United team-mates had him in perspective, it was just the rest of us that got carried away about him.

There are lots of Keane stories from his United days that are recalled to show his volatility and how "scary" he was or how uncompromising and unpredictable he could be. It was a personal view that he was like a lot of famous footballers, it just depends on what mood you find them in. They can be charming and generous with their time or the complete opposite and Keane was no different.

Keane's behaviour could be absurd at times. Like when, in a rage, he threatened a friend of mine who was on his way into United's training ground because the person in question (a reporter) had not pulled his car over in time to let Keane go past on the narrow lane into Carrington. He once stared me out after a perfectly innocent question about an injury problem he had. The emotion inside me was not fear, instead it was a struggle not to giggle at a situation that had become utterly ridiculous.

Outside of United, a monstrous Keane persona was built. Inside United there was a greater understanding of him, like when to ignore him. In the end Sir Alex Ferguson forced Keane out but not before he had tolerated enough tantrums to get the best years out of his career (he was injured when he left United three years ago). As a manager, Keane has lived by the same extreme principles. The difference being that at United he was indulged; at Sunderland it seems everyone thought they had no choice but to take him seriously.

You can imagine that after Keane told Chimbonda that he would never play for the club again it hurt like hell when he was forced to change his mind and pick the errant right-back against Bolton on Saturday. For most managers that would have been a pragmatic decision. Many of them would never have said what he did to Chimbonda in the first place in order not to raise the stakes. But was there anyone at Sunderland capable of telling Keane that having to recall a prima donna footballer because he needed him was not a reason to doubt everything about himself?

So he finds himself back where he started: Keane scowling and walking his dog, to paraphrase Giggs. But this, unfortunately, is not great entertainment, it is the destruction of a great career for the want of a bit of perspective. Keane was not the first to experience those painful moments of isolation and humiliation that strike every manager who ever felt let down by the 11 footballers he picked. The way he acted, though, you would think he was.

'The Independent' website was the first with the story of Roy Keane's departure, breaking Michael Walker's story at 10.54 yesterday morning