Everyone in football has their favourite Roy Keane story. Mine was told to me by a former Tottenham player who found himself nose-to-nose with the Irishman after kicking Gary Neville in a game against Manchester United.
Keane growled something absolutely incomprehensible and was asked, out of sheer curiosity, to repeat himself. He said it again, but his anger and his broad Cork accent were contorting his words to such an extent that he had become impossible to understand. Fortunately Robbie Keane was on hand and came over to translate.
"Roy says, 'Was that for your mate?'" Robbie explained. No one had a clue who or what Roy was referring to. After the game, and a good deal of head-scratching later, the Tottenham players worked out that Keane had been referring to a bad challenge Neville had made months ago on a former team-mate of the Spurs player in question. A legendary grudge-bearer himself, Keane had assumed that that day's tackle had been some kind of retribution.
The grudge-bearing, the anger, the vein bursting on his temple like a telephone cord. That was a part of Keane's career, but to portray him as a psychotic footballer bent on punishing those who failed to live up to his standards is to miss the most interesting parts of his character. He simply came to have no patience with the aspects of life that accompanied the modern footballer: the fame, the media and all the grandiose ceremony.
It is not hard to figure out what Keane's reaction to the wives and girlfriends of the England squad descending on Baden-Baden's nightlife would have been had he been part of the team. He once told a group of reporters that he would rather trophy presentations after cup finals were done in the dressing-room to save on all "the nonsense". And he was not joking.
A Keane interview was a rare and prized event among reporters and my only one was shared with two other newspapers before the Carling Cup final of 2003. An audience with the United captain was not something to be taken lightly and a pensive silence hung over the three of us as we waited in the United academy canteen at a table adorned, slightly ominously, by a sheet of paper with "Keane" written on it. He wandered over, a slight figure with sloping shoulders, and asked us all how long we thought it would take. "Twenty minutes," came the reply, hopeful that we were not asking for too much. "I think I'll be a bit longer than that," he said with a grin and the breaking of the tension was a blessed relief.
He was charming and open, especially about the injuries that were already starting to slow him down and had required a major hip operation at the start of that season. Asking Keane about his fitness was always a task that you felt should come with danger money attached - he, perhaps understandably, considered it private.
Emboldened by that interview, I asked him after a game a few weeks later whether he would be able to train again that week. "Why, you want to come to watch me?" he snapped back, simultaneously initiating a staring competition in which I, very predictably, was the clear loser.
Quite apart from being the most extraordinary footballer of his generation, there was much else to admire about Keane. In a profession obsessed with image he never seemed to care about what he wore - who could forget his "Guide dogs of Ireland" jacket in which he was photographed uring his departure from United? The suit he sported at his first Celtic press conference, most Premiership players would not allow their chauffeurs to wear. And then there was his idiosyncratic dog, Triggs, a gentle-looking, daft golden labrador with a bulldog of an owner.
He was a familiar sight jogging around the lanes of Cheshire near his home south of Manchester and the intense work ethic of his Irish Football Association apprenticeship, for which he qualified as a Cobh Ramblers player, never seemed to leave him. After the quagmire pitches and brutal training games of that regime came Brian Clough, who once punched him in the stomach as he walked into the dressing-room after half-time.
And after all that he ended up working for Sir Alex Ferguson. These kind of conditions, these kind of people, are disappearing from British football and it will be hard, therefore, to create another player like Keane.
He was tough, but intelligent too. After a United pre-season friendly in Los Angeles in 2003, he left the ground and headed to a Bob Dylan concert.
The images of Keane that tell you the most, however, are the pictures of him as a boy in his autobiography. He is smaller than the others and, complete with his remarkable mullet hairstyle, he is always the one holding the trophy for Rockmount boys' team.
The main difference between young Keane and his peers? They are all smiling while he is not. Which makes you wonder if he enjoyed his brilliant career as much as he should.Reuse content