Sam Wallace: Midfield king is left embittered as ruthless United rule him expendable

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The Independent Football

The outspoken criticism of his fellow United players, the relentless on-pitch hectoring, the admission that he did not consider a single player at Old Trafford to be a friend, is nothing new in Keane's approach: what changed with his now infamous MUTV interview this week were the circumstances around the man doing the talking. Where once he was an implacable - if merciless - force for good, the United captain has become an individual for whom the criticism of others is regarded as bitterness at the waning of his powers and the expiration of his last lucrative club contract.

There can be no way back for Keane now: he has played both of his trump cards over the past two months and there has still been no hint of a new contract offer from a club who clearly believe that they can afford to lose the greatest midfielder of his generation. The most serious contract negotiations have always worked on the basis that the player in question is prepared to walk away - Keane has made that clear to United and they have not bent to his demands.

There is no question that a player as proud and as willing to bear a grudge as Keane would ever admit it, but the ruthlessness with which United have disposed of him must have even taken him by surprise. In his autobiography Keane expressed his disgust for the old professionals he encountered at Nottingham Forest at the start of his career, fretting about their status in the team, worrying whether they had another year left in the game. Now that he finds himself cast out on equally harsh terms it would appear that his acceptance of the end has been no less reluctant.

When, on 29 September, Keane said in an interview on MUTV that he doubted whether the club would be forthcoming in offering him a new contract, he must have calculated even then there was a chance that this bargaining device would bring United to the table. By the time he held forth on the MUTV's now-quarantined Plays the Pundit show on Monday he will have realised that there would be no relenting from the club he had served for 12 years.

In many respects, Keane's fate was sealed before he launched his one-man critique of the shortcomings of at least five of his team-mates. He will have known that in the contract renegotiations of at least three senior players - Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and the now departed Phil Neville - the club have never opened talks as late as nine months from the expiration of their existing deals. He will have been sure that in the current financial climate at United he could not hope to get a deal on the same top-rate terms he enjoys. Against that background his attack on those United players was unworthy of his status and, as regarded within the club, unpleasant. Keane's outspoken nature in the past has been praised as refreshing and while there are many who would agree with him that, for example, Liam Miller will never reach the level expected of a United player, they would now question his motivation for saying so. Like the old boys he despised in the City Ground dressing-room, Keane has become embittered.

His relationship with his team-mates has seemed impossibly fraught to the outsider. He shoved Phil Neville in a dispute during a game against Sunderland at the start of the 2002-2003 season, and Keane's intensity is not confined to match day. At an open day during the club's first tour of America in the summer of 2003, even in the West Coast heat of pre-season, he admonished the youngest, most fragile players in the squad for mistakes during an eight-a-side.

For a long time, the way in which a new United player reacted to a rant from Keane was one of the standards by which their suitability to play for the club was measured. The players closer to his age, and seniority, could laugh off his many moods. Now the terms of engagement have changed. Whatever the state of United, and their difficulties this season, Keane's opinions are not a force that can be used to motivate Sir Alex Ferguson's younger players; they are something from which they must be protected. It is a pity that such a unique voice has been lost to his club but the truth is that Roy Keane no longer speaks for the good of United, he only speaks on behalf of himself.

What Keane said about...

EDWIN VAN DER SAR 'He should have saved that. That was saveable.' Describing the first goal United conceded against Middlesbrough on Saturday, when Van der Sar let a 30-yard shot slip through his grasp.

JOHN O'SHEA 'He's just strolling around when he should have been busting a gut to get back.'

RIO FERDINAND 'Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink robbed Ferdinand for the second goal... I have seen that happen to Rio before. It is poor defending.'

DARREN FLETCHER 'I can't understand why people in Scotland rave about Darren Fletcher.'

ALAN SMITH 'What is he doing there [in central midfield]? He is wandering around as if he is lost. He doesn't know what he is doing.'

KIERAN RICHARDSON 'He is a lazy defender who deserved to get punished ... he wasn't doing his job.' On Richardson's foul that led to a Middlesbrough penalty.

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