At the start of Keane & Vieira: Best of Enemies (ITV4, Wednesday) the contests between Arsenal and Manchester United are described as “a brilliant, vicious Premier League rivalry that has never been bettered”. At the fast-beating heart of that battle were the two players for almost a decade. They took the odd beating, but here they are reunited in retirement. It made for almost as compulsive viewing as the real thing, rather like watching a psychopath from the other side of the prison bars.
Their meeting was staged on a classic police interrogation room set: two chairs, small table, light above it. So who was questioning whose courage, in this good cop-bad cop scenario? Suited, open-collared, they could both have passed for CID officers. You wouldn’t like to have been the suspect in that sandwich. Not surprisingly there was no one asking them questions; perhaps he had asked to be locked up in the cells for his own safety.
Unfortunately for Keane, the programme was obviously made shortly after publication of Sir Alex Ferguson’s latest autobiography, in which Keane is eviscerated by his old gaffer. When he was interviewed, Keane was repeatedly presented with excerpts from the book as though it was a witness statement.
Even when he hears one of Fergie’s compliments from an older tome – referring to his tireless display in the Champions’ League semi-final in Turin in 1999 – Keane could still not hide his contempt. It read: “I felt as if it were an honour to be associated with this player.” Keane retaliated: “He didn’t put that in his last book, did he?” But he was not content to stop there; he is seemingly never content. “Stuff like that almost insults me,” he went on. It makes you wonder how he would react to a small fan asking for his autograph. “What am I supposed to do? It’s like praising the postman for delivering my letters.” No Christmas box for Keane’s postie then, but he probably leaves the letters outside the gate. And not because of the dog.
Both men have a twinkle in their eye, but in Keane’s case it’s like a knife blade catching the light in a dark alley. Vieira describes Keane as “my favourite enemy, I loved every aspect of his game”. When asked “Did he intimidate you?” he replies: “No, he excited me.” But for Keane it’s all darkness. “I had a lot of hatred for Arsenal, I have no other word for it,” he said, and even after a victory there was only unpleasantness lying in wait. “The enjoyment was very, very brief. Before long the fear gets back in, not wanting to let anyone down.”
That seems to have been the motivation throughout Keane’s career: failure and the way the club, the fans, his family, the Irish community reacted to it. For a sportsman who was as talented and successful as Keane, this is a desperate sadness in itself to add to all the other negativity.
There are flashes of humour amid the cut and thrust of Keane’s ire. Of the infamous “Battle of Old Trafford”, when Martin Keown did his gargoyle impression in the face of Ruud van Nistelrooy after Vieira’s sending-off, Keane chuckles: “I was nowhere near that trouble. I behaved myself that day, and I regret it.” Yet you couldn’t help thinking it wasn’t just a joke, he actually meant it too.
Even during the closing credits, when the pair are squabbling about how to fit Dennis Bergkamp into their all-time Arsenal-United XI, he can’t resist a slur on the Dutchman: “He doesn’t fly. What does that say about him?”
Now all these great players are gone, and perhaps rightly they bemoan the fact that the game lacks the intensity they brought to it. Keane’s own career after his playing days ended has never really got off the ground. On this evidence it looks terminal.