Brain keeping Keane ahead of the brawn drain

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The Independent Online

As a lame and grimacing Roy Keane eased his frame across the touchline to be substituted on Tuesday, his manager offered a consoling arm around the shoulder. The image of the two, frozen in time for an instant, reminded you that it isn't just Sir Alex Ferguson who has provided the bedrock of Manchester United in recent memory, but his captain, too. "A driven bastard," Keane once described himself. It could apply to both during their 11-year association.

As a lame and grimacing Roy Keane eased his frame across the touchline to be substituted on Tuesday, his manager offered a consoling arm around the shoulder. The image of the two, frozen in time for an instant, reminded you that it isn't just Sir Alex Ferguson who has provided the bedrock of Manchester United in recent memory, but his captain, too. "A driven bastard," Keane once described himself. It could apply to both during their 11-year association.

But are these couple of bastards still driven sufficiently to galvanise United towards a second Champions' League trophy for Ferguson and a first final appearance for Keane? The portents appear auspicious once more: a comfortable passage through the group phase and for the moment no League distraction (when could we last say that?). But perhaps, most pertinently, the form of Keane himself, who was, due to suspension, suited rather than booted for the 1999 final triumph against Bayern Munich.

If the Irishman's physical powers are on the wane, if he conducts a game using more of his cerebral powers than his cynically destructive ones, the warrior in him retains that essential blood-lust.

On Tuesday evening, his prompting and encouragement of a flourishing United attack, notionally consisting of a lone Ruud van Nistelrooy, though constantly supplemented by four rampaging midfielders, was as effective as the manner in which he parried the Lyon forward rapiers.

Yet, like a footballing Billy Connolly, an obliging target still provides an irresistible victim. During a contest of considerable finesse - "a game of magnificent quality," reflected Ferguson - there was an inevitability about the only caution, punishment for Keane's nasty snap at the back of a Lyon player.

It was a sinister calling card from the character who counts any number of officials (especially his now-retired nemesis David Elleray), opposition players (Alf Inge-Haaland and Alan Shearer included) and his own team-mates (just about everyone who has been on the United payroll) among those who have incurred his displeasure. Yet, in truth, what was deemed by Old Trafford regulars as his most influential display of the season was notable for rather more than his hostility to those within limb-lunging range.

It was Ferguson's suggestion, before the start of this season, that he should "lighten up", particularly with regard to his approach towards United's younger players. Frankly, Keane would be about as likely to oblige as Peter Mandelson would if receiving the same request from Tony Blair. Keane simply prefers to tread the dark side.

Anyway, one man's rollicking is another man's "encouragement", as Keane prefers to allude to his glowering growls of disapproval at his team-mates. That said, there is a more mature, "relaxed" approach (his word), which in many ways has enhanced his contribution.

When Ferguson analyses the defining moments in his 18-year career, he will consider the acquisition of Keane among the most crucial. Arguably - and there will be vociferous debate from the direction of Highbury and Anfield - he remains the master of the breed of defensive midfielder blessed with sufficient pace and vision to complement the forward task force.

Certainly, Keane is not inclined to welcome any rivals intent on usurping his kingdom, most notably Patrick Vieira and Steven Gerrard, the former displaying once again that deficiency which led to him being dismissed for the 10th time at PSV Eindhoven, the latter presumably still pondering the wisdom of re-committing himself to Liverpool in the summer.

"Put me up against any of those players and I will win some battles and lose some. That's football. But I still fancy my chances against anyone," says Keane, who regards himself as "still better" than Gerrard and who casts doubts over Vieira as a big-game performer.

In this period of transition, Ferguson will depend significantly on his captain if United are to progress profitably in Europe. Though it is this observer's view that there are too many flaws in both the midfield and rearguard - which includes goalkeeper, one suspects that this is Keane's last opportunity to influence matters. This is, after all, his penultimate season. At the end of the next, when his contract is due to expire, he will be 35. Keane has already embarked on his Uefa coaching licence and has not discouraged speculation that he would relish taking charge of United some day.

So, who would succeed him as a player whose enthusiasm and dedication lifts those around him? Intriguingly, Alan Smith, the man initially acquired as a back-up striker but who performed a convincing job in midfield against Lyon, possesses many of the qualities demanded, not least a preparedness to sacrifice his own physical well-being in the challenge.

For the moment, though, Keane retains the faith of his team-mates, and his public. Ferguson still recalls the moment an outlay of £3,750,000 procured the midfielder from Nottingham Forest. "With Keane secured, I was optimistic that we were entering a period of dominance in English football," said Ferguson. He cannot have imagined how prophetic those sentiments would become.

Whether United can once again inflict themselves as a dominating force in European football is a different matter entirely. You suspect it will be heavily dependent on a man named Keane, a player whose attitude remains precisely that.

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