Roy Keane's latest whiplash assault on contemporary football values provokes the usual speculation. Is it the voice of Keane or his master, Sir Alex Ferguson? Is he a seer or a mouthpiece? The verdict here is that it doesn't really matter. In this case, Marshall McLuhan's point is off the mark. It is the message that is most important.
Of course, it just happens that if anyone is qualified to deliver a heavyweight assessment of the failures of commitment by the latest generation of Manchester United players it is surely Keane. Along with Alan Shearer he has represented for so long now ultimate professional values.
So when Keane says that the latest Old Trafford vintage is being soured by too much money, too many agents and a killing misunderstanding of what it takes to be a great player, rather than a talented teenaged plutocrat, everyone is bound to listen.
We all know about the excesses of Keane's nature - how in the past his rage to win has brought a breakdown in personal discipline, how desperately he has fought against the beckonings of drink, and from time to time lost, and how on other occasions his furies have brought the kind of outrage most shockingly represented by his tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland. But in competitive integrity, in his understanding that behind all the surface glamour of football in the Nineties and the 21st century the old truth that without hard work all the football talent in the world is liable to account for very little, he is the nonpareil.
You can say, if you like, that Keane is in danger of branding himself a curmudgeon; that he has failed to respond to the music of his times, and that also he is bedevilled by the angst which comes with the dwindling of the years. But there would be some risk if you did that. It would be to miss the point that when Keane lines up a target he invariably does it with some deliberation, and when he pulls the trigger the aim is true.
What Keane is saying is that a critical gap is developing between rewards and aspirations at Old Trafford, and when he says this he cannot be accused of even a hint of envy. Keane has his mansion and his financial security for life. He also has an unwavering view of what is important in the game. Highest on the list is the understanding that the greatest menace to ambition is a sense of well-being, that whatever happens in the future you have already established the certainty of the good life.
In fact when Keane cut loose this week he was merely echoing the fears of earlier generations, most notably when he declared: "Unfortunately after 10 or 15 matches, young players these days get themselves a decent contract and can slacken off. It only takes five per cent. There is a fine line between winning trophies and not, and that can be the difference. Manchester United players should be focused on the club 24 hours a day. Nothing should get in the way of that."
In his autobiography, published last year, the World Cup-winner George Cohen, who played his entire career for Fulham, said, "Today when I hear of some kid besieged by scouts, and then being given some big fat guaranteed contract, I have to wonder what is happening inside the youngster's head. How hard will he work at his game, will he listen to the good pros as I listened to Roy Bentley and Johnny Haynes?" Cohen's song sheet is surely a point of reference in Keane's latest diatribe against prevailing attitudes at the younger end of the Old Trafford dressing-room. Before going public on United's television channel, Keane talked to unnamed players, who, we have to presume, included the likes of the £12m signing Cristiano Ronaldo, and the promising but underachieving Darren Fletcher and Kieran Richardson. He hammered in his point that they have a lot more to give and that until they produce it they will remain professionally unfulfilled. Plainly, he is bitterly disappointed with their response.
We can say this with some confidence because with or without Ferguson's approval, Keane has a proven record of saying what he thinks. He is not famous for any back-tracking resource, and to say that what we heard this week was merely the sound of His Master's Voice is nothing less than an insult. Keane is head-strong and intolerant, we have known that for quite some time, and when he blasts the culture of Old Trafford he is not necessarily doing Ferguson any favours at such a critical phase of the season. These young players, after all, are the products of Ferguson's judgement and will.
What Keane is saying is that for the moment at least they lack the right stuff, that they are the palest shadows of men such as Bryan Robson, Denis Irwin and Ryan Giggs. This is not to mention Roy Keane. He is not the manager of Old Trafford but then he will always be a lot more than his spokesman. No one has earned a greater right to announce himself as the conscience of the club.
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