Keane: more minuses, fewer pluses

Relentless clock of age tilted balance between prickly character and inspirational talent
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The Independent Football

Two potentially lethal chemical agents, both well capable of spontaneous combustion, have reacted benignly together for over a dozen years. But a sequence of events, which can be traced back to July when the Irishman was omitted from the pre-season tour of the Far East, has had the same effect as pounding them furiously with a pestle. Ferguson recognised the perils. Roy was turning from his defiant, resourceful Rover to a Roy of the Disunited.

It was always a difficult equation to master for Ferguson: on the positive side, the power, thrust and sheer magnitude of Keane's performances. On the negative side , his pub-brawling, player-stamping, referee-har-anguing, supporter-ridiculing, and finally manager-under-mining character. Ultimately, the balance shifted too far towards a minus.

It is said that the Irishman departed with tears in his eyes. The more rational of United's followers will not submit to similar melancholy. Ferguson is an experienced advocate of footballing euthanasia. It is part of the natural order in the game. The Scot has had no compunction in the past about culling those - Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis, Jaap Stam, David Beckham - who had become cult figures to the Old Trafford faithful. In some cases, notably Beckham and Stam, the jury is still not unanimous in its verdict, but Ferguson's judgement has largely been sound. If only, many will contend, his eye for a replacement had been so acute - one of the explanations for the wrath of Keane of late.

With his playing powers palpably abating at 34, Keane's effect on the team ethic was causing grave concern for Ferguson, the racehorse enthusiast who had long seen the wisdom of giving his captain a certain length of rein to lambast and cajole. But not to belittle.

Friday brought an end to what United aficionados will recall as an enchanted era. For Keane's team-mates, it signals the end of their earaches. The alleged excoriation of certain team-mates, generally the younger, less experienced fraternity, in that by-now infamous MUTV show, which has been witnessed by only a few select eyes, could not be condoned by the United manager. Neither could he countenance an apparent fall-out between the captain and his assistant, Carlos Queiroz. Not with the Glazer family, for all their protestations to the contrary, looking on with increasing alarm.

A diplomatic brush was applied liberally to the circumstances surrounding Keane's excommunication. But while his camp will no doubt portray Keane as the man who picked up his sense of injustice and walked - as has been his tendency in the past, notably when he opted to walk his dogs back home in Cheshire rather than play in the 2002 World Cup for Mick McCarthy's Republic of Ireland - his Old Trafford epitaph has been some months in its inscription.

The final act provokes many questions. Not least, how best to effect a suitable heart transplant? Bayern Munich's Michael Ballack's attitude holds the key to United's, and perhaps Ferguson's, future. In the German midfielder, his country's captain, Old Trafford would be acquiring what the Bayern president, Franz Beckenbauer, deems a Keane, Beckham and Scholes combined. But is Ballack's true desire Real Madrid? Probably. No longer can United whistle and the best of breed come running.

As for Ferguson, his discard of a colossus may infuriate some Old Trafford regulars, but their view will ultimately be deter-mined by Champions' League progress and the success of the pursuit of Chelsea.

Keane's days were numbered anyway, regardless of Friday's episode. And unless the manager can produce evidence of a true renaissance in the coming weeks - and despite the defeat of Chelsea, there can be no certainty of that - the same can be said of Ferguson.

Meanwhile, who knows what thoughts are pinballing through the contrary mind of the Irishman? One suspects that, ideally, he would opt to play for another season while making the transition to coach or manager. Celtic, for whom he has always maintained a strong affinity, are odds on to acquire him, but Gordon Strachan and Keane in tandem? Hmm. Stranger relationships have flourished, though some would submit it could be a marriage made in hell.

Managing the Republic of Ireland, who just happen to have a vacancy, is also conceivable. His former Manchester United team-mate Mark Hughes put country before club. Keane could attempt a similar path, though there is his- tory between him and the Repub-lic's football administrators.

If he remains in the Premiership, his destination is more likely to be a northern or Midlands club with European potential - Everton, Newcastle, Middlesbrough or Aston Villa - but not the élite. Age, and character, are likely to preclude that, though it may be asked whether he would want to be part of a team scuffling around off the Premiership pace. Cynics might suggest he is leaving just such a club at precisely the right moment.