With eyes glinting and that devil-smirk occasionally breaking through, Roy Keane yesterday mixed excitement about leading Sunderland to Arsenal tomorrow with talk of English football "losing its soul". Agreeing with concerns voiced by the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, Keane reflected juicily on "the tightness of the tunnel" at Highbury but worried aloud that the "real intensity" of the "great rivalry" he had with Patrick Vieira seems to be disappearing from a game he argued "lots of players do not love."
While expressing regret about what is missing from the modern game, the Sunderland manager was full of admiration for Wenger and all things Arsenal. He is not known for sentimentality but Keane said that while he was Manchester United captain, Arsenal at Highbury was: "Always the game for me.
"We've spoken about the Liverpools, the Leeds and the Manchester Citys, but for me it was always about Arsenal.
"I've not come up against Arsène yet, but I've always had massive respect for him as a manager. They were fantastic, those games, the best.
"United against Arsenal – if you could go back for one game, that would be the game. It was a brilliant rivalry, between the fans, the players and the managers. Obviously we were usually fighting out for the title, fantastic. You would give anything to be playing in one of those games again.
"If I was playing Arsenal on the Saturday, my preparation for the game would start the previous Sunday. Your body knew you were going to be playing Arsenal and, psychologically, you would start to get ready."
One of the defining images of the Premier League's 15 years is that of the United captain, Keane, and his opposite number, Vieira, preparing for "war" two and a half years ago in the cramped confines of Arsenal's famous old stadium tunnel. Arsenal's new ground had Keane wondering about the width of Ashburton Grove's tunnel.
With Arsenal in imperious form and Sunderland struggling, Keane's team are as long as 22-1 with some bookmakers.
The combination of altered kick-off times (tomorrow's is noon) ticket prices (he mentioned United's for the Coventry Carling Cup-tie), players' wages and foreign takeovers, suggested to Keane that the game's soul was being lost. Milan's goalkeeper Dida was cited as an example of a player alienating fans.
But arguably it is the top four's monopoly that is most worrying. "It's sad isn't it?" Keane said. "The big three or four will only go away from the other teams. That's the vicious circle that we're in. They will continue to get into Europe and that will give them big money.
"That's where the game has lost its soul. I don't think the strength in depth in the Premier League is as good as it was four or five years ago. It's a tough league, but I still think it was more competitive three or four years ago. If you were a betting man, you'd put a fortune on the top four teams being the teams we know they're going to be. The order is open to an argument, but the make-up of the teams isn't. It's sad."
But Arsenal offer an example of what can be done courtesy of a shrewd manager. Keane said he would only pay to watch them and United. He did not mention Sunderland.
Part of Keane's enthusiasm for Arsenal stems from a recent conversation with Wenger's assistant, Pat Rice. "The sign of a top club is not just the first team but about how they run the whole club," he said.
And, lest he sounded too downbeat for someone just over a year as a manager, Keane added: "We might not believe we can win the league but we have to believe we can get something on Sunday. We might be 22-1 but, in a two-horse race, you have to believe. Arsenal might get stuck on the tube."Reuse content