If Russell Crowe ever wanted to play a footballer, here is one image that would appeal to him. Roy Keane, the Manchester United captain, running maybe 30, possibly 40 yards in stifling heat to bundle over Patrick Vieira, his opposite number, then looking up and playing the ball forward. It was footballers as gladiators, displaying the kind of rawness that would appeal even in Los Angeles.
Should his ankle injury allow, Keane and Vieira will clash again inside the Colosseum of Old Trafford tomorrow and the contest should be savoured because there may not be many more. The Irishman was 32 on the day he ripped the ball from Vieira's boots in the Community Shield and is forever questioning the quality of his own performances. He found himself wanting last season when recovering from a hip operation and announced the coming campaign would be the most important of his career. The inference was clear. If Keane sensed the decline was permanent, he was prepared to quit instantly.
Vieira has long been a walk-out waiting to happen. The pictures after Arsenal's defeat by Internazionale on Wednesday night, the sobering bucket of iced water flung over those who thought make-do-and-mend could serve as a policy for the Champions' League, were revealing enough. Vieira and Thierry Henry soaked in sweat, hands on hips, upon the final whistle. Vieira has consistently stated that for him to remain at Highbury, Arsenal's ambitions must match his own, which most people would take to mean bringing in more than just a goalkeeper during the summer and pressing a couple of midfielders into service as makeshift defenders.
When assessing Eric Cantona, Keane remarked he could not honestly think of one major European match the Frenchman had turned and you might say the same of Vieira. The few European triumphs fashioned by Arsène Wenger, such as the victory over Roma in the Stadio Olimpico, were products of Henry's brilliance rather than Vieira's. Arguably, Keane's greatest display was dragging Manchester United back from a two-goal deficit against Juventus and into the European Cup final even though a booking meant he knew he would not be joining them on the pitch in Barcelona. It was, said his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, "the most emphatic display of selflessness I have ever seen on a football field", ensuring his players would taste what was denied to him.
Outwardly, they are similar characters. Big men growing up in tough environments: Vieira in the Parisian satellite town of Dreux, a haven for the National Front, Keane in the unlovely Cork estate of Mayfield, where he recalled "a palpable sense of pessimism and apathy" at the community school.
There are similarities, too, on the pitch. "Keane's great strength is covering ground, stamping his influence on the team, everything he does is geared to leading by example," said John Giles, who performed a similar midfield role in the great team Don Revie fashioned at Leeds. He was in Keane's class as a tackler and Vieira's as a passer of a football. "Vieira is more creative around the ball, but he's not the driving force or as influential for Arsenal as Keane is for Manchester United," Giles reflected.
It is 13 years since Keane moved from Cobh Ramblers to Nottingham Forest, 10 since he abandoned the wreckage of Brian Clough's regime for another inspirational dictator at Old Trafford, and Giles has watched his game change. "He used to go forward a lot more, a real box-to-box player, now he's more focused on controlling the midfield. When you get older, you learn how to take up positions, you save energy and stop making silly, reckless runs. You're more concerned with getting behind the ball and making sure you don't lose it." Giles thought Keane perhaps the outstanding midfielder of his generation. "The most influential midfielder, yes. Just as Bryan Robson was the most influential of his."
What binds Vieira and Keane is their readiness to take responsibility in an age where media-trained footballers are taught the virtues of blandness. Keane's criticisms of Manchester United's inability to recapture the desire that took them to the European Cup have been trenchant. Writing about the night Arsenal took the championship at Old Trafford last year, he was brutal. "Men against boys ... on the slide, no doubt about it. Yesterday's heroes." After one Champions' League defeat, Vieira, who described himself as having "an African's hunger" for victory, marched over to the waiting press and launched a condemnation of Arsenal's transfer policy, ambition and desire. "Thanks a lot, Patrick," said the Arsenal press officer, standing at his shoulder. "It needed to be said," came the reply.
Ferguson thought Keane central to Manchester United's recapturing of the title last season. "We did rediscover ourselves. It was marvellous to be in that dressing-room during these crucial matches, you could tell they meant it. You knew that with the atmosphere and camaraderie amongst them, they would be very hard to beat. When they show that hunger you have to be proud of them. It comes from him [Keane], it comes from players who know what it's about and don't want the experience of losing. People like Roy and Nicky Butt, they're determined characters and you hope it spreads to the players who have only been with the club a few years like Rio Ferdinand and Mikael Silvestre. You hope they become the Keanes of the future."
Vieira has more friends in the Arsenal dressing-room than Keane does at Old Trafford. Wenger called Vieira "my umbilical cord to the team", while to Robert Pires, "Vieira is the barometer of this team. When he is on song, so is the team when he's not, the team doesn't function well. He inspires the dressing-room."
So does Keane, but differently. On European trips, you will see him sitting apart from the rest in airport departure lounges, reading. If you flick through David Beckham's autobiography, you will find surprisingly few references to a man who ruled the home dressing-room at Old Trafford but a glance at the appendix, which lists Beckham's "significant achievements" - first front cover on The Face, first solo man to appear on the cover of Marie Claire next to "first appearance for England" - suggests why. The appendix of Keane's autobiography was a detailed transcript of the interview that triggered his departure from the World Cup finals.
His deepest relationship is with Ferguson and they share a similar trait. Yesterday, Ferguson suggested his ability to recapture success stems from his inability to savour it. "Winning goes quickly for me," he said. "The next game is always more important. The players get the smell of that so when we win the League it's gone quite quickly. It's gone the next day. It's when I hear the final whistle, that's when the adrenaline is greatest. I keep looking at the referee in the last few seconds. Once you go into the dressing-room it stops."
Before last season's League Cup final, Keane said the moment of victory passed very swiftly, to be replaced by the old restlessness. "I wish I could enjoy it a bit more but I very rarely do. That's part of my package, it just suits my character." One his mentor understands only too well.
The Vieira Verdict
He reminds me of Graeme Souness at his best. Always breaking things down, harrassing people into mistakes, demanding the ball.
Mark McGhee, then manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers, on Vieira, 1998.
What I did was unforgivable because I'm a role model. But what pisses me off is the £45,000 fine. Coming from where I do [Senegal], I know the value of money. To my family, that's a phenomenal sum.
Vieira, after spitting at Neil Ruddock, 1999.
I'm amazed at how big Patrick's elbows are. They can reach players 10 yards away. Let's just give him a 15-game ban and get it over with.
Arsène Wenger, claiming that Vieira was victimised by referees, 2002.
Pat's a great friend. Before Everton played Arsenal he called my wife to tell her to get the ice packs ready because I'd be coming home with serious bruising.
Olivier Dacourt, by then with Leeds, 2001.
I've matured as a player and a man. I play with the same commitment but I had to improve the way I acted. Now I'm captain I don't react like I did. I have to set an example.
The Keane Verdict
If I was in management now and had the money to take my pick of any player, from Arsenal, Real Madrid or wherever, I'd take Keane.
Brian Clough, Keane's manager at Nottingham Forest, 1999.
I'll have to see whether any of Keane's studs are still in there.
Alf-Inge Haaland, the former Manchester City midfielder, before a scan on the knee injury inflicted by Keane, 2002.
Aggression is what I do. I go to war...You don't contest football matches in a reasonable state of mind.
Keane, in his autobiography, 2002.
As he waded in with one expletive after another, I asked myself if this was my captain, a role model for children in Ireland. The answer was no. Mick McCarthy, on banishing Keane from the Irish World Cup squad, 2002.
He's the boss on the pitch. I know Patrick Vieira well, but Keane is the best I've played against in the Premiership. - Olivier Dacourt, then of Everton, 1999.
Barring a personality transplant, his only job at Old Trafford will be as a player.
George Best, on suggestions that Keane might eventually manage United.Reuse content