Keane's edge of darkness

Norman Fox analyses the essential qualities of a midfield motivator
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The Independent Online
It would have been easy for Alex Ferguson to have doubts as he watched Paul Ince play for England against Croatia on Wednesday. Ince quietly got on with his job and there was not a hint of uncontrolled aggression or a tantrum. It was a mature, valuable performance . . . a manager's dream. But any worries that Ferguson may have had about selling the midfielder to Internazionale last summer could be dismissed from his mind with two words - Roy Keane.

On the same day, Keane should have been appearing for the Republic of Ireland in Czechoslovakia, but he was suspended - again. When Ferguson bought him from Nottingham Forest (against whom Keane plays today) in 1993 for pounds 3.75m, he knew the risks. Keane could lose his temper with Mother Teresa. But when it comes to situations such as this season's final championship dramas, his fiery power is invaluable and his appetite for a battle immense. Ferguson was not so sure about Ince, whom he thought became too self-important once he reached international level.

Ferguson weathered the personal criticism over the selling of Ince, and others, with dignified reserve. He knew that having one "nasty" in the side was essential, having two was tantamount to knocking off policemen's helmets for the hell of it, and employing the craggy Mark Hughes in the same side was like buying his own season ticket to Lancaster Gate. Ince went; Keane stayed. Having them in the same team was, he said, "causing too many problems".

United did not immediately become a more virtuous side, but ever since Cantona took his punishment for seeking revenge on a loud-mouthed oaf, self-control has spread and the character of the team has changed. Of course the younger ones get into trouble, but there is little of the festering malice that made United difficult to love. In that context, Keane's indiscretions can be better balanced against such contributions as scoring the winning goal against Leeds United in a testing match that came only four days after they had so sensationally lost 3-1 to Southampton.

Ferguson has never been in a position to tell players that temper is easily controlled. He has one of his own, well hidden from the television viewer but well known to a string of players who have annoyed him in nearly a decade at Old Trafford. Occasionally he and Keane have had differences, but Ferguson stands by him and says: "I've never said there's anything wrong with losing your temper, provided you know why and you can also lose it with yourself." He never felt that Ince knew why he flew off the handle so often. He was "someone who came to us at war with the world".

Keane and Ince share the same penchant for joining in other people's wars and attracting the attention of referees, who these days anticipate the problems and possibly act on pre- conceived ideas. Ferguson resents that, suggesting that Keane has his name pencilled in the book before he goes into his first tackle. He also believes that because the opposition's fans always give Keane a hard time referees are swayed into taking action. Where a warning would do, they take out the book.

What Ferguson has always seen in Keane is a player whose lack of self- control is outweighed by his value as an all-rounder - "someone we can ask to play in most positions". But more than that, he admires Keane's ability to defend aggressively, set up attacks and, if the opportunity arises, finish them, as he did against Leeds. Because of Andy Cole's lack of goals, his finishing has become essential rather than a pleasant luxury.

That range of talents is the reason why such a promising player as David Beckham finds it hard to get a regular place. Talent is not a word Keane uses of himself. "I'm a runner - I keep going when others stop - it could be the boxing training I did years ago."

He says he loves the big days, like having a go at Forest where he was an instant success. Brian Clough once called him over in training to tell him the good news that, after appearing for only 20 minutes in the reserves, he was to be given his first-team debut. "We chose an easy one for him," Clough said later. The match was at Anfield.