Brendan Crossan: A genuine pity Roy Keane's punditry and not his managerial nous making the headlines
EVERY time you watch Roy Keane in a TV studio you kind of wish he was manager of a big club. Still at the coalface of football, intimidating fellow managers, players and match officials with a cold stare – and proving himself to be a canny tactician.
Sometimes you have a natural bias towards those you grew up watching.
Throughout his playing career, Keane was a force of nature for Manchester United and Republic of Ireland.
The Cork man’s most admirable quality was how he was often able to reduce a game of football to a battle of wills with the opposition and the indisputable influence he managed to wield over the outcome of so many big games.
When he arrived at Old Trafford from Nottingham Forest, Keane was your stereotypical box-to-box midfielder – a role that has become virtually extinct in the modern game.
He could be breaking up an opposition attack one minute and charging into their penalty area the next.
But as he grew older and the game became more constricted with players operating in zones, Keane moulded himself into one of the most accomplished deep-lying midfielders.
He zealously protected the Manchester United defence and made their jobs so much easier. One of his greatest strengths was that he knew his limitations as a footballer.
He was never over ambitious in possession and rarely attempted to dribble his way out of danger.
As well as possessing that uncoachable quality of sensing danger and being in exactly the right place at the right time to intercept an opposition attack, Keane's brilliance was rooted in the simple pass.
The simplicity in his game was instructive to those learning the art of the defensive midfielder in that a five-yard pass could be as devastatingly effective as a 40-yard cross-field pass.
At times Keane's play could look functional and somewhat ordinary - but every team needs a metronome (the absence of which is one of the glaring failures of the current Manchester United team).
Of course, you’d curse him just as much as you’d applaud him during his playing days, which prompted many observers to argue – quite persuasively at times – that as well as being United’s greatest asset, he could also be their biggest liability.
He could implode at any given moment in a game.
On too many occasions, United had to finish out games a man down because of one of Keane’s notorious indiscretions.
One of the saddest images in sport over the last 20 years was watching Keane end his international exile in an end of season friendly game for the Republic of Ireland against Romania at Lansdowne Road.
Two years earlier, he’d walked away from the 2002 World Cup finals – the greatest stage of them all – when he was at the absolute peak of his powers.
His performances against group opponents Portugal and Holland are the stuff of legend.
By the time Mick McCarthy left the Ireland job and Brian Kerr took over, paving the way for Keane’s international return, the Manchester United midfielder was a shadow of the player he once was, with hip and knee injuries taking their toll.
You think back to those tumultuous days of 2002 in the Far East, ‘door-stepping’ Mick McCarthy on an almost nightly basis and you forget just how young Mick was: just 43-years-old, managing his country at a major finals, and how he’d still so much to learn in the art of managing players.
The Mick McCarthy we see today would never have allowed a similar situation to manifest – and Saipan would never have seeped into football’s consciousness.
After delivering a remarkable promotion at Sunderland in his first season, Keane's managerial career has floundered.
He acknowledges his poor recruitment at Ipswich Town cost him his job.
“Would I doubt my recruitment? My recruitment could have been better because it’ll basically make or break in your job,” he said at his unveiling as Martin O’Neill’s assistant manager with the Republic in 2013.
“If you buy bad players you end up with a bad bloody team and you end up with bad results.”
There was maybe more truth behind O’Neill’s quip when he described his managerial partnership with Keane as a case of: “Bad cop, bad cop” because O’Neill could be as volatile as Keane a lot of the time.
Before the wheels came off after that disastrous World Cup play-off hammering at the hands of Denmark in November 2017, the O’Neill-Keane axis had paid rich dividends by achieving Euro 2016 qualification, even if the latter seemed high maintenance.
Indeed, while the Republic were preparing a Euro 2016 double-header against Gibraltar and Germany in 2014, Keane decided to kill two birds with the one stone, spending more time plugging his second autobiography during those days than on the training ground.
Too often, large chunks of O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland press conferences were spent fielding questions about his assistant and defending him.
With results and performances going pear-shaped in 2018, Keane was being viewed as more of a liability. Stephen Ward’s ‘leaked’ WhatsApp message explicitly charting the blow-up between Harry Arter and Keane was hugely embarrassing and damaging for the Cork man’s hopes of becoming a manager again.
Through all his faults and failings, the Irish media couldn’t wait for the next press briefing from Roy Keane when he was involved for five years.
Keane was always Box Office – just as he was on Sky Sports on Wednesday night when he cut through Gary Neville’s toe-curling defence of some Manchester United players.
Keane and Graeme Souness were like kindred spirits as they dissected the demise of Manchester United and their desperately passive display against champions-elect Man City.
The pair view the game through an uncomplicated prism and continually rail against the at-times futile intellectualizing of football.
It was on nights like Wednesday you wish Roy Keane – warts and all – was sitting beside Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the Old Trafford dugout rather than Michael Carrick and Mike Phelan to dish out a few home truths to the club’s under-performing stars.
But it’ll probably never happen.
Keane will keep plugging away with O’Neill at Notts Forest – a man he owes everything to - because his phone has stopped ringing about managerial vacancies around the country.
Indeed, the only phone calls he fields these days are from TV bosses looking for a ratings boost.
For a world-class performer who left an indelible mark on football in the 90s and 2000s, that’s a genuine pity.