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Premier League Hall of Fame: Roy Keane

Manchester United legend Roy Keane was one of six players to be publicly voted into the Premier League's Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class of 2021.

NameRoy Keane
Date of Birth10/08/1971
Place of BirthCork, Ireland
Premier League club(s)Nottingham Forest, Manchester United
Premier League appearances336
Premier League goals39
Premier League assists33
Premier League titles8
PFA Players' Player of the Year awards1

When discussing the Premier League’s greatest midfielders, fans still debate who the best was out of Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.

But Roy Keane is never included as part of the discussion. 

Not one for immodesty, Keane himself wouldn’t put himself in that calibre, but as Manchester United’s most successful captain and a former PFA Player of the Year, he certainly should.

Keane was far more than a tough-tackling midfielder who did a lot of pointing and shouting; he was a threat at both ends of the pitch and had the ability to raise the performance levels of everyone else around him; a ferocious competitor who accepted nothing less than 100% from himself and his team-mates, Keane was a leader in every sense of the word.

After two impressive seasons in the old Football League with Nottingham Forest, reaching the FA Cup and League Cup finals, Keane took his game up a notch following the formation of the Premier League in 1992. 

Establishing himself as one of the best young players in the country, Keane was voted Forest fans’ Player of the Year and was named in the PFA Team of the Year – no mean feat for a 21-year-old playing in a relegated side.

Keane had recently negotiated a lucrative contract with Forest that would allow him to depart should the side go down – as had been on the cards for much of the campaign – and United beat off stiff competition from Blackburn to complete the signing at the end of the season. 

Already being compared to United legend Bryan Robson, Keane had big shoes to fill. The diminishing powers of the increasingly injury-hit Robson left a hole next to Paul Ince in Manchester United’s midfield but Keane filled it superbly.

Taking the number 16 shirt, Keane would later refuse to take the number 7 shirt from Eric Cantona – as Ferguson desired – serving as a reminder to himself that he wasn’t automatically one of the first 11 players; something to always keep him on his toes. Of course, by the time of Cantona’s departure, Keane was the first name on the team sheet.

Over Keane’s first eight seasons at Old Trafford, United won the league six times. They came second in 1995 – when Cantona was serving a lengthy ban and 1998 – when Cantona left and Keane spent most of the season out injured.

United won back-to-back titles in 1996 and 1997 with Keane returning to the Premier League Team of the Year in the latter campaign before a career-changing 1998.

The team Keane joined in 1993 was no more; there was no Bruce, no Hughes, no Parker, no Ince and after his impromptu retirement, no Cantona. Keane’s peers had gone and he found himself in a leadership role, taking the armband from Cantona, ushering in the Class of ‘92.

But nine games into the season, United went to Elland Road to face Leeds. Attempting a tackle, Keane’s knee buckled and down he went.

A ruptured cruciate ligament wouldn’t just end his campaign, it would alter Keane’s career, stripping him of some of the dynamism of his youth, and without the characters and personalities of previous years, United threw the title away to Arsenal late in the season.

But Keane would return stronger than ever the following term.

Armed with new signings in Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke, United had a side ready to compete on all three fronts, and the treble-winning season of 1998/99 featured Keane’s finest hour; not a Premier League game, but the second leg of a Champions League semi-final with Juventus that United essentially needed to win. 

Away to perhaps the best team in Europe, United found themselves 2-0 down in no time. Keane, a booking away from missing a potential final, hauled United back into the game, glancing a header home after 24 minutes, but not 10 minutes later, a late challenge on Zinedine Zidane would mean Keane would play no part in the final. 

On Keane’s efforts that night, his manager said: "It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him."

In true Keane fashion, his assessment was simply: “I did alright,” and even taking umbrage at the description, offended at the suggestion he’d do anything else. While it was a description appropriate of such a performance, it was not uncommon for Keane. That selflessness and relentlessness was visible in Keane every time he crossed the white line.

Throughout the first decade of the Premier League, there were few of Keane’s opponents who could be described as his equal, but Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira certainly was. Vieira had been a cornerstone of Arsenal’s resurgence in the late 90s, and battles between the two individuals were almost as anticipated as the battles between the teams.

After United’s treble win in 1999, the champions went to Highbury with the pair as good as coming to blows. Vieira went in late on Keane, Keane kicked out at Vieira, Vieira stuck his head in on Keane, Keane grabbed Vieira’s throat, Vieira took a swing at Keane. Unsavoury scenes, but it would provide the backdrop for the Premier League’s greatest rivalry, and without the animosity, Keane may not have raised his game how he did. Indeed, the pair were selected as the two central midfielders in the PFA Team of the Year in four straight seasons.

It’s hard to improve on a treble, but from a personal level, Keane managed it, as though he had a point to prove to everyone that winning a treble wasn’t the pinnacle but just the start; that a mere clean sweep of Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup was insufficient for Keane. 

Keane didn’t just return to the PFA Team of the Year, but would win FWA Footballer of the Year (by the highest winning margin in the 52-year history of the award) and PFA Player of the Year as well as being named in the ESM Team of the Year alongside Rivaldo, Luis Figo and future team-mate Juan Sebastian Veron.

For context as to how good Keane was that season, of the previous 10 winners of the PFA Player of the Year, two were centre-backs, one was David Ginola and the rest were goalscorers. Keane played a role where it was tough to be the standout player on a regular basis, not finding himself amongst the goals, yet he was the league’s best player by a distance and was recognised as such by his peers.

Keane would skipper United to two more titles in 2001 and 2003, but age and injury began to take their toll by the end of his United career. Keane, however, still had one big night in his locker.

After the ugly scenes at Old Trafford following Ruud van Nistelrooy’s missed penalty, the rivalry between not just Manchester United and Arsenal but Keane and Vieira had reached a new level. The pair had already come together at Highbury back in 1999 but things had been ratcheted up since. Arsenal had gone a season unbeaten with Manchester United ending that run in the ‘Pizzagate’ match, and now the two captains were ready to get it on in the tunnel prior to kick-off.

Getting wind that Vieira had threatened Gary Neville, the captain stepped in, ready to start a pre-match fracas. Vieira opened the scoring that night but it was Keane who had the last laugh as his side ran out 4-2 winners.

His United career was in its final year, however. A furious bust-up with Ferguson following remarks about team-mates made to the club’s in-house TV channel spelled the end of Keane’s association with United.

It was an unsavoury exit, and not what a legendary figure like Keane deserved, but it’s not how Keane would be remembered.

With his name still sung by the Stretford End, Keane will be forever remembered as one of Manchester United’s greatest ever players, and the club’s greatest ever captain.

Style of play

Keane summed his style of play up by saying: “Brian Clough's advice to me before most games were: 'You get it, you pass it to another player in a red shirt.' That's really all I've tried to do at Forest and United — pass and move — and I've made a career out of it.”

But Keane was a player without any significant weakness; his aggression occasionally got the better of him, leading to 13 red cards across his time with Forest and United, but it was often his aggression and sheer will to win that saw him get the better of his opposite number. Keane accepted nothing but the best from his team-mates and was an integral part of the best United teams of the 1990s. 

He also had the energy and mobility to pop up at either end of the pitch – as United fans will remember all too well for his goal in Manchester United’s victory from 2-0 down at Maine Road. In his earlier career he had the dynamism to be an all-action midfielder, capable of scoring goals and creating them, but took up a deeper-lying role in his later career, using his positional awareness to avoid having to fly into tackles with the reckless abandon of his youth.

Life after football

Keane entered management in 2006 as the new Sunderland boss, taking the Black Cats from the relegation zone to the title in his first season, spending two-and-a-half years at the Stadium of Light.

Keane’s second managerial job was with Ipswich where he lasted just over 18 months before working as part of the backroom staff with the Republic of Ireland, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest.

Despite claiming he wouldn’t go into football punditry, Keane is now a regular studio member for Premier League and international fixtures.

Did you know?

Manchester United fans still regale Roy Keane with a song about how their skipper ‘didn’t sign for Arsenal or Blackburn’ with the reasons why, but Keane did verbally agree to sign for Blackburn in 1993.

Rovers didn’t have the correct paperwork to complete the signing at the time and with them unable to obtain it until the following Monday, Manchester United swooped in at the 11th hour, completing the deal over the weekend. 

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