The sweet Indian summer of Keane


SOCCER: Three years after the fallout from their now famous Saipan interview, Tom Humphries finds out what's been happening in the world of Roy Keane.

"There's a mirror which has
seen me for the last time."
- Jorge Luis Borges

'Thirty three years old now," says Roy Keane. "You know, eventually the penny had to drop." For a man who has spent the morning conversing first with Dustin the Turkey and then with Bertie the Taoiseach, he is in curiously serene humour. It's his day off and the intensity has been reset to back-burner levels. He'll smile on all who smile. He looks comfortable in his skin. He has a two-day start on a beard. He's happy to talk.

He loves this time of the year. All the froth and faff has been blown away and it's down to business. The weekend brings the clamour of the FA Cup and Everton. If he doesn't still have boyish dreams about that competition, well, a win-or-walk game against spicy opposition engages him still. Next week it's AC Milan and the Holy Grail of the Champions League. The pace keeps on right through Ireland's tour of duty in Tel Aviv next month and down the home stretch of the Premiership season.

He's enjoying it all, partaking with the odd mix of passion and detachment which only a veteran of many wars can muster. He's inside the skin of the game, right near its beating heart, but he's outside, too, his hand holding the pulse, his head cocked, looking at the stopwatch, knowing that soon it'll be time for him to go.

And the penny that dropped? It fell slowly like a handkerchief floating from a tall building on a still summer day, but there was beauty in that simple thing. He has learned. There have been hurly-burly occasions lately when Roy Keane has played furiously but without being cautioned. Full-blooded games, the sort of thunderous shemozzles wherein the referee would once have booked him beforehand to save himself the trouble of stopping the game in the first 10 minutes. Red-mist occasions which were short odds to become red-card occasions.

Arsenal at Highbury, for instance. An effulgent evening when he appeared least enraged while he was on the field with mayhem all around him. Before and after he glowed with a radiant anger, but on the grass he was a clenched presence amid whooping comrades and wild enemies.

"I think," he says, "that I was a bit more controlled. The odd foul? Okay, but I wasn't booked. Then again, 33 years old now, eventually the penny has to drop. There would have been a little bit of needle against Arsenal. I'm not patting myself on the back for not getting booked or sent off or anything. The game itself, though, if you analyse it I was quite poor in it."

You have to take his word for that. Football is something you don't want to argue with Roy Keane about. People said nice things after his Arsenal performance but he felt that he'd like to have been sharper. It's swings and roundabouts, though. When people patted him on the back he just thought of the afternoons when it was agreed that he hadn't done much and was in irrevocable decline. Often when those verdicts were issued he knew he'd done a good job for the team.

"It's stuff you keep to yourself, though," he says, "I leave it up to the experts to decide anyway." Which seems too meek and generous a resolution. So he adds with a smile. "The so-called experts."

We so-called experts and so-called Keanologists gorged on the Arsenal business. So many bones and entrails to pick over. It was a landmark occasion for the Premiership, the two great vanquished powers butting heads gloriously while nouveau riche Chelsea checked the locks.

Keane defined the difference between the sides, and if he lacked sharpness in his play his appetite was as edgy as ever. In extremis the hungriest man wins the whole loaf.

Arsenal could blame only themselves. They drew his wrath upon themselves like careless boys hacking away at a lintel.

It is amusing in hindsight to look at the little j-peg of Highbury tunnel action which appears on internet sites now. The milling confusion in the whitewashed tunnel broken by Keane's piercing rage zoning in on Patrick Vieira. Instantly he lances Vieira's soft underbelly.

Vieira had granted a slightly self-congratulatory Sunday newspaper interview a week previously in which he spoke of his work for children in his native Senegal. In the tunnel, Keane punctured him cruelly and quickly, finishing a brief but vintage harangue with a screeched question. Why, if Vieira loves Senegal so much, doesn't he just go and play for them? The swaddled French international emerges from the scrum looking quite spooked. Dennis Bergkamp comes after him to belatedly offer shelter from the storm. In the days since there's probably been a million ripostes which Patrick Vieira wishes he'd given but . . .

As for Keane? It amazes him how the sports media industry spins things. He grins and recollects the night. Perhaps spin isn't the word he's looking for.

"Okay, I mean maybe there was nothing to spin about what they saw in the tunnel, but I just don't like that behaviour. They drew the line during the warm-up. I came into the dressing-room after the warm-up and heard that Vieira had gone after Gary Neville already. You understand that fellas are up for it before a game, or even on the pitch that they'll lose the head, I've done that myself over the years - but when Gary told me. Bloody hell.

"So, then I'm usually first out in the tunnel, but I had a problem with my shorts and I was maybe fourth or fifth out and by the time I got down I saw Vieira getting right into Gary Neville again. I mean physically as well now. I don't mean verbally.

"I said 'That's it. I'm not having this'. I'd do it again tomorrow. Enough is enough. I couldn't accept it. Still wouldn't. I've played against players over the years and you need to earn each other's respect. That sort of behaviour, I wouldn't tolerate it."

He continues animatedly. He's played against many teams over the years. So many seasons, so many crumbled empires. He mentions the bitterness and intensity that existed with Leeds, with Liverpool with Manchester City. Even Arsenal. "We played Arsenal in 1999, and we beat them in the Cup semi-final and there was a lot of rivalry with those teams. We beat them at Villa Park and two or three of them, Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, I remember, came into our dressing-room and wished us the best. It must have been hard for them but there was respect there. There was rivalry, but there was also an element of respect. I know it takes two to tango, I understand that, and maybe Gary Neville deserves to be chased up a tunnel every now and then - there'd be a queue for him probably - but I think you have to draw a line eventually."

He chuckles over the Senegal insult. Roy Keane is still the enemy of the game's Charlie Big Potato merchants.

"It makes me laugh, players going on about how they are saving this country and saving that country, but when they have the opportunity to play . . . well, it's probably none of my business." And he retires the topic with a wolfish grin.

His own retirement may be less straightforward. He seemed to announce his expiry date recently, but Alex Ferguson (no model in such things) took him by the arm and reminded him he wasn't yet a libertine. While indentured to Old Trafford the big decisions belong to the guy with the knighthood.

"He pulled me over next day and said, 'Roy, I'll be the one to decide when you retire'. It made me laugh, I'd always thought of myself as being in control of where I'm heading."

His Taggartness felt that if in a year's time Keane had more to offer, well, then United would be interested in extracting that. Keane knows that dropping down a division or two doesn't appeal to him. Some coaching work does appeal, though. He'll wait and let the world unfold.

He can accept some serendipity now. This sweet Indian summer of his career seemed unlikely not so long ago during his post-Saipan exile. His mood was dark and his body was crumbling. His hips were militantly protesting through everygame.

Now at 33, he has reasserted himself as the most necessary midfielder in the Premiership. A jackpot of pennies dropped somewhere along the way. He rests well now. He eats like an anorexic sparrow. When a Caesar salad without sauce is brought to his hotel room mid-interview he thanks the women gladly and then looks at the meal as if it were laden with deep-fried Mars bars.

He played against Manchester City on Sunday, and now, on Monday afternoon, he has the souvenirs. One dead leg, one sore ankle, a buffeted body and a sense of deep fatigue. His recovery for the game with Everton starts now.

His week: yoga on Tuesday. Booked into a hotel on Wednesday for a hot stones massage. Thursday and more yoga. He'll train Wednesday and Thursday. Rest Friday.

Still, his body will be jaded.

"The club have helped me with that, especially when there's three games in a week. I got a knock recently and missed the Portugal game for Ireland. That's common sense, it's nothing about being clever or picky. It's using my head. Hopefully when I come for the Israel match I'll be as well prepared and fresh as anybody. Nowadays I have to look ahead like that."

His hip has become happily compliant. Last season he endured constant aches and pains, and while a surgeon did as much as he could with his knifework the verdict was that the wear and tear was critical and irreversible.

His head is in a good place too.

"Mentally, I'm enjoying it. I see there's not much further to go. This Saturday could be the last time or the second-last time I play in the Cup. I know there's only one more visit to certain grounds. There is only an opportunity to play twice more against certain players, players you'd have a rivalry with. There's not many battles left with them."

Then again. He knows walking off a pitch for the last time will be a wrench. He doesn't like the retirement word, but he doesn't like the gentle decline route either. Last weekend he leafed through the Man City match programme, and there was an ex-Sky Blue player preaching that "you need to play as long as you can". He took another glance at who it was. "I thought, bloody hell, there's 'playing' and there's playing."

Here's a picture to brighten a winter morning. About two or three years ago, when his body was beginning to whinge and nothing would soothe it, he got the idea of yoga into his head. The physio at United fetched some stuff up on the internet.

Yoga! Bingo! Roy was enthused. He discovered there was a class down the road, right in the next village in this little school hall. Yoga, he says apologetically, is always in a school hall or church hall. So he drove down there one night unannounced and just walked in to a roomful of old ladies in leotards. A stray tiger among antelope.

"Yeah, I was wondering 'what the hell am I doing here'. So were they. I'd worked out it must be of benefit, though. I went in and I couldn't do any of the stretching stuff because the woman was busy with all the other classes. They were all quite old, but there was one good-looking one. I watched her stretching for a while!"

He came away convinced. The physio at United did a bit more homework. Now a yoga teacher comes twice a week for Keane, Ryan Giggs and David Bellion. Until their bodies adapted they found the sessions drained them like nothing in their careers had ever done. They'd stretch, go home, sleep.

"It's still hard. I lie down and she can push my leg back to 90 degrees. You should be able to do that on your own, but I don't know whether it's an Irish thing or just the time I came up in, but I never stretched. There's benefits. You loosen the muscle and take pressure off your joints."

He's squeezed all the distraction out from his life. Virtually no appearances or interviews. Later this month he appears in court accused of assaulting a minor near his home. He sighs. Nothing he can talk about.

"I've had this sort of thing before. I could do without it. It could be worse. These things come up in life. My life is simple, I don't think I could live a more simple life. Go to work, go home, get the kids from school. I'm well rewarded, Nice house. That's all."

Part of the stocktaking exercise he did on his life after Saipan was a reassessment of his relationship with home. All senses of the word. Ireland. Cork. Mayfield. Rockmount. Family. He had buddies over from Rockmount last week, lads he played with when they were all young and brimming with promise. When the trip was over and the lads were going back to Cork together, he found himself aching a little.

"I still miss that. I was looking at the lads. They were going home to Cork. One of them coaches Rockmount now. You feel you're missing out on that. Missing out on the crack with them, missing out on the crack with my three brothers. There's times when I'd be thinking that the brothers are all closer to each other than I am to any of them. Of course they are, it's obvious. I've been away a long time. There are negatives. I have to look at the positives.

"I am comfortable with the people I grew

up with. A few years ago there was a time when - I wouldn't say I went off the rails, but I wasn't sure what way I was heading, what sort of person I should be. You know, with the money and the success and the exposure. I did lose touch with a lot of people. It's easy to do. I lost touch with Cork. I was out and about.

"In the last few years I've got in touch with a lot of the lads I grew up with it. I go home when I can. It's important to have a sense of that, even for Theresa and the kids. I like for them to know where I grew up and to identify with what being Irish is all about. I'm living in England but I see myself as being Irish. I see my family as Irish, my kids as Irish. Of course they're in school and they're talking about the things English kids talk about.

"I ask the little lad, 'who do you follow?' and he says 'England'! I know he's only winding me up. I think! I got him the Irish gear a couple of weeks ago, Theresa and I were home and we bought it for him at the airport. He has the Celtic gear, the United gear, you try to please them all, let them grow up in the place they are and remind them of what they are. They're Irish, but they were born in England, they live in England."

A few weeks ago somebody sent him a dictionary of Cork slang words. He is engrossed. Sitting up in bed at night joyously rediscovering a word or phrase he'd forgotten he ever knew.

"My wife is laughing at these words. I'm looking at bazzer the other day, a bazzer is obviously a haircut. I couldn't get it out of my head. These are words I'd forgotten about. I love that. My wife laughs at me, but these are things which remind me of what I'm about. Where I'm from. I lost that for a while. I just thought because I've been away, well, because of where I was, I got into a way of life. You chase the wrong things, the wrong people. Things seem important and then you realise they're not really that important."

After the World Cup and all the lingering fall-out that went with it, he felt a longing to came back to play for Ireland. His oldest child, Shannon, is 10 now, and as they get older he notices that they love going back to Ireland. They get back to Cork more often than their Dad does now, and their discovery of their own Irishness woke something in him.

"I went through a phase of my life. I moved on."

His re-integration among the green shirts has been smoother than expected, a gentle re-immersion for which he gives all the credit to Brian Kerr, to Kerr's staff and to the other players. He talks excitedly about the form of Damien Duff, Kevin Kilbane, Robbie Keane and others. He places little value still on winning friendlies, but he is sure about the worth of the improvements in the Irish set-up.

"Listen, we shouldn't be saying, 'oh we have a chance of qualifying'. We know it's going to be hard, but let's go and do it, let's expect to be there. We have France and Switzerland to come to Dublin. We can do it."

He knew Kerr slightly before he came to power. Small talk in hotel lobbies and dressing-rooms. They spoke a couple of times after that, and as Keane watched from the outside he liked what he was saw and what he heard.

"I looked at the last campaign, especially the one or two results against Switzerland. I just knew I could help. I couldn't go back and change things drastically, but I thought we needed that little bit more experience, especially in the position I play in the centre of the park. That showed up a little. That's not being critical of the lads that played there, it's just I had this little bit more experience. I thought I could play some part in helping the team qualify. You only get so many chances. I wasn't coming back on a big ego trip, it wasn't because of the past. Qualifying would be the next priority. I could do something."

Mainly, he says, Saipan has been dealt with through humour. Rather than walk on eggshells, the players give him stick. The bus is late or the flights are 10 minutes delayed and "it's 'bloody hell, don't you start Roy', 'hey don't get Keano going'."

He laughs, but can't resist adding that everyone still misses the point of Saipan. The conditions and organisation were bad, but he could live with that. It was being openly accused of feigning injury which forced him onto a plane home.

Coming back was hard. He doesn't say so, but smiles and looks at the ceiling for a while when you ask him to describe his first encounter with the Irish players as a group.

"You have to move on in life," he says at last. "It helped that the lads from United were involved. At least I'm travelling with people, rooming with one or two. I have people to bounce things off."

He tells a story about that first game back, leaving the Country Club hotel in Portmarnock and heading out into the evening traffic and across the city.

"I was on that bus going to the match and I'd met all the players and it was grand, but I was thinking, what's this going to be like tonight? What's the fans' reaction going to be?' But the music was on and we were getting near Lansdowne and I could feel how much I loved that part of playing for Ireland.

"I used to say that if I could fly in on a Wednesday and play the match and fly back it would be perfect, because before preparation and attitude weren't the best and it frustrated me. But this time everything was good and we were on the bus and the music was going - but there was still this doubt about the fans. There was a kid. We got stuck at a crossing, and this little kid, this young fella, came up to the window and knocked and I thought, here we go, and he just shouted "welcome back, Roy," and I thought, well, that's one. He's behind me tonight, maybe there's two or three million against me, but it's a start."

It's all been worth it, he feels, and again he divvies the credit out to others.

He's on the downslope to home now and seems less needy than he was a few years ago. There's a chance, he says, that when he finishes football he might just take a few years off and basically play with the kids. He's not sure if he's ready for the stress of management.

"I think I could be okay. I could surprise myself. Then again I see Brucie and Mark Hughes and I see how grey they are. They're in their early 40s! It's not as if they are 60 and have been managing for 20 years, then you'd expect a few scars. But these are only getting going. You do wonder."

He and Theresa have started revisiting places he never saw properly as a footballer, trapped by celebrity in a hotel room.

He appreciates that he is in a more than comfortable financial position. There's no desperation about life. When it comes to management, for instance, he envisages that he will basically interview clubs.

"I'll ask what they have. I don't want to be sitting there with 10 other people in the corridor looking at each other saying 'you're next' and then applying the following week and sitting in another corridor with the same 10 touting for every job."

And finally there's always home. He tries to explain the Irishness of his house in Cheshire. The accents of the people who would come in and out. His Mam bringing over white pudding and black pudding. Aidan, his little fella, with a hurley and a sliotar. The pictures all over, Shandon and other Cork scenes. The rugby is on at the moment and he is absorbed by it.

"The kids watch me watching it and see the excitement I feel. Those things are important. A few years ago, about Ireland, I said I'll always go back. Then I got into a phase where I thought I'd never move home. Now I'm thinking this past year or two I probably will go back. Maybe next year I'll change, but you can never say never. "

Who knows. For now it's just Everton, AC Milan, so on. He won't wind down, he won't fade away. We'll look one day and he'll be gone, he'll just be missing in action.