Book review: Contradictions, complexity and the quintessential Roy Keane

Highly self-critical and self-aware, Roy Keane’s autobiography-as-confessional delivers wit and wisdom – of sorts – but fails to break the sports book mould

What's your favourite Roy Keane story? Is it Robbie Savage's voicemail, John Hartson's crisps or Abba on the bus at Sunderland? Is it the one about the frightening obsessive who maintains his hold on an audience, and his own enigmatic reputation, through a decade of revealing interviews, TV appearances, books and beard growth? Is it the one Roy Keane tells or the one Roy Keane is?

In a thoughtful piece as long ago as 2005, the year of the great Manchester United bust-up, British sportswriter Simon Barnes wrote about how Keane had "mellowed". Like global warming, Keane's mellowing has always been difficult to detect with the naked eye, and is absolutely denied by some. The process appears to have been going on for as long as anyone can remember, to the point where it has become – all credit to the lad – one of football's great cliches.

The focus on the Alex Ferguson feud, the sport's most tiresome quarrel, at Thursday's book launch in Dublin suggested that recent signs of a genuine softening in Keane's thinking and perspective were deceptive. Partly since his work as a TV pundit, and especially in his assistant manager roles, Keane's image has undergone a rebranding not unlike Ryanair's: more appealing to the public, business friendly, fewer baggage issues.

This week's fresh whining about Ferguson, as well as the racy leaks on Twitter, if anything misrepresent the tone of The Second Half, which in its wit and self-reflection, its grappling for balance and fairness in many situations, continues this process of rebranding – or, if you like, demystification. At one point Keane remarks how "at some stage, I would like a life with a bit of anonymity", a desire that seems laughable in the context of this week's frenzy, but one which chimes with the qualities of the autobiography. The book and its subject come across exactly how Roddy Doyle describes his feelings towards Keane's personality: "not fascinating, but interesting". You imagine Keane wants it that way.


The choice of Doyle marks an acceleration in the ghostwriting arms race (next week: Sam Allardyce and George R R Martin) and ensures Keane's humanity – rather than the belligerence captured by Eamon Dunphy in Keane's 2002 book – is to the fore. JK Rowling has described Doyle's The Woman Who Walked into Doors as her favourite book for his skill in inhabiting the life of abused wife Paula Spencer, a more than adequate preparation for the relatively straightforward contradictions of Ireland's most complex – and we use the term loosely – sports star.

Wry wit Keane's wry wit enjoys the turbo-boost of Doyle's comic timing, absurd observations and his mastery of the dark arts of expletives. Dunphy's book may have become infamous for how a bad word was used – "Take that, you c***" he baits Alf-Inge Haaland – but it rarely uses expletives to capture what might be imagined as Keane's voice. Doyle employs this device all the time, often comically: "Gabriel Heinze was another good guy. He was a nasty fucker . . ." John O'Shea played like "a fuckin' clown" against Ronaldo. One of Keane's first thoughts when leaving Old Trafford is about the Audi A8 he drives: "I have to fuckin' give the car back".

Keane’s great appeal lies in his capacity for violence, even if it’s his tongue that often does the damage, as Ferguson noted snidely in his book last year. The threat of an explosion is always present, yet those incidents that do occur here – shouting matches and grappling with players, arguments with opposing managers and their staff, even the climax to his United career in Ferguson’s office – are often sanitised by humour and so are difficult to reconcile fully with the fearsome character we know.

A fight with Peter Schmeichel ends with the ridiculous observation by Ferguson (it is Doyle being funny, not the manager) that they had woken Bobby Charlton up. When an argument with Kevin Dillon, Steve Coppell's assistant at Reading, gets out of hand, he "got his head on the table, pulled his tie up". At Sunderland we are treated to the absurd image of an angry Keane routinely kicking over the tactics board in the dressing-room, only for an assistant to have to go looking for the little fallen men. It reads more like a scene from Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

For all the lighter touches, Keane is highly self-critical and self-aware – another careful repositioning. The emphasis is on how much he did wrong and how much he has learned. As a player he acknowledges a lack of cleverness in how he trained, in contrast to the way the foreign players looked after their bodies; the result is a painful and well-documented deterioration in his physical wellbeing. Meanwhile the mythical “self-destruct button”, as he calls it, may have burnished his legend but it also cost him hundreds of thousands in hard cash when he failed to think clearly during the United endgame.

Crass choices As an embryonic manager he struggled not only to cope with the personal problems of players, but made some crass choices – at one point, almost unbelievably, standing in for the goalkeepers during training to make a point after Craig Gordon had let in a bad goal during a match. "You're all losers!" he tells the Ipswich players, and acknowledges treating some people at the club as badly as Ellis Short had treated him at Sunderland – like "something on the bottom of his shoe". He was poor in the transfer market and hopelessly optimistic (not like him) about the team's prospects at both Sunderland and Ipswich. This is autobiography-as-confessional: "We – I – could have done better".

The honesty is enjoyable – no more so than the farcical scene when he tells his children there'll soon be less money in the house – but actually the account of the days and months at Sunderland and Ipswich is too conventional to be truly compelling. Now and then a sports autobiography comes along and breaks the mould (Paul Kimmage's book with Tony Cascarino, for instance) but this isn't one of them. Perhaps it would be unfair to expect even this all-star line-up to do so, and besides, anything further would not fit with Keane's desire for a life more ordinary.

Instead a slice of the originality, if you can call it that, lies in a fresh take on the I-said, he-said saga of the Ferguson row. The scene at Carrington, United's training ground, after Keane's criticism of his teammates on MUTV manages to be thrilling and depressing at the same time. This is a far more detailed account than Ferguson's, offering a very different take on which players stuck up for him (Solskjaer and Scholes, insists Keane), as well as an amazing exchange with Ferguson's assistant and Keane's nemesis Carlos Queiroz. It is stirring stuff. As a direct answer to the former manager it is also – to use Keane's word about some exchanges between the two men – childish.

For all Keane's bitterness, he admits his departure from Old Trafford "was definitely to the benefit of Manchester United". In doing so he surprisingly acknowledges that Ferguson's business decision was right; that the fallout is strictly personal. Later on, as Sunderland manager, after a hammering by United, Ferguson's offer to give him Jonny Evans on loan brings a telling and poignant observation: "He actually cares – a bit."

It’s hard not to see this as the story of a broken heart that hasn’t mended. If Keane’s book offers any hope of a reconciliation – and please God, let them reconcile – it may lie in the vulnerability of this little detail.

David McKechnie

David McKechnie

The late David McKechnie was deputy foreign editor of The Irish Times