How Manchester United stole Roy Keane from Kenny Dalglish

Now 25 years ago the story of Britain’s record transfer at the time is still quite remarkable

New Manchester United signing Roy Keane poses with a builders hard hat at Old Trafford after signing from Nottingham Forest ahead of the 1993/94 season. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Allsport/Getty Images

New Manchester United signing Roy Keane poses with a builders hard hat at Old Trafford after signing from Nottingham Forest ahead of the 1993/94 season. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Allsport/Getty Images

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Historic moments usually have an epic quality. But sometimes all it takes to change the world is for a few office staff to get that Friday feeling. Exactly 25 years ago – in the summer of 1993 – the world of football changed for ever because the admin team at Ewood Park clocked off on time. If somebody had stayed late in the office, Roy Keane would have become a Blackburn Rovers player. Instead, Alex Ferguson was given the chance to oversee one of his most important injury-time winners.

United had just won their first title for 26 years but even they could not match the financial power of Blackburn, who had Jack Walker’s money to burn. They had beaten United to Alan Shearer a year earlier, and looked set to do so again when Keane announced he would leave Nottingham Forest after their relegation.

The Blackburn manager, Kenny Dalglish, met Keane at the end of the season. At that stage Keane did not even have an agent and was instead accompanied by the PFA’s Brendon Batson. He liked Dalglish – “his obvious intelligence and cool persona impressed me” – and though he asked for £500,000 a year, the same as Shearer, he eventually accepted £400,000. Those few hours of bargaining were crucial: when Dalglish phoned Ewood Park to see if somebody could prepare the contract, everyone had gone home or to the pub. He shook hands on the deal with Keane and said they could sort the contract on Monday.

Roy Keane’s header in the second leg of the 1999 Champions League semi-final away to Juventus paved the way for United’s stunning comeback. Photo: Ross Kinnaird /Allsport
Roy Keane’s header in the second leg of the 1999 Champions League semi-final away to Juventus paved the way for United’s stunning comeback. Photo: Ross Kinnaird /Allsport

If Blackburn had not quibbled over £100,000 a year, their equivalent of four pence down the back of the sofa, or if somebody had stayed behind until they had a clear in-tray, Keane would have signed there and then. Instead he went back to the family home in Cork the following day and celebrated as approximately 100 per cent of 21-year-olds would in such circumstances. He awoke on the Sunday morning with an intrusive hangover, his mouth tasting of beer and kebabs, when his older brother Pat told him Ferguson was on the phone.

Ferguson tracked Keane down after reading about his talks with Blackburn in the tabloids. While some papers thought he had other targets – a couple said Carlton Palmer was his first choice – Ferguson and his staff had decided Keane was the only player they wanted to add to the title-winning squad. The United manager had been obsessed with Keane since September 1990, when he dominated in Forest’s 1-0 win at Old Trafford.

Ferguson says his apparently laissez-faire attitude was simply because he had promised Forest’s new manager, Frank Clark, that he would wait for official permission to speak to Keane. When he did get hold of the player, Ferguson asked whether anything had been signed with Blackburn. A hungover Keane, his United-loving family all gawping excitedly at him, mumbled that he hadn’t, so Ferguson casually suggested they meet for a chat. “From that moment,” said Keane in his first autobiography, “I was never going to sign for any other club.”

The following day, Ferguson picked Keane up at Manchester airport and went back to his house for a game of snooker. “I liked him straight away,” Keane said. “He was unaffected, funny and reassuringly human. He was also clearly hungry for more trophies.” And new ones. Ferguson matter-of-factly told Keane that, with or without him, United were going to dominate English football but that with Keane they could also win the European Cup. “He was,” remembers Keane, “pushing at an open door.” Whether it was a neat sales pitch or something more meaningful, Ferguson’s comment was eerily prescient: six years later, Keane drove United to the Treble and got to them to the European Cup final with that astonishing performance against Juventus.

Keane earned 25 per cent less at United than he would have done at Blackburn. They were also offering Forest more money, which meant United had to wait another six weeks to complete the transfer. Ferguson told Keane that, if both parties held their nerve, the move would eventually happen. With that, both men went off on their summer holidays. Ferguson had lost players before while on his summer break, most notably Paul Gascoigne, but he was relaxed about Keane. “When he looked me in the eye, I knew I was talking to a footballer who would not break his word.”

Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish thought he had secured the signing of Keane. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Allsport
Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish thought he had secured the signing of Keane. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Allsport

Except that is precisely what he had done to Dalglish, who reacted with volcanic fury when Keane phoned him. “Nobody does this to Kenny Dalglish,” he said. “You’re a wee bastard and you won’t get away with this.” Keane felt uneasy breaking his word but rationalised it with the knowledge that there was no honour of football. Most people realise that towards at the end of their careers; Keane was 21.

Dalglish even threatened to hunt Keane down in Ayia Napa, where he was going with three friends for a lads’ holiday. “I had a fabulous time,” he said later. “No one in Cyprus knew or cared who we were or who we thought we were. Happy, innocent days.”

In a sense they were the last innocent days, because Keane’s life changed when he became a Manchester United player. For his first season he was desperately insecure about his technical ability. A drunken chat with Bryan Robson, who encouraged him to trust his passing range, was the start of his development from a box-to-box hurricane to holding midfielder with a seriously underrated passing ability.

Given his ability and influence, as a demander of the highest standards, it is natural to wonder how different English football might have been had both he and peak Shearer been at the same club. Instead he became the most irreplaceable player in the greatest Manchester United team of all – and a reminder that, even in multimillion-pound industries, the strangest details can change the world. – Guardian service

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