I was watching the superb MOTD lockdown special recently, regarding the best European players to grace the Premier League by Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Ian Wright on BBC1. They selected Roy Keane as their number one European player of all time! This surprised me for a number of reasons. Not least the fact that Roy Keane can only loosely be described as ‘European’ within the social construct and typical application of this term.
When your flatmate says they are travelling across Europe, one doesn’t automatically assume Ballinderry Park do they? For me, when you talk about foreign imports, in the early days of the Premier League you tend to think of the cultural differences which they brought with them that transformed the British game as we know it; diet, professionalism, training methods, style of play, flamboyancy and so on. To put Roy Keane on this list with what felt like a technicality, into the same bracket as Zola, Ginola and Di Canio (all of whom were omitted from the top 10) seems odd to me.
Particularly given that they’d already had the opportunity to eulogize over Roy Keane’s more universally agreed qualities during the ‘captains’ edition of the show. Nevertheless, he’s in there and he was put down as the number one by both Wright and Shearer with only Lineker casting any doubt over his inclusion.
“When we talk about best ‘player’ should we not be talking about someone that brings you joy when you watch them play. No one can dispute his talents as a leader but was he the best ‘player’?”
And it’s on this point in particular that I’d like to pick up and discuss further. Let me begin by acknowledging that Roy Keane’s influence in the dressing room at Manchester United cannot be disputed. He is, without doubt, one of the greatest captains the game has ever seen; a leader; a warrior; an inspiration to everyone that played with him; fearless and fearsome in equal measure.
Like all brilliant leaders, one of Keane’s greatest talents is surely unlocking the talent and potential of others; driving the standards of the team and refusing to accept failure. The impact he had on the class of ’92 cannot be under-estimated. Keane’s greatest moment arguably came in 1999 when his virtuoso performance dragged Manchester Utd to the Champions League Final against Juventus; a competition they would later go on to win without their talisman on account of his yellow card and subsequent suspension within said match.
“Pounding every blade of grass, competing as if he’d rather die of exhaustion than lose. He inspired all around him. I felt as though it was an honour to be associated with this player”.
Sir Alex Ferguson
I don’t think even Keane’s fiercest critics could dispute his selflessness, his work ethic, or his leadership qualities. However, I often suspect that the maverick players with huge personalities and charisma such as Roy Keane are not in fact as good at ‘football’ as people remember them being. He’s one of those players that go down in folklore, who seem to get better exponentially with every passing year, like the exaggerated grandeur of your grandfather’s war-time heroism. The phrase ‘Roy Keane was so under-rated’ has become such a hipster aphorism these days that it almost belongs in the same bracket as ‘he’s got a great touch for a big man’ when describing Peter Crouch. But was Roy Keane really ‘under-rated’ as a footballer or was he rated quite fairly in approximation to his true footballing ability? Let’s try to look at this a bit more objectively to begin with:
First of all one might examine his trophy cabinet; 7 premier League titles is a monumental achievement, and if we appraised Roy Keane’s influence on this great Manchester Utd side on this statistic alone then it would be hard to argue a case against him. However, we must also recognise that Keane played in a terrific side with arguably the greatest midfield quartet to ever play in the Premier League, consisting of Giggs, Scholes and Beckham alongside him. Those 3 could make Lee Cattermole look like a world beater, if your only remit is to win the ball and give it to them. He played in a great team who routinely won league titles and cup competitions with and without him. In fact, whilst players have come and gone, the common denominator in terms of influence on the team success is Sir Alex Ferguson; not Roy Keane. After Keane’s departure to Celtic in November 2005, Utd went on to win the league on 5 separate occasions over the next 8 seasons until Ferguson’s eventual retirement. However, amazingly they’ve only finished in the top 3 once since then. The other issue with using league and cup winners medals as a metric for measuring individual player ability is that it also puts the likes of Darron Gibson and David May above Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, and Gareth Bale. Let’s also not overlook that, using this criteria, the Brazilian flop Anderson, with 4 league titles to his name, would be revered as one of the greatest central midfielders the premier league has ever seen!
Next let’s look at his premier league appearances – 366. Again, not necessarily a relevant measure of true player ability. Nevertheless, his enduring playing career over a period of sustained success is an argument often put forward by Keane supporters. I accept the argument of longevity as a good indicator that a player is superior to his peers purely on the basis that it is harder to maintain a high level of performance consistently over a number of years, than to adopt the Michu approach to Premier League stardom. Keane’s numbers are impressive, however they are significantly less impressive than other midfielders such as Gareth Barry (653) or James Milner (534), who I suspect would lack the air-time afforded to Keane in the ‘greatest of all time’ debates. Keane is in fact not even in the top 50 appearance holders, with other central midfielders such as Nolan, Bowyer, Parker and surprisingly even his old team mate Nicky Butt (who departed Old Trafford for more game-time) also managing to surpass Keane’s figure over the years.
Now lets’s examine his goal contributions – 9 assists and 39 goals in his career. It’s quite underwhelming for a player who is often romantically considered to be ‘much more than just a ball winner’. Let’s compare these statistics to a far more genuine box-to-box midfielder, with an equally decorated résumé, in the form of Frank Lampard. Lampard was a player who never neglected his defensive responsibilities, played predominantly within a fairly negative tactical set-up under Jose Mourinho, yet still managed to register 177 goals and 102 assists. Lampard is lucky if he gets a mention in the ‘greatest ever’ debates yet the nostalgia we reserve for Keane’s inclusion appears to elevate him above everybody else, in spite of his relatively modest numbers.
If you swapped Roy Keane for Frank Lampard during their best years, would Chelsea have won the trophies that they did without the contribution that Frank made? Liverpool may have not have won the Premier League title but would they have consistently challenged in the manner that they did, in addition to winning multiple domestic and European Cup competitions if you put Roy Keane in that side in replacement of Steven Gerrard? I think Utd would have coped without Keane. Ferguson proved that in the immediate years after Keane’s departure. Don’t get me wrong, I think Keane was a good solid player; with excellent, albeit conservative, short passing accuracy; an unparalleled appetite for the battle; exceptional leadership qualities and a unique driven personality. The footage below displays precisely that. However, if Keane offered anything more than that then I would take some convincing.
The “Greatest Ever” individual performance from the Premier League’s “Greatest Ever European Player”; Roy Keane. Not for me.