“He was never in the game.”
The midfield general of United’s golden 90s period, Keane’s influence began to wane before he departed Old Trafford in abrupt fashion on November 18, 2005.
Keane’s exit had been a long time coming, of course. His relationship with United boss Alex Ferguson had deteriorated and injuries had impacted his ability to dictate games.
Keane and Ferguson’s relationship.
A month after leaving United, Keane signed for Celtic, where he played under former Red Devils midfielder Gordon Strachan.
The move to Parkhead to play for the club he supported as a child didn’t quite pan out as Keane had hoped.
In June 2006, after only 13 appearances, the former Ireland captain announced his retirement.
While Ferguson and Keane’s relationship had soured during the latter stages of their time together at United, the legendary Scot kept a close eye on the player’s progress after heading north of the border to Glasgow.
However, Ferguson was taken aback when he watched his former skipper at Celtic; not by how effective he was, but by how much he struggled.
Ferguson on Keane’s performance in the Old Firm derby.
Writing in Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography, the former United manager said: “I think the [United] dressing room relaxed when Roy left. Relief swept the room. They no longer had to listen to the barrage that some of them had grown to expect.
“Because he’d been a declining force, the gap he left was not as big as it would have been three years previously.
“I watched him in a Celtic v Rangers game and said to Carlos [Queiroz] beforehand, ‘He’ll be the star man today.'”
Ferguson’s preconception was well-placed. Celtic playing Rangers was akin to Keane facing Arsenal or Liverpool in his United pomp.
They were massive games and he almost always rose to the occasion.
However, as Ferguson recalled, Keane was strangely subdued during that Old Firm clash (Keane twice played against Rangers during his spell in Scotland, and while Ferguson never specifies which game it was, it seems likely he was referring to the 0-0 draw at Parkhead in April in which Keane was substituted on the hour for Shunsuke Nakamura).
“Roy was never in the game. He played a passive role. The dynamic, fist-clenching, demanding Roy Keane wasn’t there.
“He loved it at Celtic Park. I spoke to him about it and he praised the training, the facilities, the Prozone.
“Things did settle down between us. About two months later I was sitting in my office discussing team business with Carlos, when a member of staff called to say that Roy was here to see me.
“I was startled.
“‘I just want to apologise to you for my behaviour,’ he said. That’s when we began describing the scene at Celtic and telling me how well his work was going.
“But when I saw him in that Rangers-Celtic game I knew he wouldn’t carry on with it.”
Ferguson’s assessment seemed on the mark given how Keane called time on his career just a few months later.
Even though Keane was 34 at Celtic and evidently over the hill, it must have been jarring for Ferguson to see him struggle in a role he had owned for over a decade at United.
(Originally published on November 24, 2020).