“But he could not accept the new reality.”
For Manchester United fans of a certain vintage, the image of Roy Keane commanding the midfield will forever be engrained in their memory.
For years, Keane was the ferocious beating heart of United’s midfield. The Irishman was feared by opponents and even his own teammates.
At his peak, Keane was the consummate midfielder. Full-blooded in the tackle, he was also one of the most incisive passers the English game has ever seen.
Like his midfield contemporary Paul Scholes, he also had a knack for scoring, particularly during the 1999/00 season when he struck 12 times in 45 games, six of which came in the Champions League.
However, while Keane seemed indestructible at times, not even he was immune to the unstoppable passing of time.
‘We tried to change his job description’
At Man United, Keane suffered some significant injuries, particularly to his knees and his hip.
And when he reached the wrong side of 30, Alex Ferguson sought to prolong his captain’s time at the top.
“I believe – and Carlos Queiroz was at one with me on this – that Roy Keane’s behaviour pattern changed when he realised he was no longer the Roy Keane of old,” Ferguson wrote in his 2013 autobiography.
“We’re certain of that. Acting on a conviction that some of his strengths had been stolen from him by injury and age, we tried to change his job description, for his benefit as much as ours.
“We tried to alter his role by discouraging him from charging all over the pitch and making forward runs.
“Every time a team-mate received the ball, Roy would want it off him. That was an admirable quality. The religion at United was that when one of our players had the ball, we moved, and all the others supported the play.
“Roy was at an age where he shouldn’t have been doing that, but he could not accept the new reality.”
Ferguson added that he thought Keane was aware of his declining physical attributes, but recalled how the Irishman was resistant because “to surrender to it was too threatening to his pride.”
“It became apparent to us that we were no longer dealing with the same Roy Keane,” wrote the Scot.
“Our solution was to tell him to stay in that same area of central midfield. He could control the game from there.
“Deep down, I believe, he knew that better than anyone, but he simply could not bring himself to abandon his old talismanic role.
‘He thought he was Peter Pan’ – Ferguson on Keane
“That was the long-term confrontation that ended with him leaving the club and joining Celtic. He thought he was Peter Pan. Nobody is. Ryan Giggs is the closest you might come to that mythical ageless creature, but Ryan never had any serious injuries.
“Roy had some bad ones. His hip problem was the one that caused the biggest deterioration in his physical prowess.”
Injuries indeed hampered the latter stages of Keane’s United career. In the 2005/06 season, his last at Old Trafford, he managed only six appearances due to a broken foot sustained in the 0-0 draw with Liverpool at Anfield in September, which proved to be his last game for the club.