“I said to myself, ‘Welcome to hell.’”
Roy Keane turned down Real Madrid to sign for Celtic in December 2005, a decision he would later admit that he regretted.
Yet, his time at the club would prove to be an anti-climax at the end of a stunningly successful playing career.
He would also say that he is now “a bit embarrassed” by his time with the Glasgow club.
Keane and Celtic
The Corkman, like many football fans growing up in Ireland, was a Celtic supporter.
Keane retained his affection for the Glasgow club into his playing career. He attended the 2003 Uefa Cup final in Seville, a match Celtic narrowly lost to Jose Mourinho’s Porto team.
When the time came to choose a new club in the winter of 2005, the 34-year-old had several offers. Real Madrid were keen to sign him and offered him an 18-month deal.
Keane could have remained in the Premier League by joining either Everton or Bolton Wanderers. Inter Milan and AC Milan were also reportedly interested.
Why Keane chose Celtic
Yet, Keane was drawn to Celtic due to his affection for the club, the fact he didn’t want to play against Man United and the chance to play against Rangers in an Old Firm derby.
Gordan Strachan’s unorthodox sales pitch appeared to seal the deal. The Celtic manager told Keane that although he would ideally like him to join the Scottish team, he didn’t particularly need him.
“So, I said to myself, ‘Fuck him, I’m signing’,” Keane wrote in his second autobiography about the negotiations with the Celtic manager.
Against the advice of his agent and solicitor Michael Kennedy, and despite more lucrative offers elsewhere, Keane agreed to join Celtic.
While he says he was ‘lucky’ to play for such a ‘great club’, Keane does not look back at his time with the club with great fondness.
Keane plays through the pain barrier
Keane later admitted that he lost some love for the game after the bitter end to his time with Manchester United.
The Cork-native was also playing through significant pain due to a hip injury that would ultimately end his career at the end of the 2005/06 season.
Following his first training session with his new teammates, the 34-year-old said he was in agony due to his troublesome hip.
“I got back to my hotel in Edinburgh. I lay on the bed. And my hip – I’ve never known pain like it,” Keane said.
“My hip was fuckin’ screaming. Just from the warm-up, from the training. It was all that movement; I hadn’t moved properly in months. I hadn’t been twisting, holding other players off. And it wasn’t as if I could ease myself back to fitness.
“I couldn’t budge. I thought to myself, ‘You should have retired. You should have just packed it in.”
Keane’s first match for the club was away to Clyde in the Scottish Cup at the start of January. The lower league side beat Celtic 2-1, a shock result. The Irishman called it a ‘nightmare’ for him personally and the team.
“I wasn’t happy with my own game. I did okay, but okay wasn’t enough,” he said.
“After the game – the disappointment. As I was taking my jersey off, I noticed the Nike tag was still on it.
“When I got on the bus, John Hartson, a really good guy, was already sitting there and he was eating a packet of crisps – with a fizzy drink.
“I said to myself, ‘Welcome to hell.’”
Life at Celtic
Keane went on to play just 13 times for Celtic and scored once. He was part of the team that won the Scottish league and the League Cup. However, he didn’t feel like he played a particularly big part in either victory.
Keane’s time with Celtic peaked at Ibrox. The Irish midfielder, still a big-game player, won the man of the match award for his performance in the Old Firm derby.
“The start of my Celtic career hadn’t been great – losing at Clyde, and angry fans. But then, not long after, we go and win at Rangers, and I’m thinking, ‘This is what it’s all about’,” he writes.
“The atmosphere was brilliant, fuckin’ electric. The hatred – I enjoyed all that. I got a yellow card for a foul on Pršo and they were baying for a red card. Physically, I must have felt good. I was Man of the Match, and that was a little moment of satisfaction, another tiny victory.
“The dressing room afterwards was great. Again, it’s what football is all about.”
Keane retired at the end of the season after his hip injury worsened. Within a few months, he became Sunderland manager and oversaw the Black Cat’s promotion back to the Premier League.
The Irishman looks back on his time at Celtic Park with a mixture of regret and ’embarrassment.’
Injuries had taken their toll, he pushed his body too far in an attempt to impress and, ultimately, he lost some of his love for the game.
“Forget about Madrid, Everton, Celtic, Barcelona, Inter Milan and the reasons I should or shouldn’t have gone to any of them. The fact is, the morning I left United I lost the love for the game a little bit.
“I could have had every club in the world ringing me but it wouldn’t have given me that buzz, that satisfaction, that ‘Here we go’.”
Originally published on September 3, 2020.