“It was the most attractive challenge in front of me, but I didn’t accept it.”
In November 2005, Roy Keane’s career at Manchester United came to an abrupt end. He was then offered the chance to join Real Madrid but did not take it.
After 12-and-a-half years, 480 games, 51 goals, seven league titles, four FA Cups, the Champions League and an unprecedented treble, Keane departed Old Trafford in acrimonious circumstances.
All these years later, and the wounds still don’t appear to have healed.
Keane and Ferguson.
Alex Ferguson and Keane, the driving forces behind United’s most successful years, fell out and Ferguson discarded the most important player he ever had.
The Irishman was 34 at the time, nursing a foot injury after a hefty tackle from Liverpool’s Luis Garcia and attempting to manage a hip injury that would end his career the following summer.
Yet, he was still inundated with offers, such was his status within the sport.
Clubs line up to sign Keane.
Twitter wasn’t around, but if you had have turned on Ceefax in November and December 2005, you would have seen daily transfer rumours linking the Corkman with moves to clubs throughout Europe.
Bayern Munich and Juventus, two teams who had attempted to sign Keane a few years previously, when it looked like he wouldn’t sign a new contract with United, were reportedly interested. Inter Milan and AC Milan too.
Almost every Premier League side, bar the obvious exceptions of Liverpool and Arsenal, were said to have been keen on signing Roy.
Keane joins Celtic.
Keane narrowed the offers down. He met with David Moyes, the then Everton manager, and Bolton boss Sam Allardyce but ended up signing for Celtic. Gordan Strachan caught Keane off-guard, stating that, while he would like him to join the Scottish side, he didn’t really need him. “So, I said to myself, ‘Fuck him, I’m signing’,” Keane said about the negotiations with the Celtic manager.
He took a significant pay cut, joined them in January 2006 and played 13 games, scoring once. The former Ireland captain supported Celtic and was in attendance when they lost the dramatic Uefa Cup final to Porto in 2003 in Seville. However, he would later admit that he doesn’t think of with his spell at Celtic with great fondness, revealing that he played through significant pain with the nagging hip injury and lost some love for the game after how it ended at United.
Looking back, he turned down the most interesting and exciting offer on the table – a move to Real Madrid.
Keane turns down Real Madrid.
Real, at that time, were not a vintage side. The first Galactico era was coming to an end, petering out as celebrity status took prominence over building a cohesive, winning team.
Madrid were knocked out of the Champions League by Arsenal that season. Their bitter rivals Barcelona went on to win the European Cup and La Liga, finishing 12-points clear of Los Blancos. Zinedine Zidane then walked away from Real, retiring after the World Cup despite having a year left on his deal.
Yet, they still had some incredibly talented footballers when the offer came for Keane to join them in the winter of 2005 – Zidane, Raul, Ronaldo, Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Roberto Carlos. Keane’s former Man United teammate David Beckham was also in the squad, as was Jonathan Woodgate and Danish midfielder Thomas Gravenson. This was a peculiar time at the Bernabeu.
“Roy, we’ll be glad to have you.”
But, despite their troubles, it was still Real Madrid, the world’s most glamourous football club. However, it wasn’t to be. Keane spoke to the club and his solicitor travelled to Spain to negotiate a contract for him. But he rejected the offer for what he calls “negative” reasons
“Michael (Kennedy) had been over to Madrid and he’d negotiated a deal with Real. They spoke to me, too. Butragueño rang me. Emilio Butragueño – what a player he was. Michael had given me a heads-up that Butragueño would be phoning, so I took my mobile everywhere with me.
“And – how’s your luck – he rang me when I was sitting on the toilet. He said, ‘Look, Roy, we’ll be glad to have you.’ The club’s board just had to sanction the deal; it was standard procedure.
“I was going, ‘–okay’, hesitating. Michael was going, ‘What are you doing, Roy?'”
“I took a negative approach.”
Keane said Real just needed to “rubber-stamp” the deal. However, he “ran out of patience” and opted for Celtic instead. Looking back, he concedes that he didn’t appreciate the offer as much as he should have.
“It was the most attractive challenge in front of me, but I didn’t accept it,” he said.
“With hindsight, I should have said to myself, ‘Go. Go to Spain, live there for a year and a half, learn a different language, learn the culture. You might end up loving it. You might even stay there.’
“I took a negative approach, I think, instead of saying, ‘This is amazing, what a chance for me.’ It could have been great for my kids. The weather and the training might have given me another lease of life, another two years of playing; I might have picked up new techniques for my stretching. But instead – as usual – I was looking at what might go wrong. ‘Hindsight’ is a fucker of a word. At the time, it felt like the right decision.”
“It was fear that decided me.”
“I didn’t want to move to Spain. As much as anything else, it was fear that decided me – fear of the unknown. And I threw excuses in front of me – family, language, the kids’ education. I could imagine myself going to Madrid, and into the dressing room. I’d be starting all over again, and I was in no mood to be doing that. I’d had a tough career. Physically, I was struggling.
“It’s no good playing for a club; or, it’s not just about playing for them. It’s about having an effect on the club, having a big influence. That was one of my concerns when I left United. I was thirty-four, an experienced player. Real Madrid might just have wanted someone to do a job, sit in the middle of the park for a few games. But I wanted to go in and have an effect on a team.”
“I could affect games with my presence.”
Keane writes that, while he felt he could still have an impact on games, his body had started to wane physically.
“I could affect games with my presence, by breaking play up, imposing myself, even in the tunnel, before we went on to the pitch. But I was thirty-four, and I played a hard, physical game. I’d watched older players going to new clubs and it hadn’t worked out.
Ironically, Madrid desperately needed someone with Keane’s qualities at the time, someone to control proceedings in the centre of midfield and break up play, even if he was in the winter of his career. They were a Ferrari without an engine.
The Irishman also had the chance to end his career alongside some all-time greats. While the slower, less physical pace of La Liga, combined with the lifestyle and climate in Madrid, may have even helped extend his career and manage the hip injury.
“The morning I left United I lost the love for the game a little bit.”
Yet, Keane states that, ultimately, it didn’t matter what club he signed for. He lost the “buzz” of playing football when he left Old Trafford.
“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 April 3, 2020.