The ambivalence of Roy Keane and the Champions League 

Ambivalence is having conflicting or contradictory feelings about something, so in Barcelona in May 1999, you would find a perfect example of this. Roy Keane and Paul Scholes both dressed in their suits as they were both suspended for the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich lifted the trophy being given a guard of honour from their teammates. 

Keane especially looked uncomfortable as part of him would feel he didn’t win the trophy as he didn’t play in the final, even though the Irishman is one of the main reasons United reached the final. Still, such is the competitor of the man that he didn’t think he earned his medal.

Keane said: “Although I was putting a brave face on it, this was just about the worst experience I had in football.”  

His performance in Turin against Juventus in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final that season is regarded as one of the greatest of all-time, let alone Manchester United performances.

The fact that he came back from a cruciate ligament injury that saw him miss the majority of the 97/98 makes his performances that season even more remarkable.

The next season, Keane carried on where he left off, becoming one of the most dominant midfielders in Europe. In the 99/00 Champions League campaign, a second group stage was introduced which meant more games between the top clubs.

Keane had been negotiating a new contract at Old Trafford for around £52,000-per-week and a few days after he signed it, he scored against Valencia in a 3-0 win. He was the highest paid player in the country but that wouldn’t stop him resting on his laurels. He was United’s top scorer in the competition that season with six goals.

The former Republic of Ireland captain seemed to be on a mission that year, not only in Europe but domestically too. Keane won PFA and FWA Footballer of the year as United eased to a second consecutive title, however, Real Madrid were the team they drew in the quarter-finals. After a scoreless draw in Madrid, the stage was set in Manchester for a monumental and defining game for both sides.

ITV Commentator Clive Tyldesley said before kick-off: “It’s the defending champions against the definitive champions, the holders against the keepers of the European Cup.” This was not the Madrid of today as this was pre-Galacticos and pre-Florentino Perez, but this game would propel them back to greatness.

Keane raced back into his own box in the first half and diverted a low cross into his own net with no Madrid player near him. This spurred United into action with Keane himself breaking forward but he could not beat Iker Casillas between the sticks.

There is a scene in the brilliant “Last Dance” documentary where Michael Jordan realises that he needs to trust his teammates if he wants to win. Keane suffered from this after the treble in that, maybe, he did not see the hunger that he had so felt he had to take charge.

Raul scored on a counter-attack early in the second half to extend Madrid’s lead, but Keane would have a chance right after only to blaze it over the bar after an Andy Cole cutback. This proved costly as Fernando Redondo produced a move of the highest quality to seal the tie effectively, he was seemingly going nowhere as Henning Berg closed him down on the left wing.

But Redondo back-heeled the ball past Berg as the United defence stood still and then kept his composure to produce a sumptuous assist for Raul, who tapped into an empty net. United huffed and puffed searching for a trademark comeback, Keane was fouled in the box late on and Paul Scholes scored but it was not enough as Madrid got their mojo back as they went on to win the trophy and kick-start their new Galactico era.

United won the league again comfortably in 00/01, but met Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals in a rematch of the 1999 final, only this time it was Bayern who were the ones smiling at the final whistle. A 1-0 defeat at home followed by a 2-1 defeat in Munich. That ended the European dream for another year.

In 2001/02 United finished third which was their lowest league finish in a decade. They would finish the season trophy-less for the first time in four years. They faced Bayern Leverkusen in the semi-finals having struggled with German opposition in the past. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were responsible for eliminating us in previous years.

Moreover, Leverkusen had eliminated Liverpool in the previous round and helped knock Arsenal out of the second group stage, so they were not to be taken lightly. United conceded a late equaliser after twice going in front that would eventually prove costly. The return game in Leverkusen would prove to be a big moment for the team but also Keane as well.

The stage was set as United were 90 minutes away from another final and even though the score was 2-2 on aggregate, they were still favourites to go through. A slip at the back was capitalised on by who else but Keane after 28 minutes, he rounded the goalkeeper and finished calmly to give United hope of a second final in a few seasons.

A captain’s goal again in a big moment away from home in a semi-final second leg. Sound familiar? Keane once again turned up when United needed him most, but Leverkusen were not ready to give up just yet.

They had put out Arsenal and Liverpool so they had a taste for beating English opposition and all United needed was to just hold on but alas they couldn’t even get in at half time in front. Oliver Neuville hit a stunning equaliser in added time to add to the nerves, another goal was needed but even as they huffed and puffed it didn’t look like it was their night.

Leverkusen defended well but also needed a combination of luck and poor United finishing and they got it, reminiscent of Upton Park on the final day of the 94/95 season where they drew the game and lost the league to Blackburn.

United had fallen again and Keane would never get as close to the final again, he talked after the game about the players lost their hunger and desire in a speech more akin to Apollo Creed chastising Rocky about losing the Eye of the Tiger in Rocky 3.

Jaap Stam had been sold at the start of the season controversially and United’s defensive solidity had disappeared, it had really been affected domestically but in Europe it got exposed at the worst possible time. Also, there was no Peter Schmeichel as he left after the 99 season so United tried numerous goalkeepers until they found their replacement in Edwin van der Sar years later, also Gary Neville was going through the worst spell in his career and Denis Irwin was falling victim to Father Time.

United had finished third in the 01/02 season and with this semi final exit marked the end of Keane’s prime, even though United regained the league in 02/03 they would never recover their dominance again as the team had aged.

In the next few years, they would go out to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals in 02/03 then Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto in the first knockout round in 03/04 and AC Milan in 04/05 at the same stage. Keane’s hip injury would hamper him in these years and reduce his influence, he was still a great player, but he couldn’t dominate games like he used to, and he tried to adapt but it just wasn’t the same.

His bust-up in the tunnel at Highbury with Patrick Vieira before the match in 2005 was proof that the old Keane was still there, but it was mostly cameos rather than the norm. The infamous MUTV segment where he laid into his fellow teammates after a 4-1 defeat to Middlesbrough, his departure followed soon after and a man who symbolised the winning mentality and determination had left under a cloud.

Keane was a force of nature from the second he arrived at Old Trafford, his influence and ability were both major parts of United’s dominance for a decade. He would be forever chasing his White Whale in Europe and he got so close, but the away goals rule meant he didn’t get his chance.

His image has been reduced to a man who went around kicking people and that couldn’t be further from the truth, he put his foot and sometimes more in when he shouldn’t have but that was the man. The most dominant midfielder the Premier League has seen. To most young people who didn’t see him play, Keane is seen as a caricature of an old football man who can’t get to grips with the modern game.

George Best had often cited the 68 European Cup win against Benfica as the start of a period of European domination, but it was the end of their journey. For Keane this was the same as 99 in Barcelona was the end of a journey that started in Rotterdam beating Barcelona in the Cup Winners Cup in 1991, he wanted more but the success that team had with the Treble left them unable to raise their game again when they needed to.

Watching Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes got another moment in the sun when they won the 2007/08 Champions League against Chelsea in Moscow must have been bittersweet for Keane, they also got to two more finals in 08/09 and 10/11 season losing to Barcelona both times.

In Christopher Nolan’s brilliant film the Prestige there is a line talking about following your obsession and how no good will come of it, when Nikola Tesla played by David Bowie is asked if any good came of his obsession he replies: “At first but I have followed them too long, I am their slave and one day they will choose to destroy me”  

Knowing he missed out must still irk him to this day, he still has the medals and legacy that most players dream of but for him it’s just not enough. The same drive that would push him onto greatness also pushed him over the line on more than one occasion, he was burned to the bone by his desire to win and it would push him to greatness but would also lead to his exit from the club.

Keane’s performance in Turin is the benchmark in my opinion for any player to put a team on his back and drag them to victory. But for every moment of glory for Keane there seemed to be a counter to it so soon after, first Turin then helping Ireland qualify for the World Cup in 2002 then having a blazing row just before and leaving the squad on the eve of the tournament.

For a man single minded of purpose, he often expected the same in others but where Keane could push himself on others simple could not. He felt like that night in Leverkusen was a night of missed opportunity, something he stated on The Overlap when discussing European games.

That game and the tie against Porto, which represented his last chance to win the Champions League, fell away as United did that season with a whimper. Keane will probably never feel he got his moment in Europe to play a final and that will live with him until the end.

Such is the measure of the man that even when he won everything, there was always another goal to reach, he is one of the greatest players I have seen play for United.

Footballers rarely get to write their own endings and Keane is no different, he chased this elusive final but came up short.

For Roy, the awkwardness of the night in Barcelona is etched on his face, in the pictures and videos with a feeling of unease at feeling that he didn’t earn that moment even though he did and then some. For him to watch his friends and teammates have their moment in the sun a few years later, Keane must feel like a man outside in the cold looking in.

Subscribe to the Stretty News podcast Strettycast for weekly episodes on Manchester United. You can also sign up to the ad-free Stretty Newsletter. Get the Stretty News verdict on all matters Manchester United.  

More Stories Andy Cole Bayer Leverkusen Bayern Munich denis irwin Fernando Redondo Gary Neville Henning Berg Jaap Stam Manchester United Paul Scholes Raul Real Madrid Roy Keane Ryan Giggs

1 Comment

  1. I wonder if Keane felt that Scholes hadn’t ‘earned his medal’ too. Hopefully not. Football is a team game, reliant on the contributions of one and all, and you’d think few would understand this better than Man Utd’s greatest ever warrior.
    I often see Roy the pundit really struggling to take enjoyment from Utd games. A good result despite a poor performance can still be something to celebrate, but he often seems to take zero pleasure from such a scenario. Yes, he’s tough on himself, tough on those around him, but surely there comes a point when you have to take some enjoyment from your achievements and the achievements of others. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Comments are closed