The Return of The King: The enigma of Roy Keane…

National hero or national disgrace?

War in Japan

Roy Keane - Photo: Shane Whelan,

Roy Keane – Photo: Shane Whelan,

I can still remember it. Like it was yesterday.
I was sitting at my desk, purportedly working, but in reality killing time on P45 when a wee small voice (that of Mr. Burns actually) shrieked at me through my headphones. Rigging my pc this way was the only way that I could ensure that I would know when mail had arrived. The message was two lines long:
“Roy Keane has been sent home from the World Cup!
Within about sixty to ninety seconds, all pretence of work had ceased in the office. The company server came close to crashing and bosses were pouring out of offices, frantically shouting at someone to get onto to find out what the hell was going on.
War in Ireland
The next 24 hours were to see the birth of the most divisive, violent argument in Irish history since the Civil War. Every pub, workplace, shop, coffee house, bar, office, living room and bedroom became consumed with the why’s and the wheretofores’ of how it came to be that Ireland’s most infamous son had been expelled from the tournament which many predicted he would simply dominate.
The exact shenanigans which took place in Saipan (balls, lack of balls, insults about nationality, waterlogged pitches, handshakes, planes home, the words “up yer bollix” etc) are now the stuff of legend and I’m not going to bother to re-hash them here. If you are curious to refresh your memory regarding the whole sorry saga then you can explore the information at this link, which details the whole disgusting mess in lurid detail.
Nuclear war
I want to talk about something else. I want to talk about how it came to be that a Cork footballer was dominating the world’s press (global banner headlines) when, at the same time, India and Pakistan were pointing nuclear weapons at each other across a disputed border. What power does this man have to do this?
Why were Irish parents ringing radio talk shows and telling us that their children were crying? Why were political talk shows, usually reserved for debating the finer points of tax breaks and political corruption, consumed with the subject? Why was our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) quoted as saying that he wanted to negotiate a settlement? Why did the whole country, from top to bottom, man and woman, dog and cat, left and right, black and white, go completely insane? And furthermore, how is it that the news that Roy has decided to rejoin the Irish fold sent the country into a new round of paroxysms?
The enigma
Roy Keane is an enigma. He always has been. And always will be. His behaviour and methods have long divided people. Combative, aggressive, confrontational, honest, duplicitous, shy, outspoken, charismatic, reclusive. He is all of these things and about a dozen or so other adjectives. On the other hand there are those who would choose adjectives such as violent, abusive, unhinged, dangerous, disgraceful and manipulative.
So which is he? A national hero or a national disgrace? In many ways he is both. His oft cited propensity for violence has landed him in more hot water that most of us could ever imagine. His shotgun honesty when he speaks about Ireland has irritated and offended legions of people. His candour in the face of a vilely corrupt and skewed football industry has ruffled the feathers of every football official that has ever had anything to with him. He does not take prisoners, on or off a pitch.
Bag of wind
But he’s just a footballer isn’t he? A poor kid from Mayfield who made good? A millionaire thug who gets paid absurd amounts of money to chase a bag of wind around a patch of grass, with 21 other millionaires once or twice a week? Right?
Keane is a footballer, yes. But his personality, and most importantly his attitude to winning have transcended all of that. Allow me to give you an example….
At the beginning of the World Cup qualifying campaign, Ireland travelled to play the much fancied Holland. It was assumed that Ireland would be skinned alive and sent home to momma in a cardboard box. Ireland went 2-0 ahead in the first half. Keane was awesome. And then it happened.
The Irish back four leaked two goals, the game ending 2-2. Whilst other players left the pitch, jubilant and cheering, Keane tore his green shirt off and flung it aside in disgust. He wanted to win. And nothing else would do. To me this is the defining characteristic of the man: an almost psychotic inability to deal with loss. Second-best is not worth shit to Keane and he expects the same from everyone else. When he doesn’t get it….
The cute hoor
Keane represents something which Irish people have yet to come to terms with: a successful nation. Most of us spent the 1990’s, well, just spending. Lured as we were by the dot com boom, promises of free cash, any job we wanted and as much beer, sex and drugs as we could get into us, the Irish nation went on a bender of biblical proportions, the hangover from which is still being felt across every town and city. During this time, the most celebrated and successful football team in the world were a certain outfit in Manchester. You may have heard of them. And the Captain of this team?
Keane, became talismanic, not just for his employers but for Irishmen and women. He became a symbol of aggression, ambition, drive and professionalism. His almost frightening desire to win at all costs was at odds with the prevailing attitude in Ireland at the time (an attitude to everything by the way) where we were content to be the European Union’s cute cousin: a great place to drink, have fun and meet real Celts who hadn’t been assimilated by those nefarious, moustache-twirling Brits across the sea. It was of course, total rubbish. We may have been the Isle of Saints and Scholars. But we were also vastly in debt. Mostly in dollars.
The cute-hoor, “we’re here for the beer”, nudge and wink culture of Fianna Fail which dominated the later days of the (abysmally named) Celtic Tiger was our mantra. Drink it while you can.
On Raven’s wing

Keane (once fond of a pint himself) was anathema to this. He didn’t fight tooth and nail just to get to the World Cup. He wanted to win it. And furthermore, I believe he felt they could.
To look at Roy Keane is to look at ourselves. Ambition, talent, and a desire to win. But to look at Roy Keane is also to look at another side of ourselves. Brutality, violence, aggression and rage.
Keane bestrides the Irish consciousness like CuChullain. A man seemingly born to conflict, with a staggering ability to make others around him perform beyond their natural ability. He taunts us and goads us, enraptures and enthralls us. His is our tearaway son, prodigal brat, freak in the attic. And our uncrowned prince. He is born of another race, a Raven on his shoulder.
It may all come to nothing. Despite assurances, Keane may never play for his country again (I hope I am wrong by the way…) and he may not even get a place. He’s no spring chicken after all.
Many people claim that we would be better off without him. Perhaps. It’s possible. An Ireland without him…. consider it: how peaceful, how tranquil, how utterly without incident. And how utterly boring.
Roy Keane Thread on forums »
Roy Keane Profile »

Damien DeBarra was born in the late 20th century and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. He now lives in London, England where he shares a house with four laptops, three bikes and a large collection of chairs.


  1. That’s real Roy of the Rovers stuff, man.
    I’d like to see a square go between Roy Keane and Greame Souness. That would put an end to the “best on-screen fight you’ve ever seen” debate forever.
    Mad Roy may not have the vision of Scholes, the delivery of Beckham, the close control of Giggs or the composure of Veron, but what he has fostered at Utd is the “everyone hates us and we don’t give a +@#&” attitude, an absolute must for any club aspiring to prolonged success. Arsenal don’t have it, yet. The great Liverpool side of late 70s had it and dominated Europe. That team was built around a backbone of Hansen/Souness/Dalglish – three of the most arrogant, miserable and successful footballers ever to come out of Scotland. Ther’s a little bit of crazy man Roy in each of them, and vice-versa.

  2. ‘I want to talk about how it came to be that a Cork footballer was dominating the world’s press (global banner headlines) when, at the same time, India and Pakistan were pointing nuclear weapons at each other across a disputed border. What power does this man have to do this?’
    It’s true! I was a few hundred miles away from said India/Pakistan border at the time, and (once it was ascertained we were Irish), all people talked about was Roy Keane, never mind the fecking nukes!

  3. What, like ‘that shower of bastards’?
    I’m satying clear, I’m a Wexfordonian

  4. Can anyone give me the “Sean O’Shea” verse of the ‘The Langer’by ‘Natural Gas’ ‘Tim O’ Riordan’ preferably ‘as Gaeilge’ as sung by him.

Comments are closed.