Why I’m still keen on Keane

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
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Roy Keane might be a ‘Nutter!’ as one Sunday tabloid branded him after his latest sending-off. But if you are a Manchester United fan, he is our nutter.

At United’s first match of the season, with the storm over Keane’s no-holds barred autobiography raging, a banner appeared declaring the Stretford End’s love for ‘Cantona 95 Beckham 98 Keane 02’. The message was that football fans will stand by their man when others are trying to drive him out of the game, as happened to Eric Cantona (after he attacked an abusive Crystal Palace supporter in 1995) and David Beckham (after he got himself sent off and England knocked out of the 1998 World Cup).

In the pub after Cantona’s infamous karate-kick, some Palace supporters suggested that he should be banned for life. I pointed out to them that, if King Eric had machinegunned the front row of their members’ stand, we would still want him to play for United on Saturday.

Naturally they disagreed, but they also understood what I was talking about. Everybody wants a passionately bad loser like Cantona or Keane in their team. The only unforgivable offence to a football fan is letting your side down on the pitch. If there is muttering about Keane among the Old Trafford faithful today, it is not because of what he might have done to other players, but because some fear he may no longer be doing it for United.

The professional outrage-mongers will protest that to defend Keane today is irresponsible and irrational. To which the answer is: yes, of course.

But then, this is the game of football we’re talking about, not the real world. Whenever football is discussed, the one thing we seem guaranteed to lose is a sense of perspective. The great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously remarked that football was more important than life and death. The media mob now pursuing Keane seem to have forgotten that Shanks was joking. They treat the offences of a footballer as if they really were crimes against humanity. But football has always been played on a different pitch from real life.

A football pitch is the home ground of the id the immature, instinctive, emotional side of the human psyche. It is a discrete corner where fans and players can set aside normal standards of behaviour and let off steam, with few consequences for society outside.

The irony is that, in our post-Diana age, when the id has been allowed to run rampant through public life, there have been concerted attempts to curb football’s passions. Spectators have increasingly been subjected to dinner party etiquette: no smoking, no swearing, sit down and shut up. For the players too, the robust belief that ‘it’s a man game’ has been overtaken by an imposed atmosphere of constraint, culminating in court cases like that now threatened against Keane.

The outraged reaction to Keane’s book says more about changed attitudes off the pitch than about his far-from-unique indiscretions on it. It has been ghost-written in the fashionably confessional style, detailing his problems with drink, anger and relationships. Yet where many celebrities are praised for coming clean, he has been pilloried.

Keane’s sin (like Cantona before him) is that he refuses to show remorse, far less repentance. The new therapeutic religion demands not only that one publicly confess one’s sins, but also that a sinner make public acts of contrition. The footballer Paul Merson was forgiven his confessed addiction to drink, drugs and gambling because he wept before the cameras and dedicated himself to lifelong counselling. Keane, by contrast, refuses to bend the knee, says that he would kick Alf Inge Haaland again ‘he f***ed me over and my attitude is an eye for an eye’ and denies that he ever went near Alcoholics Anonymous or The Priory.

Bizarrely, Keane’s April 2001 foul on Haaland is being treated as a more serious offence today than it was at the time. Writing about his motive in kicking Haaland as an act of revenge is apparently considered worse than actually kicking him. In effect Keane, having already been punished for the physical offence, faces being retrospectively charged again (by the FA and the courts) with a thought crime, what is now called a hate crime. Perhaps the thought police will soon be rounding up the thousands who sing about how they ‘hate Man U’ and Roy Keane.

The Ireland manager Mick McCarthy is right about one thing; Keane is not ‘a man who could serve Ireland as a role model for children’. Those of us who prefer our footballers to be have-a-go heroes rather than sanitised role models can thank God (or Alex Ferguson) for that.

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