“There’s only one Keano” usually isn’t sung as a lamentation, but never before have Man United missed Roy Keane so much.
Whether berating a prawn sandwich culture, or throwing under-performing players publicly under the bus, the man Keane never hesitated to put the spotlights—and pressure—upon his own shoulders.
More importantly, beyond the brash outbursts was the most blue-collar of field workers. Keane led by both sword and plowshare, demanding nothing of his peers that they could not expect of himself. He constantly interrogated his teammates’ egos and work ethic and no one could—or at least would—say he was a hypocrite.
Do as he did, not as he said, was the subtext to his whole persona.
But last season United triumphed without their iconic captain. A resolute and consistent defense propped Cristiano Ronaldo’s world-class form througout the season, almost without thinking, towards the European double.
United look now, for the first time in these two seasons, almost free-falling, with a diffusion of responsibility spreading across the Carrington grounds.
Without someone like Keane, who can lead a disjointed United side with sheer force of will? Are there any players with the same demonstrative volition? Are there any players on the current side capable of harnessing their anger without being petulant?
Surely the last clause rules out Wayne Rooney.
Pundits had hoped to provide a prophecy for Wayne to fulfill this season, claiming that his days of charging about angrily were finally behind him. These notions have so far turned out to be fantasy.
There is no doubt his heart is in the cause, but too much so, and it is often further unhinged by a lack of reason and patience—and the absence of the role model like the fiery Irishman.
Ronaldo gets angry. But he’s not very good at it. He whines and pouts, projecting and displacing, hating himself and blaming everyone else. He’s much more part of the problem right now than he would be for any solution to his club’s possibly fragile psyche.
Paul Scholes doesn’t like him. Why would he? Scholes himself is the paragon for modesty and honesty in motion. He’s not concerned about the spotlight or the women, nor the parties or acclaim. But the same virtues that make him a model person and professional preclude him from invoking personal demons which don’t exist to exorcise those plaguing some players around him.
Arguably the only player on the current side with a similar capacity to Keane for weighted anger and leadership, Gary Neville, the club captain, is a peripheral figure. Often injured and always aging, his voice from the bench doesn’t carry to the pitch, not when the adrenaline and endorphins govern each player’s instinctual actions.
Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs are often given the armband in Neville’s absence. Unfortunately, neither have the make-up to inspire, or the gall and effrontery to unstick their chums.
Ferdinand yells superfluously, usually without force, usually without response. Players just don’t fear him. Giggs is a quiet man and captains the side more from experience than effectiveness.
Nemanja Vidic emerges. The 27-year-old has the makings for a future captain. But despite being United’s player of the season—and a firm candidate for PFA Player of the Year—he may not be the answer right now. His own confidence seems frazzled, being outwitted by Gerrard and Torres, proven slightly bemused by Zlatan, and run a bit ragged by Martins in recent matches.
Carlos Tevez could be the answer. Who roars louder? Who exhales after each run-out with more veracity? Who’s badge is placed more squarely over his heart than the Argentine terrorist, crunching and crashing about, demanding, earning, and reciprocating respect from and to all opponents?
On action alone, Tevez speaks the loudest. He never argues with a linesman, never complains to the referee or, more crucially, his teammates, and never dives. And he never gives up. If only he could apply the same passion and voracity to vocally inspire his teammates.
With Berbatov facing an injury spell, and Rooney likely to be suspended for three games, there will be no better forum for the Argentine to exert his will in the coming matches.
But maybe United need nothing more than a mental break, and they’ll have it.
The players have two weeks of World Cup qualifiers to distract themselves with other exploits and refocus.
The man who molded Roy Keane partly in his own likeness, Sir Alex Ferguson, has this time to plot and calculate the restoration of his side’s confidence.
He has two weeks to exhume the cobwebs of self-doubt from the minds of his rattled players, and if he can’t, you wonder who on the pitch might, should the first goal at Old Trafford in a fortnight’s time be scored by the visitor.