It was a piece of praise that Roy Keane didn’t take particularly kindly to.
“The most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field,” Sir Alex Ferguson wrote of the midfielder’s superb showing in the second leg of Manchester United’s Champions League semi-final success against Juventus in 1999, which continued even after he’d picked up the yellow card that would rule him out of any potential final.
“Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him,” Ferguson added. “I felt such an honour to be associated with such a player.”
“Stuff like that almost insults me,” Keane countered in 2013, his surprisingly hostile reaction presumably shaped more by the identity of the man who’d made the comment than its actual content. “What am I supposed to do? Give up? Not cover every blade of grass? Not do my best for my team-mates? Not do my best for my club?
“I actually get offended when people throw quotes like that at me as if I’m supposed to be honoured by it. It’s like praising the postman for delivering your letters. He’s supposed to, isn’t he? That’s his job.”
On this occasion at least, that analogy does the former Republic of Ireland international a massive disservice (sorry mailmen). There was nothing ordinary or everyday about Keane’s contributions in Turin, and while his annoyance is understandable in the sense that his performance was about far more than just hard work, it’s impossible to argue with Ferguson’s assessment that the United captain galvanised every player on his side that night.
The Red Devils headed to Italy as underdogs after a 1-1 draw in the first leg at Old Trafford, when a goal from Ryan Giggs in second-half stoppage time denied Juventus – whose lead had been established by an Antonio Conte effort in the first period – victory.
The visitors’ game plan at the Stadio delle Alpi was presumably based around keeping things tight and silencing the crowd in the opening exchanges, but that strategy was blown apart by a Pippo Inzaghi brace within the first 11 minutes. United suddenly needed a minimum of two goals to progress to the showpiece event in Barcelona, which was always going to be a tough task against a side aiming to reach its fourth consecutive Champions League final.
Keane, though, was the man to give them hope. The 27-year-old rallied those around him as United threatened to wilt in the face of heavy Italian pressure, before providing a more tangible reason for belief by halving the deficit in the 24th minute: Keane rose highest to flash a header past Angelo Peruzzi (Gigi Buffon hadn’t joined Juve yet, in case you want to feel old) from David Beckham’s corner. “Roy Keane with a captain’s goal for Manchester United,” roared Clive Tyldesley in the commentary box. He wasn’t wrong.
Any dreams Keane harboured of appearing in a first continental final were abruptly ended soon after, however. Zinedine Zidane, deployed in front of Edgar Davids and Didier Deschamps in the hosts’ three-man midfield, was brought down by United’s No.16 on the halfway line, earning the former Nottingham Forest man a yellow card and, at best, a seat in the stands at the Camp Nou.
Yet Keane was undeterred. He continued to push his side forward, making numerous tackles and interceptions but also showcasing the sort of tempo-setting passing that Paul Scholes, watching on from the bench until the 68th minute, would have been proud of.
It wasn’t a case of Keane simply putting out fires across the pitch so much as him fanning the flames and redirecting them to Juventus’ half of the field. He may not have been directly involved in the two goals, scored by Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, that sent United through as 4-3 aggregate winners, but the captain was undoubtedly the driving force behind an improbable come-from-behind triumph.
It’s easily forgotten these days that Keane was a fine footballer as well as an energetic enforcer and, on a related note, it’s regrettable that some have unwittingly diminished this awe-inspiring performance by reductively claiming that the Irishman came out on top because he “wanted it more”. Perhaps he did – although against competitors as fierce as Davids, Conte and Ciro Ferrara, it seems unlikely – but Keane demonstrated much more than mere desire in Turin: his technical excellence and tactical intelligence were, at the very least, of equal import to his will to win.
It’s interesting, too, that a player so readily associated with moments of hot-headed recklessness (and not without reason) successfully kept his cool when it would have been easy for him to lose it. Trailing to a European giant in their own backyard and knowing you’ll play no part in the final even if your team do manage to launch a comeback is a testing hand to be dealt, yet Keane succeeded in remaining firmly focused on the task in front of him.
The midfielder later revealed that he gave serious consideration to an offer from Juventus midway through his Old Trafford career. How different things would have been for United had Keane been wearing black and white rather than red on that memorable night in April 1999.