Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Scribblings of the Scribes of Sport: Keane by Roy Keane and Eamon Dunphy

Keane, the autobiography of Manchester United legend Roy Keane (co-written with famous Irish journalist Eamon Dunphy), is an extremely unconventional book. Most autobiographies of sports stars give sanitized highlights of their careers, gloss over the low moments and generally keep controversy away with a 20-foot pole. However, that style is incompatible with Roy Keane's playing career, so perhaps it shouldn't be that surprising that an intense, outspoken footballer delivers an intensely outspoken book.

This lack of decorum and propriety is what gives the book its real appeal. You can tell that there's no dodging the issues here from the opening pages, which describe Keane's journey home after falling out with the Irish national team just before the start of the 2002 World Cup, perhaps the most controversial moment of his playing career. The usual approach would be to start with something soft, maybe an amusing childhood vignette or a story about the athlete at the peak of his prowess. As many opposing midfielders found out during Keane's playing career, though, he always went straight in for the tackle and he always went in hard.

This work displays the same take-no-prisoners attitude that gave Keane his on-field reputation and even mythology, which is a reader's dream. His views on everyone from former Ireland manager Mick McCarthy ("a fucking wanker... playing fucking Big Boss") to teammate Teddy Sheringham "a bloody good player... the fact that he and I didn't get on personally didn't matter a damn when it came to the business on the field") are truly refreshing, compared to the usual lines athletes trot out when asked about teammates and coaches. Keane firmly breaks down the dressing room door, and in doing so, allows readers an unprecedented glimpse to the reality of professional sport: not just the glamourous matches against high-profile opposition, but the tough realities of training, travel and the rest.

Keane offers some great insight into legends of the game (like Brian Clough, Sir Alex Ferguson, Steve Bruce and Stuart Pearce), but reveals even more about himself and his character. He starts with his humble beginnings in Cork ("Growing up, I was aware that money was always scarce, for example, we never had a car,"), and goes through his upbringing in the game and the beginnings of his reputation ("I got a reputation, which pleased me. He didn't take no shit,"), joining Nottingham Forest ("Considering where I'd come from, this to me was heaven), and his transfer to Manchester United ("A thousand pounds a week was a small price to pay to be a United player,"). Along the way, the reader gets a real sense of what makes Keane tick. As he says, celebrity was somewhat thrust among him: "At nineteen I'm afraid I wasn't ready for the role of well-known person." His early rise to prominence, and his place in sides like Forest, United and Ireland at a young age perhaps explains why he never seemed comfortable in the spotlight.

It's also interesting how he personally shifted from enjoying frequent parties to a more conservative attitude, and how this reflected a wider change in football from sport to big business in the era of television deals and a FA Premier League. Early on, he says "Work hard, play hard was very much my motto." One of the best passages in the book comes late on, where he talks about how this newfound professional focus led to an internal conflict for him. "The professional Roy Keane welcomed the new regime, its disciplines and rewards," he wrote. "But we'd had a lot of fun in the drinking era and the part of me that hankered after the rowdy banter and camaraderie of the best drinking sessions missed those gloriously irresponsible nights." Keane shows the dichotomy of modern football here: on one hand, it's great to see the game going global and taken so seriously at all levels, but on the other hand, it does sometimes feel as if part of the atmosphere has been irretrievably lost along the way.

Perhaps the word that sums up this book, and Keane himself, the most is intensity. Keane never failed to play his guts out on the pitch, and he writes (and now manages) the same way. Dunphy proves both his sporting and journalistic prowess by spinning Keane's writings into a cohesive narrative without losing any of the raw passion and emotion. That combination is what makes this book such a great read.

Related: A piece I wrote on my Journal blog about why United could use Keane's intensity at the moment.

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