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Highlights on Off The Ball

The other face of Roy Keane

This piece has nothing to do with Roy Keane as the supreme footballer but about a famous star who...

The other face of Roy Keane

The other face of Roy Keane

This piece has nothing to do with Roy Keane as the supreme footballer but about a famous star who hides his best side from public view. This story centres around a glass door in Spain back in 2001. 

It's interesting watching back old interviews of him. You wouldn't exactly say he exudes confidence or is the landlord to charisma. Search 'Roy Keane 90s interviews' on YouTube, click one, and you are acquainted with a shy young man, visibly uncomfortable conducting his media duties. His responses are standard fare.

And yet in the modern media race to generate more video views and article clicks, nobody attracts the masses like Roy Keane, for better or for worse. Ask any sports publisher on this side of the world. He is effortless in his delivery and box office in impact; ceaselessly entertaining.

The same as he was on the pitch.

presence and an image

Keane retired from the game 14 years ago, so his entertainment value is not monopolised by nostalgic red cards and heroic displays, or sentimental flights home and humorous verbal lashings. Something in him appeals with most, but it's intangible.

I have never been able to find the words to write about Roy Keane, probably because I grew up in Cork during the 1990s and was obsessed with Manchester United. Two of their stars were from up the road and one was a generational figure of inspiration. We thought it was the norm as we all pretended to be him during knockabouts in the park - his easily the most common name and number combination on the back of replica shirts. He defined our young lives and minds and tore bonds apart from the other side of the world in 2002. The relationship between that generation of Corkonians and Keane is built on the rocky foundations of pride and regret.

Keane, the human, was a mystery to most before Sky Sports was prevalent in households and later online. How could a man's on-field presence transfer so seamlessly to camera as a force of charismatic nature? He barely wants to be in front of the millions he indirectly connects with and yet resisting his allure is futile to those with a passing interest, nevermind the status worshippers.

Quick wit at the expense of others is often amusing unless you're on the receiving end and there are plenty down that way these days. He makes those around him uneasy and he knows it, reeling everyone back in with his innate charm just when he feels the comedic attack has dazed his opponent(s) to the brink. He fights his own size or bigger, mind. That is both his most admirable trait and damaging one.

He can alienate and resonate in a sentence and do it several times in one sitting, with the rest of us watching on as yet another viral moment is made. He is the human embodiment of fascination but there is only so much of him you can consume. Keane is prone to self-destruction, as he admitted in his second book, and he will take you down with him if the mood suits.

He won't care if you're hurt in the process. That is one central facet of the man.

But there is the other side not too publicised.

While it doesn't quite know no bounds, Keane guards his inherent generosity against the grasp of the general public. However, he bestows memories on certain individuals to last them a lifetime. I am one such recipient, but you will have to bear with me.

unsought kindness

When I was 12 years old, while on a family holiday in Mallorca, I ran through a glass door one evening on the grounds of the hotel in which we were staying while playing chasing with other kids; the holiday pals we all temporarily befriend on those sunny ventures. The glass from the greenhouse was single glazed because of the island's heat, so it went through my body like a knife through butter, puncturing my lung instantly, missing my right eyeball by fate alone, and stopping short of my liver by millimetres ("any bit deeper at all and you were gone", I was bluntly informed in the aftermath), leaving six life-long scars from leg to face.

In a state of bizarre euphoria, I walked the 200-or-so yards back to the hotel bar where a live band was performing for the packed pub, its inhabitants comprising of family guests; mostly all the moms and dads having a merry time with the kids scattered around. I reached the bar's threshold, placed my hand on the doorframe and watched everyone's expression change in an instant as eye contact was formed. The live music suddenly cut to coincide with the shocked silence of the patrons, followed by pandemonium. I looked down to see the glass protruding from my stomach and I was soaked, head-to-toe, in my own blood. It was difficult to clarify because I was wearing Manchester United's blood-red home kit from that season with, you guessed it, Keane 16 on the back.

An ambulance eventually arrived as I was kept alive in the meantime by a collection of instinctive parents present that night who Would. Not. Let. Me. Sleep. Slipping into beautiful unconsciousness on the bar's floor was almost irresistible but it was lights out forever if I had drifted. I was never more exhausted. The Keane bit is coming, don't worry.

Blood continued to drain from my body, replaced by shards of glass within as I arrived at the hospital requiring immediate surgery. There was no delay because any stalling was adding to the possibility of the worst outcome. Except there was a problem and it was to do with me and what I was wearing.

The medical staff took a scissors to my clothes as they needed rapid access but I was screaming uncontrollably because they were about to cut "my Roy Keane jersey". My parents in the nearby waiting room heard the wild screams from their son and imagined all sorts until they were met with a laughing surgeon minutes later. "Your son", the surgeon exclaimed, "he is loco! He will not let us cut his football jersey." In fact, the entire emergency team that night found the scene amusing amidst the chaos, which is wonderful to think about in hindsight.

Of course, they got their way. The jersey was destroyed forever. I spent a week in hospital after a number of surgeries, sharing an Intensive Care Unit with a Real Mallorca-obsessed child who had no spine and was abandoned by his parents at birth. Another critical patient was an Austrian kid in quarantine who had meningitis and was read the last rites but survived to tell the tale. Each of our parents became friendly, providing regular updates to one another regarding the latest status of their respective child. There was one source of entertainment in this ICU: the entire 90 minutes of England 4-1 Netherlands from Euro 96 which, for some reason, the hospital had on VHS and wheeled out one day for the bored, ill youngsters.

The rest of the time I stared at the ceiling as my movement was restricted to slight variances on how one lies on their back. A lot of thinking was thought, or as much as a 12-year-old can wonder about.

Nevertheless, I was back in Cork within a fortnight, 74 stitches in place and a story to share with friends and family for my troubles. All was well, with the exception of that beloved United jersey which had been lost in my mess.

What I didn't account for was that behind the scenes, my father was working his magic by liaising with a man who knew a certain man.

One day the doorbell rang and a package was presented. In it lay a Manchester United jersey with Keane 16 on the back. It had been worn by Roy Keane himself, in a Champions League match for Manchester United. And on the number 6 at the rear read a message for me from the main man, wishing me well in my recovery, with an accompanying card to boot.

The original jersey had well and truly been replaced and it is framed on the wall at home to this day.

Keane petrifies plenty with his demeanour and high standards and is loved by many as a result. This, though, is the other face of Keane; the man behind the bluster, the average Joe within that blockbuster media character. This is his best side.

Fast forward to September 2019 and the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin. Off The Ball is hosting a very special live event with Roy Keane and Gary Neville. Beforehand, I am gifted a fortuitous 30 seconds with Cork's most famous modern son and shared my gratitude for the above. It is the first time I have met him and it is just the two of us, for the briefest of moments.

Me: "Hi Roy, I had an accident when I was younger and you sent me a jersey of yours and I just want to say thank you, it meant the world."

Roy (smiles): "That's no bother."

Me: "Yeah, it was the Man United jersey you wore against Sturm Graz, I think, in the Champions League."

Roy (suddenly in his well-recognised high-pitch tone): "Sturm Graz?? Champions League?!... I could have just given you a Rockmount jersey, you were a lucky boy!"

The other face of Roy Keane.

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