Differentiating levels of greatness within such a vast array of quality players is an entirely subjective task. However, in terms of dictating and enabling success during Manchester United’s greatest era, there was no more influential figure than former captain Roy Keane.
Whilst Paul Scholes and Christiano Ronaldo surpass the Irishman for natural talent, and Ryan Giggs longevity, Keane can only be rivalled by Eric Cantona in instigating and demanding further success.
Despite the £3.75 million price tag - a British record at the time - in signing Keane from Nottingham Forrest in 1993, Ferguson identified not only Bryan Robson’s immediate successor, but also the heart and soul of his greatest team that would win an historic treble six years later.
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Prior to their very public falling out, played out across their respective autobiographies, Keane was seen to be the embodiment of his manager on the field; a warrior; a leader; a winner.
A decade on from his acrimonious departure from Old Trafford, following a typically honest interview with MUTV, Keane’s legacy remains. Though the Irishman cannot compete with the collective power of the Class of 92’s brand, his individual contribution through the standards he set and demanded is unrivalled.
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On the pitch, Keane was equally influential as a combative yet cultured midfielder, intent on using the ball effectively by getting it forward quickly in a manner reflective of United’s relentless style during the Ferguson era.
As a fiercely committed player, Keane’s body began to fail him towards the end of his career. However, the former Sunderland manager effectively evolved his game, transforming into a sitting midfielder from the all action, box-to-box goalscorer that arrived from Nottingham.
As much as the Premier League has evolved since 2005, the importance of leadership and physically intimidating figures has endured. Regardless of their successive FA Cup wins, Arsenal’s failure to win the league title since Patrick Viera’s departure in 2005 is far from coincidental.
Keane versus Viera was the Premier League at its very best; an unflinching clash between two superb players who lead and inspired England’s best clubs for the best part of a decade.
United, in achieving their ultimate ambition of ruling Europe, owed much to their inspirational Irishman, as Ferguson had hoped in the summer of 1993.
Regardless of his absence from the final in Barcelona, due to suspension, Keane’s performance during the semi-final in Turin was arguably the most memorable and important individual performance by a Premier League player in Europe.
Against the world-class stars of Edgar Davids and Zinedine Zidane, Keane almost single-handedly hauled United through to their first final in Europe’s elite competition in 31 years.
Greatness remains an intangible and overused description, but it is entirely fitting in this case. Though Keane didn’t win as many games on his individual merits as Ronaldo or Cantona, his overall effect in United becoming the dominant force in English - and briefly European - football, was seismic.
As much as Ferguson would hate to admit it, as demonstrated by his statement that only Scholes, Giggs, Ronaldo and Cantona were world-class players, Keane was the most crucial figure in instigating and maintaining United’s success, and is just as deserving of the world-class tag as anyone.