The ghost in the machine
Keane: the autobiography
Roy Keane (with Eamon Dunphy) Michael Joseph, 294pp, £17.99
In Only a Game?, his classic book about life as a footballer at Millwall in the Second Division during the 1973-74 season, Eamon Dunphy wrote of how "football is about self-deception as much as anything else". His diary of a disillusioned season among journeymen professionals was a sustained attempt to break free of falsity, both his own and that of a game beginning more and more to resemble showbiz. Veering from the tender and compassionate to the angry and misanthropic, Dunphy's diary was a respected antidote to the banal confections that are most sports books. So it was a statement of intent for Roy Keane to choose Dunphy as his collaborator for a work which, since Keane's dramatic and farcical departure from the Irish squad at the World Cup last May, has become a lucrative apologia.
Keane's words are shot through with Dunphy's credo about what is of value in sport. Dunphy has even claimed that he, not Keane, was responsible for the now notorious expression of naked vengeance about the tackle on Alfie Haland of Manchester City. It was, he said, all a question of "paraphrase" and "artistic licence".
The voice of Dunphy is so evident here, even in the small details, that you suspect Keane at times of being no more than a ventriloquist's dummy. According to Keane, West Ham have no "bottle"; in Only a Game?, Dunphy dismissed the much-admired West Ham team of 30 years ago in the same terms. A phrase such as "it was a nothing ball" is emphatically Dunphy, as is the pronouncement of "the stark truth that lies at the core of professional football: you play for yourself".
Roy Keane is a millionaire. Dunphy had no savings or security when he retired. But according to this book, the true professional footballer is driven by the same impulses, whether he is at Manchester United or at Millwall: desire and the fear of failure amount to the same thing on the football pitch.
The most striking convergence between Dunphy and Keane is the relentless tirade against the frauds, cheats, phonies and bluffers in the game. In his sports journalism over the past two decades, Dunphy has raised what seemed a justified impatience with hypocrisy, as in his Millwall diary, to the level of camp self-righteousness.
So it is a surprise and a disappointment to find that Keane's story, as polished by Dunphy, is stocked with lazy cliches and thoughtless writing: "Nothing surprises me in football"; "defeat always hurts"; "you can't expect miracles"; "I was still shocked and a little dismayed"; Sir Matt Busby's funeral was "a solemn occasion".
You soon lose sympathy with Keane, once you realise that his mentality threatens to become an unforgiving version of Dunphy's. He may well be right when he says that too many pros believe the world owes them a living; but whereas for Dunphy 30 years ago, this was a human failing, for Keane, it is only worthy of contempt. He is exasperated by the "part-time hardmen" who have tried to take Manchester United down a peg: "Why the fuck didn't they put the effort in every week, then maybe they wouldn't be playing for fucking Norwich or Swindon."
All the same, a lot of cant surrounds Roy Keane. When he was sent off recently at Sunderland, Desmond Lynam, presenting ITV's The Premiership, came over all pious and censorious about the bad example he was setting for young children. Can it be that the egregious Lynam has never observed parents watching their children play park football on Sunday morning? The behaviour on display may be repellent and absurd, but it is undoubtedly part of the culture of the game. When Roy Keane says that "aggression is what we do . . . I go to war . . . You don't contest football games in a reasonable state of mind", he is telling the truth.
Keane's virtues, such as his wit, are more evident in interviews than in this book. But some are shown here. He is, for instance, self-critical: watching old matches, he marvels at how bad he was in games where he thought he had played well. He concedes that on joining Manchester United, he discovered that Ryan Giggs, though two years younger, had more natural ability and was more mature. He doesn't like bogus Irish patriotism. He is devoted to his family; "the biggest single source of anxiety" in his football life is chasing tickets for his relatives and friends from Cork. This is obliging Roy, proving to his old mates from Cork city that success hasn't changed him, that he can still eat kebabs after a night in the pub on Patrick Street.
Sandwiches of one kind or another are great signifiers for Keane. He once condemned the new fans drawn to football as "the prawn sandwich merchants". Here, he recalls a scene, the day before a match, at the Irish team's hotel in Holland: "I came downstairs to the restaurant and saw some of the lads sitting at a table eating cheese sandwiches. I couldn't believe it. We'd discussed diet. Fucking cheese sandwiches, an hour and a half before training!"
The scene is burnt into his memory. On the way to the World Cup, he watched an in-flight movie about Muhammad Ali. He was impressed by a scene in which Ali rejects the pleas of his advisers not to refuse the Vietnam draft. "Ali resists them all," Keane writes. "Doing what I think is right. It matters. You don't compromise on your principles. Don't put up with shit. I'm not fighting a white man's war." Inspired to anger, Keane runs through the failings of the Irish team management: the botched travel arrangements, the poor training routines, the CHEESE SANDWICHES. Some white man's war!
But in the end, Dunphy's Keane, though profoundly committed, takes himself far too seriously. He might do well to heed the words of the writer Sean O'Faolain, a fellow Corkman, who, in a moment of self-realisation as a young man, wrote: "Like all idealists, I was fast becoming heartless, humourless and pitiless."
Maurice Walsh is a BBC journalist