Old Trafford has had many heroes over the years. This is unsurprising, given the club’s rich history. Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, orchestrators of the two great periods of sustained success, have been immortalised, in statue form, outside the ground. Sir Matt gazes into the distance, where the holy trinity of Charlton, Law and Best celebrate together, a monument of glory from a now distant age.
Ferguson, on the other hand, stands all alone under the shadow of the stand that now bears his name. Which got me thinking, with so many great players from his time at the helm to choose from, which of them will one day be cast in stone to keep him company through the years?
Eric Cantona, the final piece in Ferguson’s first title-winning jigsaw, would be in with a shout. To see his famous celebration after scoring that goal against Sunderland; upturned collar; proud posture; a look that said “But of course” on his face, would translate beautifully into sculpture and the Frenchman, known as The King to this day in these parts, is undeniably worthy of such an honour.
A case could be argued for Ryan Giggs, a loyal servant for over twenty incredible years and English football’s most decorated player. A statue of him as he wheeled away, about to pull his shirt over his head, having just scored one of the most memorable goals of all time under the floodlights of Villa Park in 1999, would certainly be a fitting tribute to one of the club’s great wingers.
There are others. Bryan Robson; the ‘Class of ’92;’ Cristiano Ronaldo; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knee-sliding on the Nou Camp turf. So many spectacular players, so many incredible memories.
Yet, sadly, the man who arguably epitomised Ferguson’s reign more than any other player will almost certainly never be recognised in the way the likes of Thierry Henry and Denis Bergkamp have at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. Roy Keane may not particularly care about such things, yet, if Cantona was King, Keane was the ferocious warrior who thundered through matches United would otherwise have lost and led them to victory.
That night in Turin, amidst the swirling storm of despair of a yellow card that ruled him out of the Champions League final he had dragged his teammates into, may be his most famous display in a United shirt, yet it was the weekly consistency of his game that set him apart. He is, somewhat harshly, remembered by many simply as a brutally aggressive midfield destroyer, but this is to do him a great disservice.
Keane was one of the finest passers of the ball I have ever seen. He found space where there appeared to be none and rarely conceded possession. He certainly knew how to protect his defence but the sight of him surging forward, as he so often did in his pomp, was a joy to behold and struck fear into the hearts of his opponents.
United have never managed to replace Roy Keane. They probably never will. Such players do not come along very often. In his latest autobiography, Keane writes that football is ‘not about always doing something extraordinary; it’s about doing the ordinary things well.’ He may not have had the outlandish flare of Cantona or Ronaldo, or the blistering pace and exquisite balance of Giggs, but he was a supremely gifted footballer, blessed with wonderful technique; the beating heart of the team for over a decade.
It was perhaps inevitable that Ferguson and Keane would eventually fall out in spectacular fashion and it is probably safe to assume that they will never kiss and make up. Nevertheless, their histories, and that of the club, are forever intertwined. As with any messy divorce, it is always the kids (or, in this case, the supporters) that suffer most. Some United fans appear to think they need to pick sides but, in truth, it matters little who was right and who was wrong; who was to blame and who was not. What matters is that these two colossal football men came together at just the right time for Manchester United and, together, provided fans with some of the fondest memories of their lives.
Roy Keane may never get a statue in his honour at Old Trafford but, if anyone deserves one, it is surely him.