LONDON — In August, you would probably have been able to name your own odds against both Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and captain Roy Keane seeking new employment midseason. One half of any such bet has already come up trumps, and unless United beat Benfica in Lisbon on Wednesday week, which it must to guarantee progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League, the unlikely double departure could become reality.
It was said Keane left by mutual consent, and while the former Republic of Ireland midfielder is probably relieved to leave a club whose players and coaching staff he had criticized so openly, United left him no alternative. His bags had to be packed, perhaps stuffed with the almost £3 million he was reported to have collected when the remainder of his contract was “mutually” paid up.
It is just over a week since Keane’s surprise departure was announced — the timing rather than his actual leaving being the shock — and despite being linked with just about every Premiership club and Celtic plus, ludicrously, Juventus, the player is still effectively unemployed.
Keane was a marvelous player, the best in his position of his generation, and provided the base for Ferguson to keep adding to the Old Trafford silverware collection. We should not be surprised it all ended in tears between the two men, because it so often does with such strong, single-minded individuals who don’t do apologies. But when Keane laid into his teammates on an unbroadcast MUTV interview and then coach Carlos Quieroz in person, he had signed his farewell note.
A person who preaches loyalty, Keane does not always practice this — apart from criticizing his United and Ireland teammates in the media, he was also absent from too many friendlies to convince many Irish fans he was totally committed to the international cause.
Keane has been most strongly linked with Celtic, and while he may want to play for the club, does the want him? Celtic is 15 points ahead of Rangers, the only team which can realistically challenge it for the Scottish title, which is as good as on its way to Parkhead. In Neil Lennon, the team has a Northern Ireland international playing the anchor-man role in midfield superbly, and at 34, Keane is a fading force.
Does manager Gordon Strachan need the media circus that would inevitably follow Keane if he came to the green half of Glasgow? Is it worth paying Keane, say, £60,000 a week when Celtic’s main objective, the championship, is virtually a done deal?
Wherever Keane eventually goes his presence will be disruptive in some respects, and would-be employers must balance the impact and influence he could have as a player with the attention and spotlight he would inevitably attract. His final destination may yet surprise us, while even retirement cannot be ruled out.
IT IS ONE of those intriguing coincidences football can throw up that Benfica, the team Manchester United beat to win its first European cup in 1968, could end its interest in the 2005-06 Champions League in Lisbon on Dec. 7.
If United does not win at Benfica’s Stadium of Light, it will be at the mercy of the result between Villarreal and Lille. While United has a tradition of making life difficult for itself in Europe, this is not the scenario Sir Alex Ferguson would have wanted — defeat would spell the end for the Champions League winner in 1999 in this season’s competition and would make his departure from Old Trafford more a matter of when than if.
Ferguson will be aware that in UEFA’s premier club competition there are few away wins against Europe’s middle- or upper-class teams, and United’s recent form gives no reason for optimism. Since beating Lyon at home in November 2004 United has won just one Champions League tie, scoring one goal. It has not managed to find the back of the net in seven of its last eight ties, an astonishing statistic considering United has Ruud Van Nistelsooy, one of the Champions League’s most prolific marksmen, and Wayne Rooney, a world-class forward in the making, leading its attack.
The showdown in Portugal will be billed as Ferguson’s most important game during his 15-year tenure at Old Trafford, with Vodafone’s cancellation of the remaining two years of their £36 million shirt sponsorship deal it signed two years ago adding to the financial pressure on United to maintain its interest in the Champions League.
Ferguson seems unlikely to be manager of United next season even if Benfica is put to the sword, but failure in Lisbon will guarantee the knives will be out for the manager who has failed to continue the non-stop success he has brought to Old Trafford over the last 14 years.
THE SADDEST MANCHESTER UNITED DEPARTURE of all will be George Best, perhaps the most appropriately named footballer of all time. His death will leave us with a million happy memories, and if Best ultimately pressed his self-destruction with his battle against alcoholism, those who appreciate the agonies of such an illness will offer compassion rather than a less sympathetic view.
Best had it all and threw it away because of booze. It is easy for people who do not have an addiction to say “just give it up,” but the chilling response of a recovering alcoholic when I asked at what stage he went for help will remain with me forever. “When the pain becomes unbearable,” he replied, and since then I have never doubted the seriousness of a dependency on alcohol.
But when it came to football, opponents were not, as one observer memorably remarked, not fit to lace Best’s boots. He was the first true superstar of football, a player who lived in a sporting Hollywood and, as he helped United win Cups, Best’s glass was also running over.
In his mid-20s, when he should have been approaching his peak, Best’s footballing career started to become second to his other great love in life, but for almost a decade the Belfast Boy provided champagne soccer. Best did things on the field we had never seen before, showing intricate control and breathtaking dribbling ability even on a surface that resembled a ploughed field.
One of the most impressive statistics is the few number of games Best missed because of injury, despite the hatchet men of the 1960s and ’70s doing their best to stop him one way or the other.
His tackling was underrated — as soon as United lost possession Best was invariably the first player trying to win the ball back. He encompassed everything Pele had in mind when he called football the beautiful game, and if the Brazilian is accepted as the greatest ever player perhaps that is because Best, a world-class player, never performed at the World Cup finals with Northern Ireland.
Of all Best’s unforgettable displays, his performance in the 5-1 victory over Benfica in 1966 is probably unsurpassed. Benfica had never lost a European tie at the Stadium of Light, and United manager Sir Matt Busby told his team to keep it tight during the opening 15 or 20 minutes to protect its 3-2 first-leg lead and then start to counter-attack.
With 12 minutes on the clock Best, who had been asked to stay deep, had scored twice, the second the sort of goal the rest of us score in our dreams, kicking the ball through a Benfica player’s legs before leaving defenders in his wake and bamboozling goalkeeper Costa Perreira.
At halftime Busby went over to Best and said: “Weren’t you listening to what I said?”
Oh, how United could do with George Best when it returns to the scene of his greatest triumph next week.