LONDON — It is the time of the year when, because it is goodwill to all, we open the occasional Christmas present and say “excellent . . . just what I wanted,” when the reality is “oh no . . . why was I given that?”

Christopher Davies

There was an element of saying one thing but meaning another as Roy Keane became Celtic’s early Christmas gift, the former Manchester United captain signing with the club he supported as a boy in Cork.

That Celtic holds a special place in Keane’s heart is not doubted, nor that the midfielder wanted to join the Scottish champion.

Exactly who at Parkhead really wanted Keane is another matter.

It will be a major upset if Celtic, which leads second-place Hearts by three points and fourth-place Rangers, traditionally their only realistic rival, by a massive 17 points, does not win the title.

So why disrupt the team, attract a media circus and break the wage structure for a 34-year-old injury-prone player with a growing reputation for upsetting his teammates?

At his peak there was no finer defensive midfield player in the world than Keane, his excesses accommodated because he was simply the best at what he did.

But those days are past, and Keane is finding mother nature a difficult opponent.

This is not so much a criticism but an inevitability because at 34 his body — he will almost certainly need a hip replacement by the time he is 45 — is showing the effects of a competitive style that has caused Keane almost as much pain as he has the occasional rival.

A 28-year-old Keane would have been an amazing coup for Celtic — or any club — and while the Scottish Premier League will be less demanding than the Premiership — Livingston and Aberdeen rather than Liverpool and Arsenal — it is still intriguing why the best team in the country with one hand on the title would want Keane.

Few would doubt Celtic would have retained its Scottish crown without the former Republic of Ireland international.

“A lot has been written about my age and my injuries,” said Keane who has not played since mid-September because of a foot injury. “A lot of people think I’m going to be 94. I’m actually 34 and I feel quite good. I’m sure the fans will judge me on what I do on the pitch, not what I say.”

Keane, who officially joins the Scottish club on Jan. 1, will be paid an estimated £45,000 a week, about £15,000 more than the other top earners at Celtic (a scenario always guaranteed to fire jealousy and back-biting), though the club denied reports that a portion of his salary will be paid directly by major shareholder, Dermot Desmond.

This means Keane will possibly the best paid footballer in the world in 2006, because under the terms of his departure from United, he will continue to be paid by it.

That is a reported £100,000 until the end of this season, when his final contract was due to expire — almost £3.5 million for six months work.

Throw in the testimonial he is due from United, and the last 18 months of Keane’s career seem likely to bring the multimillionaire around £6 million.

Celtic manager Gordon Strachan almost jumped down the throat of the reporter who suggested he would not relish the prospect of having his former United teammate in the dressing room.

Strachan said Keane was “a competitor” and “you can’t have enough competitors in your squad. It was too good a chance to miss . . . to sign one of the world’s competitors.”

Strachan continued: “We’ve added quality and a winning mentality, though, if you think we have a bunch of shrinking violets you had better not say that in front of John Hartson, Chris Sutton and others.”

Another misgiving is the fact that Keane, who has signed a contract until the summer of 2007, plays a similar role on the pitch to that of current captain, Neil Lennon, who is in outstanding form.

There was an element of he-would-say-that-wouldn’t-he when Lennon responded: “Roy has experience and will to win. I wouldn’t envisage any problems with that [criticism of teammates at United and Ireland] at all.

“He is great signing and we will welcome him with open arms.”

Bolton, Everton and Real Madrid also made overtures to Keane.

“I gave every club a chance, I spoke to a lot of managers,” he said. “I think it was important to take my time. It’s a new challenge. I thought this was the best move for me . . . and I’m really happy with my decision.

“Having spoken to the manager, I thought this is the club for me. I have met one or two of the players and feel this is where I belong.

“I’ve not come up here on a PR trip or an ego trip or to unwind, far from it. I’m here to win football matches and help the squad. I’m very much, I feel, a team player despite other reports. I feel I can help the club move on to the next level.”

Keane’s image does not bother him.

“I’m not necessarily in this game to be popular,” he said. “I like playing, I like training hard, I like pushing myself, I like pushing the people I work with hard. In the modern day, there seems to be a fault with that, but that’s what I like doing.”

His debut seems likely to be in a Scottish Cup tie away to Clyde on Jan. 8.

The capacity of their Broadwood Stadium is around 8,000, and as sure as night follows day is that there will not be a spare ticket for Keane’s first appearance in Scottish football.

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