They would be far better served throwing £6.5m – or more – at Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane, inviting them to have a televised sit-down to discuss everything from the good times to Keane’s MUTV video and the horse Rock of Gibraltar.
Both Ferguson and Keane are fond of money, yet the clincher might be pride: like heavyweight boxers who don’t want to be seen ducking a fight, they could not face the thought of losing face by avoiding the other.
Sometimes great battles don’t occur in the ring or on the field, but in the TV studio. Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank’s compelling and hilarious appearance on Midweek Sports Special in 1990 was almost as good as the subsequent, epic fight.
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While everyone knows about the marvellous exchange of views between Don Revie and Brian Clough on Yorkshire TV in 1974. “Keane and Ferguson: The Truth” would be the TV event of the Millennium.
Their rivalry is Clough and Peter Taylor
for our generation, an increasingly bitter and public fallout between two people who could barely have been closer during their glory days. Few manager/player combinations have ever been – or at least seemed – closer. When Manchester United beat Spurs in 1999 to win the first part of the Treble, Ferguson charged onto the field and ran straight for Keane, who had played through injury to get them over the line.
At that moment, the other 10 players did not exist to Ferguson. When Keane and Paul Scholes were banned from the Champions League final that year, Ferguson barely acknowledged Scholes’s booking as he bemoaned the “tragedy” of Keane missing out. In 2002, Keane described Ferguson as “the only man I listen to in football” and “the perfect manager for me”. Ferguson said it was “an honour to be associated” with Keane.
Clough and Taylor took their dispute to the grave and you’d imagine the same will happen with Keane and Ferguson. Keane would probably say sorry to Ferguson for certain things – he did after he left United in 2005, though he now regrets that – but it’s hard to see him getting the apology he wants from Ferguson.
There is an element of the jilted husband or wife about Keane’s campaign, lashing out as he strives to understand why somebody with whom he shared so much – even an entire sporting ideology – could dismiss him so callously. It’s not always unedifying but it is, in the context of how Keane perceives what happened, completely understandable.
One of the fascinating things about the dispute is that so many Manchester United fans, who once shared a love of Ferguson and Keane, and interpreted their behaviour the same way, now perceive the actions of each man completely differently. Either can be seen as tragic hero, anti-hero or villain. Ferguson is a far better politician, which is how he manoeuvred Keane out of Old Trafford in the first place and made him increasingly unpopular with many United fans. Yet the last few weeks feel like a public-relations triumph for Keane, at least in terms of winning the floating voters who don't support United.
Keane always had a keen, dry sense of humour - you just had to look closer - but the extent to which he is demonstrated that sense of fun, as well as his enormous charisma and plentiful humanity, have led to many seeing him through different eyes. There is an interesting argument that Keane was acting, which he says he did to some extent when playing the hardman during his playing days, and that the whole book tour was one big attempt to show chairmen it is safe to give him a management job.
There may be some truth in that, though Keane is not a sufficiently skilled politician to completely reinvent himself, only to accentuate certain qualities. Besides, so much of what he said had the ring of truth – like the Robbie Savage story, which was one for the ages and will have inadvertently won Keane many new fans.
The story itself is good, but it’s the way Keane tells it that elevates it, the thought of the weary disgust on his face as he concludes “I can’t be f*****g signing that”.
To many, the story of will be proof of a darker side that makes Keane impossible to like. As with everything in this story, you can argue both ways. The fact Keane openly discusses most of his rampant flaws makes him far more accessible and human than almost all of his peers.
If you think plenty of other managers would not have had the same fleeting thought as Keane, you are living in a Happy Days fantasy world. Whether Ferguson is one such manager is open to debate, but one thing’s for sure: if he ever did have such a thought, he would almost certainly not admit to it. Keane really is honest to a fault – yet to others he is honest to a virtue, a ceaselessly refreshing antidote to the miserable contemporary culture of briefing, backstabbing and passive-aggressiveness. If Keane said it was pasta under the sauce, you would never feel the need to check.
With the exception of selling Jaap Stam - a cock-up so spectacular that not even he could rationalise it - Ferguson hardly ever admits flaws or mistakes. His greatest skill as a manager is that he has “a degree in people”, to use the Australian cricketer Rodney Hogg’s phrase to describe the former England captain Mike Brearley, yet sometimes it seems like he failed his GCSE in Self-Awareness.
The alternative, perhaps more likely, is that Ferguson has developed a state of mind whereby negative thoughts and questions must be instantly and aggressively dismissed. After all, nobody does righteousness as well as the guilty. That attitude creates an intimidating aura of strength and certainty, which then perpetuates itself. Keane had a similar omnipotence as a player but as a man he has demonstrated and admitted far more weakness and regret than Ferguson.
A recent example of that was Ferguson’s response to entirely reasonable suggestions that he may have allowed the United squad to decay in the four years after the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo. He suggested modern players peak in their thirties, which is such obvious nonsense that it barely merits further discussion: Fifa’s team of the World Cup was comprised exclusively of those in their twenties, and almost all of the thirtysomethings on the Ballon d’Or shortlist are past their best.
Ferguson probably won’t care. His book sells itself, and he has the exciting new world of Harvard, the Ryder Cup and being Sir Alex Ferguson to concentrate on. He will also feel he kept his dignity – a recurring theme in his many books - by not responding to Keane’s provocation; others will conclude that, by vetting the questions and taking none from the floor, he exerted the “power and control” of which Keane speaks, and that not engaging the audience was an apt reflection of a man who refuses to be questioned about anything.
Some of Keane’s behaviour has demonstrated the desperate pettiness of the scorned lover – his reaction to Nani’s red card against Real Madrid, or his decision to omit almost all of - but every time he talks of “power and control”, he hits the bullseye.
He is largely consistent in his behavioural patterns, good and bad, whereas Keane can be wildly erratic. Many will prefer Ferguson for that, and dismiss Keane as a loose cannon. Others will say Ferguson is colder and less real. Ferguson evokes the Godfather’s Michael Corleone; Keane is more like Tony Soprano, raging for a better world and a better him, but also more far vulnerable to moments of weakness.
As anybody who has watched a gangster film knows, these things should be settled by a sit-down. In one corner Keane, whose pithy Saipaning of Mick McCarthy was described as "the most articulate, the most surgical slaughtering I have ever heard” by Niall Quinn; in the other Ferguson, who has a grossly underappreciated lyricism and a magnificent line in put-downs.
Both have an aura, authority, rare instinctive intelligence and a tongue that can debilitate the most confident person in the world in seconds. If they were in a TV studio together, the whole country would come to a standstill.
Surely that’s worth more than QPR 2-0 Aston Villa.
Rob Smyth
You can buy Rob's book, 'Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team', which is out now.
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