Friday, November 18, 2005

An Accident Waiting to Happen

The BBC is reporting huge surprise at Roy Keane's departure from Manchester United. They've interviews various pundits saying that they were "flabbergasted" at the announcement. The only thing that has surprised me about it is that they waited so long.

Keane's "punditry" on MUTV may never have made it to the TV screens. But the contents aren't locked forever in an Old Trafford broom cupboard. They are some of the lest-kept secrets in football - Alan Smith described as a headless chicken, Rio Ferdinand denounced for thinking he's a superstar "after playing well for 20 minutes against Spurs", and, in general, the whole desire of the team called into question. The team is even more spineless than Keane alleged if they could ever feel confident about playing with the man again.

One of the best things I saw written about sports was by Bill James, more famed for his number-crunching that introduced whole swathes of new statistical thinking into baseball. He wrote that every strength was simultaneously a weakness; that without vigilance, the power of the strength would be overcome by the power of the weakness. If you're playing table tennis and position yourself so that you have more chance of the ball being played to your forehand, you give your opponent a greater chance to manoeuvre the ball into unhittable positions. In the stock market, success can make traders overconfident and ultimately lose money by trading too much. Keane's utter self-belief was an undoubted strength of his. His leadership inspired the 199 vintage of the Red Devils to great things; a team that achieved far more than the sum of its parts. Self-belief taken too far in a team context, however, is ultimately destructive.

Few people gave Ireland a chance of doing remotely well in the 2002 World Cup when Keane stormed out in protest at Mick McCarthy's management. It took a strong man to do that; I can't imagine that were I ever talented enough at football, that I could just walk away from what would be one of the greatest experiences of my life. Keane was Ireland's best player, yet taking him away from the team was ultimately good for them - they didn't lose a match and only got knocked out on penalties. The same will probably be true for Manchester United.

As an aside, there are huge parallels between what is going on with Keane and what is going on in the NFL between the Philadelphia Eagles and their star wide receiver, Terrell Owens. Owens is a fantastically gifted player, yet has a major ego problem. At both his teams, he has ultimately been sacked by them for consistently calling out players in the media because they weren't allowing him to showcase his talents enough. He caused enough chaos in the offseason in Philadelphia, when he complained that other players on the team, most notably their quarterback, hadn't tried hard enough in the Super Bowl, when he had played not yet fully recovered from a broken ankle. Then, he was suspended by the team for a week in preseason, before continuing to mouth off in the media, complaining the team had "disrespected" him by not celebrating his 100th touchdown catch. The week after, he had a fight in the locker room with a team leader; the Eagles suspended him for four games and deactivated him for the rest of the season. You know something is seriously wrong when a team is prepared to pay its star player millions of pounds not to play for the team.

The situation is highly analogous to Keane's in Manchester. His continued presence on the team was untenable. Because Keane's real value to the team was his leadership - a quality that, in theory, should not diminish despite the obvious waning of his physical powers. You can't continue to be a leader, however, when you're criticising your players publicly, out in the press, not making your complaints in private. An attitude like that becomes cancerous on a team; prevents a true team spirit from developing. Everyone is watching their backs, rather than feeling happy playing for each other. And ultimately, a little bit of teamwork can help overcome large deficiencies in talent.

We shouldn't feel sorry for Keane. He, after all, has admitted that in the past he deliberately targeted Alf-Inge Haaland, ending his career, because Haaland had the temerity to get in the way of another Keane lunge a few seasons earlier that damaged (deservedly) his cruciate ligaments. He was a thug, a bully, and a fairly unpleasant character. His determination was undoubted, and when he could back it up on the pitch with his skill, his spirit rubbed off on their team. The Manchester United of the late 1990s would never be doubted for effort. Once that skill evaporated, however, his bully-boy nature, his thuggery resisted. And he could no longer earn the respect that he craved. His strength - his self-belief and determination - turned into his weakness. No longer the kingpin, he couldn't cope. Manchester United will be a much better team for the loss of him.