Saturday, November 19, 2005
Life without Roy
Charlton 1 - 3 Manchester United
It was a scene akin to a post mortem.
Sir Alex Ferguson was reticent on the subject of his departed captain. (PhilCole/GettyImages)
The great, good and useless of Her Majesty's media gathered together at The Valley, pondering the ramifications of yet another Roy Keane-inspired controversy. Former United players Lou Macari and Paddy Crerand were among the throng and all concerned seemed to have their own 'inside story' on what had transpired at United's Carrington training ground on Friday morning.
The suggestion that the ever explosive Keane had been involved in a bust-up with assistant manager Carlos Queiroz was the more popular of the tales, while others claimed club owner Malcolm Glazer and his sons are fuming as they were not informed of Keane's departure before he left United's Carrington's training base for the final time on Friday. Another claimed Keane walked out after his never seen MUTV interview was pulled by club officials.
One seasoned hack appeared to be under the impression that Keane would be handed the chance to move straight into management at Portsmouth, but all these rumours are likely to be scotched when Keane signs on the dotted line for his beloved Celtic some time next week. News that the day's headline maker had been spotted watching the Old Firm game at Parkhead added further weight to that suggestion.
Love him or hate him, and opinions are invariably divided when Keane is the man in the spotlight, Cork's most infamous son has made a habit of dominating the agenda whether he is present or not and thus was the case once again ahead of this game against Charlton.
The first issue of the day was resolved when the team-sheet confirmed that Ruud van Nistelrooy had retained the responsibilities of captaincy as life after Keano began in earnest, yet the United fans made their feelings clear as they belted out songs dedicated to their departed hero as referee Alan Wiley got the action underway.
The scent of his manly aftershave may still be hovering in the air of the Manchester United team bus, yet the truth is Sir Alex Ferguson and his team have been preparing for life without Keano for the last 18 months or so. With that in mind, his absence was not the pivotal factor as United swarmed all over their hapless opponents in the opening exchanges.
Fielding a youthful side that was spearheaded by the dynamic duo of Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy, United looked like a side brimming with confidence as they sprayed one-touch passes around a Charlton side who were all too willing to stand back in awe of their illustrious opponents.
Van Nistelrooy, Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo all went close before a flowing United move was finished by a clinical Alan Smith finish from the edge of the box. The irony of the man marked out to replace Keane scoring the opening goal of this game was not lost on anyone, but the bigger picture suggested they had more than enough to cope without their former talisman.
Allowed to do as they wished against a Charlton side who were prepared to sit back and look on in awe, United had far too much for a Charlton side with realistic European ambitions this season.
With or without Roy Keane, Manchester United have enough quality players to destroy the best of sides if given the chance and it was only when Charlton upped their intensity after the break that they started to come into the game. Defensive flaws of the type that would have riled Keano were all too plentiful, yet it was still something of a surprise when Darren Ambrose blasted a 65th minute shot past Van der Sar.
Top class sides shouldn't need a wake-up call in a Premiership match, but that is just what Ambrose's stunner handed United as within five minutes, they produced a goal that may just win a few prizes when it comes to goal of the month and season.
At first viewing, Van Nistelrooy's 70th minute goal looked classy, but a glance at the TV replays made it look even more impressive as Rooney's stunning run and pinpoint flicked cross gave the Dutch hitman a chance to control the ball on his chest, turn and lash past Charlton keeper Stephan Andersen. Even the ever critical Roy would have appreciated such a quality goal.
Ambrose sent a flutter through a few United hearts with another long range effort, before Van Nistelrooy scored his first goal from outside the box in what has been an illustrious Old Trafford career.
As the press assembled once again at the final whistle, we already knew that Ferguson would perform one of his, 'I'm too busy to talk' acts, so we were denied the chance to quiz the one man capable of explaining the real story behind the Keane affair. Premier League rules compel him to talk to the media after a game, but the power Ferguson holds means he refuses to attend press conferences after London games and he followed a familiar path today.
'It was a great performance,' a red faced Ferguson said in his post match TV interview, clearly determined to avoid any questions about Keane. 'We played some great attacking football and our second goal was a fantastic finish by Ruud. In the end, we had to win this game and we got the job done.'
Ferguson went on to claim the mid-week Champions League clash against Villarreal is 'one of the biggest games in the club's history' and only had this to say on the Keane fiasco.
'I have nothing to add on the situation,' he said. 'I had an amicable meeting with Roy on Friday and we both wished each other well for the future. He will be remembered as one of the best players this club have had, my best player without doubt. It's been a difficult week, but the nature of our club means we have weeks like this. We have to come through it.'
Roy will be remembered as the greatest player to ever play for the club.
— Ruud Van Nistelrooy
With his manager clearly determined to nip the Keane story in the bud, he may not have been best pleased with this stunningly extravagant tribute from the man who may yet fill Keane's boots as the permanent United captain. 'Roy will be remembered as the greatest player to ever play for the club,' stated match-winner Ruud van Nistelrooy.
'Having worked a played with him for four and a half years, he is the best player I have played with. It's such a shame that his time at the club has to stop now. It was a big shock on Friday when the news came through, a sad day.
'It's difficult to talk about it now because it's all so fresh, but we had to try and focus on the game at Charlton. That was hard because the news has had such a massive impact on all of us, but it gave us all the motivation we needed and we got a great victory.'
With Keane and United the only story of the day, poor Charlton boss Alan Curbishley had a mere handful of reporters before him as he summed up a game that slipped away from his side after a spirited second half showing. 'That first half performance was Man United in full flow, on top of their game,' suggested Curbishley. 'Sir Alex told me it was the best they had played this season.
'We got ourselves back into it, but we then conceded just a few minutes after our goal and that is a real disappointment. They have a lot of good players and I'm sure the Chelsea result has given them a real lift. They are a top side and guys like Scholes and Rooney looked like they were really enjoying it out there today.'
So the king is dead, but you suspect the finer details of a story that has caught even the most seasoned of football observer off guard have yet to be revealed. On the evidence of an impressive United performance at The Valley, Sir Alex may have timed Roy Keane's departure to perfection.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Rooney
Class comes at a high price and the more you watch this lad play, the more you suspect United got a bargain when they paid close to £30m to secure his services. He may not have scored, but his all round contribution was sensational.
FOOD WATCH: Samosas, sausage rolls and nice cup of soup went down very well on this frozen London afternoon. However, the post-match flan left a lot to be desired.
PITCH INVASION: I counted 23 people in suits and skirts making their way into the centre circle to 'observe' the toss of the coin between the two captains. Charlton must be selling this privilege to anyone willing to pay for it.
UNITED VERDICT: A lack of strength in depth must be a concern as their bench was lacking any experienced players, but the first eleven Fergie put out turned in an impressive display. If Chelsea stumble again at any point in the season and United steer clear of any more major injuries, this title race may not be as dead as many believed.