“Out of everybody I ever faced as a player, he drove me to become better. On his day, when he was driving Arsenal on with the sheer force of his personality, he was unplayable.” - Roy Keane on Patrick Vieira
“We had similar qualities as players. We were both determined, we wanted to win, and we were both leaders of our teams. That’s why I always loved to play against him.” - Patrick Vieira on Roy Keane
“I'll see you out there”
Forget the platitudes that retirement - and the natural mellowing of age - bring about. Forget the feelings of warm admiration and near-on love that you hear these days. Forget the quotes that bleed mutual respect.
If there is one quote that defines the rivalry that shaped the perception of the English Premier League, it's Roy Keane - eyes narrowed to evil thin slits - pointing an accusing finger at Patrick Vieira and uttering the kind of threat Santino Corleone would have been proud of - “I'll see you out there”.
It's not the threat that make the words so emblematic of the rivalry, it's the little half-smile that's flirting around Patrick Vieira's face as Keane says it.
Most people would be terrified if Roy Keane even so much as glances at them in the tunnel, let alone threaten them in no uncertain terms. And yet there he was – tall, lanky, looking right back at those tar-pits that pass for eyes.... and smiling. Smiling at what awaited him out there. Smiling at the prospect of fighting one of the toughest men to ever kick a ball in anger. Smiling, eager to get out there and get it on.
Back when football was still played by men, Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane won football matches, nay entire seasons, by getting out on the pitch and stamping their authority on every blade of grass - and wherever necessary, on every stray boot - on the pitch.
Red mist (noun; used in reference to a fit of extreme anger that temporarily clouds a person's judgment) wasn't just a phrase for these two, it was a way of life.
The (late) great Leonard Cohen wanted it darker?
It's these two who killed the flame.
The Captains who defined a decade
As Vieira says in that brilliant, yet slightly jarring, documentary Best of Enemies – when he lopped on to a British pitch for the first time, the shores of Ol' Blighty were owned by Roy Keane and the unstoppable juggernaut that was Manchester United. They were – in Vieira's words – having it easy... before he came along.
Vieira's signing is often described as Arsene Wenger's greatest, and for good reason. Dennis Bergkamp defined Wenger's style, Thierry Henry scored the goals, Patrick Vieira won them titles.
And that's because he was the only one in the Premiership era who wasn't intimidated by Roy Keane. “Excited” is the word he used when asked what he felt when he lined up against Roy Keane on the football pitch. Normal people don't get “excited” when staring at an angry Irishman hell bent on breaking you in two.
Normal people don't become champions.
Keane raised his game too with the lanky Frenchman opposite him, seizing games by the scruff of the neck, raising the games of everyone around him, not letting anyone flag, running till his legs dropped. And on the other side, Vieira matched him.
Keane and United had their treble, Vieira and Arsenal had their Invincibles.
Keane rarely scored, but when he did; they were vital goals – like this one in a fraught, tense night in Turin when the Irishman dragged United out of a quagmire and into the final of the Champions League
Vieira rarely scored, but when he did; they were goals of the utmost beauty – like this one in their evisceration against Everton (from 0.49 in the video below)
Not to say they weren't important – his last kick as an Arsenal player was to score the goal that would lead Arsenal to the FA Cup title. Over – yeah, the symmetry is beautifully poetic - Manchester United.
It wasn't the goals that made them so good, though, it was their short passing game. Capable of setting a metronomic passing rhythm around which the unique talents of both sides built their games, Vieira and Keane were underrated footballers whose skills were often overlooked for their larger-than-life personalities and that most sought-after of intangibles – “the will to win”.
"If I was putting Roy Keane out there to represent Manchester United on a one against one, we'd win the Derby, the National, the Boat Race and anything else," Sir Alex Ferguson once said. "It's an incredible thing he's got.
And he insisted that those around him played to his standards – win, or lose, no one on Keane’s team would be allowed to give anything less than 100%. It’s an incredible quest for perfection that gelled perfectly with the way Manchester United saw themselves.
Arsene Wenger, too, waxed lyrical about his captain - “He’s an unbelievable player, because he has everything you would want to have in the middle of the park: tall, but quick feet, good technique Arsenbut fantastic in the fight, aggressive but calm, and very brave. He didn’t hide from anybody, and the more you gave him, the stronger he became.”
It's that last line that defined him – the more you gave him, the more you fought, the stronger he became.
With the two wearing that oft-underrated football captain's armband around their biceps (even though Vieira was mostly deputy to Tony Adams in that period), they shared all the league crowns between '96-'97 and '04-'05 – nigh on a decade of owning, and defining the English Premiership as the league pushed the boundaries of commercialisation and started influencing millions around the world.
Live by the sword, die by it
Whenever mentions of the two come up in conversations today, the focus almost always shifts to their anger issues. And they are never received well, mostly because the game has changed so much that anyone doing even a bit of what the two used to get up to would be slapped with cards, suspensions, and fines.
Red mists came and went with a frequency that would have debilitated normal human beings – in fact at times they appeared to look at the entire world around them with a perma-blood-red tint.
Like Keane once said - "Aggression is what I do. I go to war. You don't contest football matches in a reasonable state of mind"
At times, this resulted in some pretty ugly incidents. Patrick Vieira's worst transgression was when he got into fisticuffs with Neil Ruddock, and ended up spitting at him – an incident that he regrets these days (not the fisticuffs, never the fisticuffs - the other bit) – he was handed a 6 match ban and fined 30,000 GBP.
Roy Keane's ugliest moment was when he went in with a full-blooded tackle that ended Alf-Inge Haaland's career. A tackle that was put in as a result of a perceived slight – Haaland had apparently laughed at Keane after he'd broken his metatarsal, and spent a year out of the game, thinking that Keane was faking it so that his opponent would get a red card.
"I'd waited long enough. I fucking hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you c***. And don't ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries.” said the United Captain
He got slapped with a 7 match ban and a 150,000 GBP fine, but to date doesn't regret his actions. For he believed it was his duty to get out on the pitch and boss it, tell everybody on the damn thing that it is he who owns the place, to put everybody in their place – even if that meant hurting the ones on the other side.
Neither faked it, and they both detested (detest) those that do.
“What I like about him is the fact that he wouldn’t talk; he’d take the kick, he wouldn’t say anything, then, on the next one, he’d give it to you and he would expect, of course, that you say nothing. He’s not the kind of player who talks a lot. So he’ll take the kick, he will give back, but I like him – he’s quite fair.” — Vieira on his kick-hate relationship with Keane
By the end of it, having put their body and soul on the line for their clubs they were handed the short end of the stick. One was down to a manager's ego – Ferguson simply couldn't handle Keane the way he wanted to anymore, and embarked on a public campaign against his once-favourite player that colours perceptions of Keane (negatively) to this day; the other to a manager's obstinacy – Wenger refused to change his policy of offering 29-30 (+) year olds anything more than a year's extension.
They lived by the sword, and they died by it too – both still firmly in love with the clubs, hearts always sown into their proverbial sleeve, fates very much intertwined with the other. Five months after Patrick Vieira left Arsenal, Keane left United, and with them, something left the Premier League – for the good, or for the worse.
Detractors say that the two, Keane especially, were simple thugs who bullied their way across the English league; but they miss the point of two footballers who were incredibly skillful – effective, and incisive with the ball – and two leaders of men who were inspirational beyond description.
These two were arguably the last of the “blood and thunder” footballing leaders, and being part of a generation that was bred on the red mist of the two captains, they will always be the benchmark against whom all captains, nay all leaders, are measured.
As the incomparable Charles Dickens wrote – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. To the captains and their red mists... *raises a glass, throws a punch*