Fourteen years have passed since Roy Keane hung up his boots, but the football world hasn’t seen the likes of him since. A hard-tackling and ferocious leader who loved to dictate traffic from the centre of the park, chances are that we will never see players of his mould again.

"It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt such an honour to be associated with such a player," Sir Alex Ferguson said about Keane after his career-defining performance in Turin following the second leg of Manchester United's 1999 Champions League semi-final tie against Juventus.

Ferguson’s words perfectly encapsulated the type of selfless player that Keane was. After getting United back into the tie with a headed goal, Keane went on the pick up a yellow card that would rule him out of the final. However, Keane’s head never dropped, with his objective on the pitch being his sole focus, the United skipper led his side into a final he wouldn’t play.

Many have considered that his finest hour but to be fair, the former Republic of Ireland and United captain boasts a catalogue of such inspiring performances that dragged his team to another level. Self-admittedly, Keane never thought of himself among the best midfielders in world football. But in terms of influence on and off the pitch, there are few individuals who even come close to the legendary Irishman.

After being relegated with Nottingham Forest from the Premier League, Keane was one of the most sought after midfielders in the game. Not only Ferguson, but Kenny Dalglish was also desperate to add Keane’s old school, all-action and gritty style of play to Blackburn Rovers.

It was eventually Ferguson who won the race for his signature and the rest is history as the Red Devils proceeded to become the most successful team of the decade in England, led by Keane himself following the retirement of Eric Cantona.

Roy Keane was a leader in every sense of the word

In Keane, Ferguson saw a reflection of himself on the field – a hallmark for any successful side. A leader in every sense of the word, the explosive midfielder’s presence on the pitch ensured that the standards of his teammates never dropped, which is easier said than done for teams that are used to continuous success.

It’s perhaps his high standards that eventually became his undoing at the club after he voiced his dissatisfaction with the performances of a few teammates while out recuperating from an injury himself.

Ferguson’s famous quote about Keane’s tongue being the hardest part of his body must have partly been shaped after the former Ireland international’s criticism of his United teammates. The United manager considered it the last straw and decided to part ways with the club’s captain as the relationship between the two imploded.

Still, it was Keane’s edge and steel that made him the captain of the club in the first place. More than a decade later, no player comes close to matching Keane’s overall influence on his teammates on the pitch at Old Trafford and chances are that they’ll never see individuals of his ilk again. While football has evolved, technical players are more in demand these days with old-school footballers who liked to leave a mark on opponents considered somewhat a thing of the past.

That said, it would be a great disservice to say that Keane was all about his aggression and crunching tackles on the field. Lest we forget, here’s a man who made 480 appearances for the Red Devils, and scored 51 goals, won seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups and one Champions League. He was a captain during most of those appearances and came on as a substitute only 22 times.

Never one for individual accolades, his selfless nature and fierce temperament meant that while he may not have gotten the deserved recognition in the past, his place amongst football’s hard men is undeniable. Maybe he was the last of his kind with vocal leaders on the pitch no longer a very common sight.

The experience of watching Keane is hard to put into words but the fact that we’ve not seen another of his kind after his retirement speaks volumes about the player. Not just one of the great midfielders, Keane is one of the all-time great footballers – the last of his kind and simply irreplaceable.

Feature image courtesy: AFP / Paul Barker

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