Analysis

Year Zero: the making of Roy Keane (Nottingham Forest, 1992/93)

Roy Keane Nottingham Forest

Manchester United signed their long-serving former skipper on this day 25 years ago, but the Irishman had already shown his special spark the previous season. Nick Miller remembers his outstanding season at Nottingham Forest

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The thing people forget about the end of Brian Clough’s career is that, in some respects, the decline was incredibly sudden. Of course, the underlying signs had been there for some time: the drinking, the even-by-his-standards erratic behaviour, the uncertainty in his decision-making. Some saw it coming; perhaps more should have.

But the season before Nottingham Forest’s relegation and the end of Clough, they finished a respectable eighth in the First Division, reached the League Cup final and won the Zenith Data Systems Cup – not the most prestigious trophy, but a trophy nonetheless. The previous season they reached the FA Cup final. But from the very early days of the 1992/93 season, something was significantly awry.

Of Forest’s best players, Teddy Sheringham and Des Walker had been sold, Stuart Pearce had injury problems and subsequently admitted his heart wasn't in the fight due to a dispute with the manager, while Nigel Clough was distracted by the uncertainty over his father’s future. Indeed, his son was one of a few family members who'd urged him to retire a year earlier.

One shining light

Despite this, the prevailing narrative that season was that Forest, a side managed by the great, omnipotent Brian Clough, could not be relegated. Surely a club with such pedigree was, as in the cliché, too good to go down? As it turned out, that was only true for one player.

When Roy Keane was a 14-year-old playing football in Cork, he sent letters to a selection of English clubs asking for a trial. Few responded, but Forest were one of them. They turned him down, but said if he was any good they would spot him when he turned 18. So, when in 1990 a scout called Noel McCabe saw him playing for Cobh Ramblers, they signed him for £47,000.

Keane made an infamous debut against Liverpool a short time after arriving. Having enjoyed a few drinks the previous evening, he travelled up to Anfield with a hangover, not really helped by Clough’s insistence that he skulled a pint of milk on the way. Ostensibly this didn't matter too much, as he was only going for the experience, but when they got to the ground Clough put him in the team on the right wing. So new was this fresh-faced young Irishman that he had to introduce himself to most of his team-mates. During the game John Barnes, having been on the thick end of some prototype Keane reducers, asked the 19-year-old just who he thought he was. “Fuck off,” came the pithy reply. He was pretty much a regular from that point.

“Roy was a bit different in that respect,” Liam O’Kane, Forest’s first-team coach for the last decade of Clough’s reign, tells FourFourTwo. “You expect lads who got into the team so young to have a dip at some point, and you’ll need to take them out of the firing line, but he went from strength to strength. He just seemed to settle in so quickly.”

For the next couple of years, Keane split his time between establishing himself as one of the best young midfielders in England, and an assortment of bars and clubs in Nottingham and Cork. Nights out didn't tend to feature a quiet few pints and a discussion of the human condition; more a loud, large number of pints and more often than not, aggro of some kind.

Keane became well acquainted with the bouncers of the Black Orchid, a strange, vast nightclub in an industrial estate on the edge of Nottingham, which later changed its name to Isis. Fortunately for all concerned, it closed in 2009 before the name became... shall we say, a PR issue. He also managed to get himself barred from assorted pubs in town, including one called the Stage Door – a pretty impressive achievement given that the landlord was Larry Lloyd, a member of Forest’s European Cup-winning team.

But while the drinking wasn't entirely knocked on the head, by 1992 he had settled down a little, moving out of his digs and to a house in Scarrington, a village about 10 miles from the City Ground. He had met Theresa, the woman who would become his wife, and by 22 had become one of Forest’s senior players.

This was even more pronounced because of the state of the squad around him. With Walker and Sheringham not just gone but inadequately replaced, Pearce injured and distracted, Keane and Clough Jnr became the only two players of reliable quality in the team.

Roy of the groaners

From the early weeks of the season it was clear that Keane, already a fine player, had matured into something close to the great one he eventually became. His ability stood out even further because of what surrounded him: a slowly decaying team and club that, despite the common consensus at the time, was circling the drain. They won their first game against Liverpool, Sheringham scoring a farewell present of a goal, but managed only two further victories before Christmas – the second of which was a 4-1 success at Leeds, inspired by a Keane brace.

Search through newspaper headlines from that season and you will find a common theme: ‘Keane’s quality lifts Forest’; ‘Keane earns vital point for Forest’; ‘Keane shows his worth’; ‘Keane power fires Forest’. Clough wrote in his memoir Walking On Water: “Roy Keane shone like a beacon through all the gloom of that desolate season… the confidence of the young players dipped. Scot Gemmill’s goals dried up. My son Nigel had a thin time too. Only Roy Keane was doing his stuff regularly.”

Roy Keane Nottingham Forest

“I just try to keep out of the limelight if I can,” Keane told the Observer halfway through the season. “I don’t want to be Gazza. I haven’t even thought about Italy or anything like that. I’m concentrating on Forest’s next match, not Milan. I just want to be in the first team, have a good game and get a win.”

He managed plenty of the former but not many of the latter. Keane was not only Forest’s best player that season, but he was their best player in about three different positions. In central midfield he was a sensational box-to-box man, doing the work of at least two men because, well, he had to. The other midfielders at the club were rather limited, but for a lot of the season, Keane was pressed into duty in central defence.

Clough was still desperately and unsuccessfully trying to fill the gap left by Des Walker’s departure the previous summer, and Keane was the solution for big chunks of the campaign. Keane excelled, and the plan worked initially: during a five-game spell at the back in October, Forest conceded only two goals.

Too good for centre-half

But Keane grew restless. “It was almost that it was too easy for him [at the back],” says Liam O’Kane. “He wanted to be more involved in midfield. He was a great header of the ball, had a great spring, so he could have played centre-half all season. But it was a bit easy for him, so we put him back into midfield.”