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Keane the man, not the myth

EVERYTHING you think you know might just be wrong.

Roy Keane on Republic of Ireland duty with Martin O'Neill Photograph: PA
Roy Keane on Republic of Ireland duty with Martin O'Neill Photograph: PA

It is popular to view Roy Keane, the manager, through the prism of his playing days, to see him as a firebrand who ruled dressing rooms at Sunderland and Ipswich Town with fear - at least until he alienated them - and displayed a vicious, vindictive streak against rival managers, media and often the world in general.

The personal testimony of Neill Collins, who came under Keane's sphere of influence some eight years ago at the Stadium of Light, would seem to refute these perceptions. Collins is 30 now, and playing for last season's FA Cup semi-finalists Sheffield United, but at that stage he was in his early 20s, and trying to establish exactly where he would find a reliable source of first team-football.

The season was 2006/07, the year Keane would guide Sunderland to the Championship title, albeit from the most inauspicious of positions around the turn of the year. Collins, a Manchester United fan, was thrilled about the arrival at his club of a man whom he had idolised as a youngster. Collins' boyhood United jerseys back in his native Troon testified to that, emblazoned as they are with "Keane 16" emblazoned on them.

All seemed well when he scored in the Irishman's first match in charge. A change of emphasis at training, however, was the first indication that chances, particularly in Collins' favoured central defensive berth, were soon to dry up. In came a job lot of signings, some of them from Celtic, such as Stan Varga, Ross Wallace and Liam Miller. Suddenly Collins was either being used at right-back, or not at all.

Something had to give. After much swithering about the potential career suicide of what he was about to do, he plucked up the courage to knock on the manager's door. As perhaps the first player ever to do so in the Irishman's nascent managerial career, he feared the worst.

Instead, he found that Keane could hardly have been more receptive. Collins' concerns were understood, but he was still young. He was advised to bide his time.

"I was the first player at the club to go in to see him," Collins said. "I remember sitting out in the hall, thinking should I do it or not, but at the end of the day I knew I had to. Imagine what that was like for a young boy. But in the end I think he respected me for having the courage to go in and see him.

"He made me feel a million dollars and that is probably a side of him people don't really see. He made me want to play for him, even though people might not think it because I left shortly afterwards. That was nothing to do with his managerial ability, more a decision about where I thought I would be able to get games."

That was also only half of the story. Collins remained a young man in a hurry, particularly come October, when Wolves came in with an offer of first-team football. This time the discussion was more fraught: not only did he have to persuade Keane to let him leave, it wasn't just Wolves he was joining, it was Mick McCarthy.

Collins understandably feared he would become collateral damage following the ugly public quarrel between the two men in Saipan in May 2002 which led to Keane walking out on the Republic of Ireland on the eve of the World Cup.

"I was going back to re-join Mick and I did think at the time there was a chance the move wouldn't go through, just because of that," Collins said. "Their relationship was obviously difficult, but they put their differences to one side and it is a mark of both men that they could do that.

"He [Keane] could have stopped the move going through, maybe forced me to go somewhere else, but he didn't. I will always be grateful for that. At the same time, with hindsight I maybe should have stayed and seen how it went."

Keane's time at Sunderland ended abruptly, amid poor results and friction with owner Ellis Short and chief executive Niall Quinn, but not only did he win the Championship, he kept them in the top flight for a season, even if Ipswich was rather more of a struggle.

"People just expect because of how good a player he was, that he can just go in there and be a huge success but football doesn't always work out that way," Collins said. "But I've always felt I would be very surprised if he didn't get back into management at some point. People like him are just driven."

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