Eoin O’Callaghan’s bestselling new book, ‘Keane: Origins’, delves into the making of a legend. Focusing on the period 1988-1993, it charts the Corkman’s formative football years at home while examining his three seasons under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest in great detail.
Featuring countless interviews and testimonies from a range of ex-teammates, coaches and those who knew him best, it debunks some long-running myths and details the games, the goals, the cars, the clubs, the music and the mistakes.
In the following extract, centred on the spring of 1990, Keane is part of the Cobh Ramblers’ youth side for a National Cup quarter-final replay against Dublin outfit Belvedere. Afterwards, everything changes.
THINGS started badly and rapidly got worse.
Though there was a small accident on the way up to Fairview Park (‘a tip with a car’, is how Jamie Cullimore describes it), what seemed to properly delay the Cobh Ramblers squad was the bus driver’s lack of local geography once he entered Dublin city centre.
“We were driving all over the place looking for the ground,” says Ken O’Rourke, who was part of the Cobh team that day.
It tallies with Keane’s own memories, who recounted in his autobiography that the Cobh team arrived with ‘only minutes to spare’, describing the entire episode as ‘a f**king cock-up, Mickey f**king Mouse’.
For Cobh, the game proved somewhat similar.
“We absolutely destroyed them, annihilated them,” says Graham Brereton, who played for Belvedere that afternoon.
“I don’t know if it was 4–0 at half-time or something like that, but it could have been. I remember being very surprised at how easy it was because they had probably deserved to win the first game down in Cobh.
“Maybe it was because they had to step off a bus and come straight onto a pitch. Maybe that was the problem. But we weren’t aware of it.”
As usual, Brereton’s father was watching from the sideline when a friend arrived on his bike.
“My dad knew Noel McCabe, the Nottingham Forest scout, very well. They were chatting and my dad was actually pointing out Keane to him because the story goes that Noel had actually turned up to look at another player — Cobh’s left-winger. But I was right-back and I didn’t give him a sniff that day.”
Cobh’s left-winger was Jamie Cullimore.
“Before the game, a Ramblers committee member came over and said, “Forest are over here to look at you” and, to be honest, I shat myself and had a poor game,” he says.
“I don’t know if Roy knew Noel McCabe was there, but I’m not sure it would’ve bothered him. That’s the type of character he was. And you’d nearly have given him Man of the Match again even though we were thumped 4–0. There was just something special and people were starting to sit up and notice.”
At half-time, McCabe approached the Cobh chairman John O’Rourke and asked about ‘the number 10’. It was Keane.
Regarding his performance that day, recollections vary. It had been so easy for Belvedere and they dominated all over the pitch. But to some, as Brereton quickly found out, Keane had stood out right from kick-off.
“There was a pub across the road from Fairview Park called Meaghers and any team from the country that would come up, we’d always go there with them after the game,” he says.
“We were buzzing. A 4–0 cup win and on to the semi-finals. Our two midfielders were Liam Dunne and Pat Curran, both smashing players. But my dad said to us, “that guy in the middle, Roy Keane, he’s some player.”
And we were all like, “What? Sure, he did nothing”.
But when you’re on the sideline, you see a lot more than when you’re in the thick of the action.
“He certainly wouldn’t have come into our minds as being special. I felt our players were just as good. He played well, but you weren’t asking, “when is this player going over to England?”
But back then, you could see how competitive he was. My dad tried to talk to him in the pub and just tell him he’d had a great game and to keep going, but he got the impression Roy didn’t want to be spoken to and didn’t want people annoying him. He just wasn’t very talkative.
“When you look at it, after beating Cobh 4–0, how come our players weren’t picked up that day as well? Noel McCabe was looking at the Cobh winger and I didn’t give him a kick so why didn’t I get a shout, y’know? But that’s a scout’s job. Football can be a bit of luck, can’t it? Right place, right time.”
But McCabe wasn’t the only influential figure there that day. The feeling at the time was that young talent didn’t get spotted unless they played at Fairview Park or Albert College and given the fixture was a National Cup quarter-final with some well-regarded players on show, there were plenty of magpie eyes hungry for the prize.
“There was every kind of scout there that day, including boy scouts,” Cobh youth boss Eddie O’Rourke recalled years afterward.
“I will always wonder what the others were watching.”
“Noel McCabe is the luckiest man in Ireland that the replay went to Dublin”, O’Rourke later told The Independent.
‘Scouts here are lazy — they think Ireland means Dublin. I’m not saying Roy wouldn’t have risen, mind, because he was very good.”
McCabe’s scouting report provides some fascinating insight. It indicates that Keane’s overall profile was what caught the eye, not anything specific. Certain phrases jump off the page: ‘finding players’, ‘involved in all activities’ and ‘progressive with his tackling’. There are additional references to him taking responsibility on the ball and McCabe doesn’t express a single concern about his size.
In fact, he singles out Keane’s physical conditioning for praise, describing a ‘broad upper body’. But it’s the last line that draws the most attention and reflects the level of impact Keane had on McCabe that Sunday afternoon: “In my opinion, a player to go on trial with Forest. Right away”.
Keane was made aware of McCabe’s interest immediately after the game. Years later, he claimed he wasn’t particularly excited by the news, the collapsed Brighton trial from a few years prior giving him reason to be sceptical. But, he did seem buoyed when he met Tony Gorman, his cohort from the FAI’s FÁS course, later that night.
“Finn Harps played Waterford United on the Sunday so we stayed in Dublin,” Gorman says.
“There were a couple of us that met up and Roy was there. I remember sitting down and him saying, ‘you won’t believe this but we got beaten 4–0 and I didn’t even play that well but some lad asked me to go to Nottingham Forest for a trial afterwards’. He was surprised because they were beaten and in his eyes he didn’t play well. But obviously he’d kept going for 90 minutes and there was that never-say-die attitude. I had come back from Mansfield the previous year and I would’ve known a lot of the Forest boys. So I told him about some of the players and the likes of Liam O’Kane and Archie Gemmill who were coaching. It was a wee bit of a heads-up for him. Just going through the playing squad, where Forest trained, that type of stuff.”
Later, McCabe met with Keane at the Aisling Hotel, across the quay from Heuston Station, to formalise arrangements for a trial.
“Immediately I was impressed by his attitude,” McCabe said years later.
“He gave me the impression that he’d nearly swim over to England to become a footballer.”
Dovetailing with the development of a Forest trial and an opportunity he had craved for so long was some more recognition of his progress.
In late-February, Keane was honoured, along with 12 other young athletes, at The Munster Youth Sports Awards, an annual shindig sponsored by The Cork Examiner and held at the Imperial Hotel.
A different kind of team-group photo made the paper the following day. In the front-row is Keane, seated next to his mother, Marie, all suave and slick in a tuxedo, the almost-rockabilly haircut carefully moulded and finessed.
Directly behind him are two beaming faces, his father, Mossie, and his uncle, Pat Lynch. Other award winners that evening offer up big grins for the camera and while Keane doesn’t appear glum he’s certainly disinterested. He stares right down the barrel of the lens. Emotionless.
Outside of Bishop John Buckley, the guest of honour that night was Tipperary hurling icon Nicky English. His speech was curious and compelling, devoid of the usual platitudes. He told the award winners that being acknowledged as the best was something to be proud of but that it dictated what came next for them too.
“It creates its own pressure and responsibility,” he said. “People like to knock those who have been chosen as the best. And, you will soon realise that your performances will have to keep improving if you want to stay the best. That should always be your ambition and if you remain committed, your performances will improve.”
It was a reminder to Keane that despite the glad rags and the accolades, he’d achieved nothing yet and the real work was still ahead.
By early March, the pending trial was noted in the local Cork press.
As usual for a Saturday edition, the back pages of the Examiner were dominated by cross-channel previews — how Arsenal’s away form needed to improve if they wished to retain the First Division title and Alex Ferguson’s defiance ahead of Manchester United’s relegation battle against Luton (‘We’ll fight like tigers to stay up’).
Buried in a sidebar, the paper revealed that Keane was heading to Nottingham: ‘Roy Keane of Cobh Ramblers is on his way to Nottingham Forest for a week’s trial, which could result in a full-time professional career for the talented midfield player,’ wrote Mark Woods.
But due to commitments with Cobh, it wasn’t until later in the month that Keane made the trip. He played in Ramblers’ final league match of the season — a 3–0 win over Newcastle West — and appeared in the following week’s FAI Cup clash with Monaghan too where Cullimore came off the bench to grab a late winner and book a home tie with non-league St Francis in the next round.
Cobh’s manager, Liam McMahon, was agitated that the First Division season was already completed and complained that the cup was heavily geared towards top-tier teams because of their six weeks of extra league action. Instead of games coming thick and fast, Cobh were left trying to arrange weekend friendlies to keep players on their toes.
More importantly, they were also losing out on income while still having to pay their squad. While a decent run in the cup was always an aspiration, it seemed to carry a greater importance this time around. And despite St Francis having got the better of Kilkenny City in the first round, they were still a Leinster Senior League outfit and Cobh fancied their chances of setting up a quarter-final clash against Newcastle West.
Keane began his week-long trial in Nottingham on March 19 and Forest wanted him to prolong his stay so that he’d feature in a youth game against Port Vale that weekend.
But Ramblers dug their heels in and ordered him back to Cork. Under the headline of ‘Cobh in SOS to Clough’, the Irish Independent described the situation as a ‘tug o’ war’.
“Roy is a professional player with Cobh,” McMahon said at the time.
“I’m sure he appreciates his commitments to the club ... and we have told Forest that there is no way that they can hold on to him. It’s not the end of the world for Roy. At 18, there will be other opportunities; and Forest may well come back to him in the near future.”
Forest did what they were told, and the whole affair wasn’t much of a distraction for Keane, who returned to score Cobh’s opener at St Colman’s Park. But they squandered a 2–0 lead and the plucky underdogs forced a replay. A few days later at John Hyland Park in Baldonnell — about a 15-minute drive from where he usually spent his Thursdays on the FÁS course in Palmerstown — Cobh and Keane were embarrassingly dumped out of the competition by the non-leaguers after a comprehensive 3–0 defeat.
Remarkably, St Francis went on to reach the Lansdowne Road decider that season, becoming the very first amateur side to do so, but were well beaten by Bray Wanderers.
With his club season over, but a move to Forest still very much a possibility, Keane needed games, but they were hard to come by. At the end of the month, he remained in the capital to turn out for the Munster Senior League youth side — along with fellow FÁS players Cullimore and Len Downey — in a national tournament semi-final against Dublin Schoolboys in Ballyfermot. Trailing 1–0 at the break, Keane was denied a magnificent volleyed equaliser by a goal-line clearance and the team failed to force a replay.
It was mid-April when Forest asked him to return. But Keane had been irked by the previous trip.
“No one seemed to take any notice of me,” he said later.
“I was training with the youth team, then the next thing I was back on the plane. But the coach, Archie Gemmill, apparently said he had seen enough to offer me another trial.”
Tony Gorman had mentioned names like Forest coach Liam O’Kane to him. He’d gone through the entire playing staff for both the first team and reserves with him. But Keane had met none of them. On this occasion, however, things were different.
After a couple of days training, he was selected for a Midlands Senior League game against Tranmere. O’Kane and Forest’s chief scout, Alan Hill, turned up to watch him.
“He played in midfield, broke forward, had some shots at goal, headed the ball, stuck his foot in a bit and we thought, ‘this lad has got something’,” Hill said, recounting the memory years later.
Scot Gemmill, the son of Forest coach Archie, was another witness and recalled Keane’s trial period years later.
“I played in the game when Roy came over from Ireland, Scarborough away in a trial game,” he said.
“Roy and I were in midfield. Roy asked to play on the right and I wouldn’t let him. Even as a young player he was very demanding, very quick to let you know if standards weren’t being reached.”
Once the trial wrapped, Keane was back in Cork as the Cobh Ramblers youth side looked to get over their National Cup exit at the hands of Belvedere and pick up some local silverware in an MSL League Cup final against St Mary’s at Turner’s Cross on April 13. Inevitably, he played a key role.
With Cobh 2–0 down, Cullimore pulled one back before sending in a free-kick shortly after the restart that Keane headed home. With four minutes to go, Keane turned provider, sending Cullimore through to complete the turnaround while Darren Fenton added a fourth to ensure a Cobh victory.
The match report was carried on page 21 of the following day’s Cork Examiner, the column inches dominated by two other stories — Frank Stapleton’s omission from Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland squad for the upcoming friendly against the Soviet Union and the climax to the First Division season in England.
Title-favourites Liverpool were seeking their 18th top-flight crown and were preparing for a clash with Nottingham Forest at Anfield.
The next time the sides faced each other — a little over three months later — Keane would be playing.