THE clock at Páirc Uí Chaoimh had ticked to the 60-minute mark and the Manchester United legends team were about to make a substitution.
Two of the lesser lights from the team’s glory years, to put it rather unkindly, were set to trade places. Quinton Fortune limbered up on the touchline, as he waited to replace Nicky Butt.
The board went up... and then he appeared from nowhere. The Boy. The Man. Mr Roy Keane himself.
He had hurtled out of his seat in the dug-out as though a wasp was on his tail, already togged out, and ran straight onto the pitch to replace another United great, Ryan Giggs.
The 43,000 crowd, taken by surprise, erupted as one. Here he was, Keano: looking a lot less paunchy than most of his generation, it had to be said, assuming that familiar gait as he settled into the defensive anchor position that he made his own over 326 appearances in the famed red shirt.
Looking down on the scene, I rewound the clock a few seconds.
Why had the star attraction not joined Fortune on the sideline for the double substitution? Had he suddenly had a quick change of mind and decided to join the fray — he was the manager of the team after all?
Not at all.
This was Roy doing what Roy does. Keeping it simple, staying humble, eschewing the fanfares.
My guess was that he knew all along he would be coming on after an hour, but he couldn’t face the sustained applause that would inevitably greet him as he ambled to the touchline and limbered up. He didn’t want to overshadow Fortune’s moment, didn’t want to make it about him. This wasn’t about him, it was never about him.
So Roy sat there in the dug-out and fooled us all. It was typical of the man’s humility and disdain for the bull of idolisation that he has spent his career on and off the pitch shunning.
He was right — well, partially.
This really was never about Roy Keane. It was about a fine Corkman, Liam Miller, and his family.
But it was about Roy, too; as far as Cork is concerned, it is almost always about Roy.
Keane was the man, above all others, who had the compassion then the drive to organise that incredible charity event on Tuesday afternoon and rally around some of the biggest names in soccer.
Tuesday afternoon! A school day, a work day. Yet there we were, at 3pm, 43,000 of us, faithfully paying tribute, more a congregation than a crowd, glimpsing legends of old from Celtic, United and Ireland, watching history unfold as a soccer match graced the hallowed turf of the brilliant new Páirc stadium.
Keane had put it all together, but he didn’t want our praise.
For the next half-hour, the capacity crowd looked down indulgently as the old gladiator pinged out passes, glared down opponents, and dared any player around him — friend or foe — to cross him.
He didn’t need to score a goal, to play a killer pass; that would have been far too... showbiz.
No, Roy just had to be Roy, and the crowd went home happy.
It was only 30 minutes, but to call it a cameo would be to under-state Keane’s presence. For many in the crowd, everyone else was the cameo, Roy was the main event.
Those too young to have seen him play could tell their grandchildren: “I saw him.” Those old enough got to wallow in warm nostalgia as the memories came flooding back.
He would hate to be told it, but on Tuesday, a day that wouldn’t have happened without Keane, he was again the main man.
His old adversary, Mick McCarthy, reminded us all of Keane’s magnetism among the press and the people just last week, when he said of the current Ireland management set-up: “It’s like Roy Keane’s Ireland. It’s bonkers in my view.”
If it’s bonkers to be obsessed with Keane, Mick, why were the media asking you about him — again? And why were you talking about him — again?
Not for nothing was the play about the Mayfield boy made good a few years ago called I Keano. It’s always about Keane, even if that’s the opposite of what he craves.
Peter Crouch, a soccer player with a neat line in self-deprecation, wrote about the effect Keane can have on others without even trying, in his new book.
He bought an Aston Martin and explained: “I’m steering with just two fingers, windows down, sunglasses on, music blaring. A little voice deep down keeps telling me an Aston Martin isn’t really me, but a louder voice is telling me that as an England international playing up front for Liverpool, the old rules no longer apply.”
Crouch stopped at traffic lights in Manchester when who should pull up alongside, but Keane.
“I give him a nod, give him a wink,” recalled Crouch. “I may even point my index finger at him and make a clicking sound at the same time. All of it saying, ‘You and me, eh, Roy? Same game, same level. In it together. Rivals, yet friends who just haven’t met before. All right, Roy?’
‘’Only, Roy isn’t all right. Roy looks absolutely disgusted. He just shakes his head and goes back to staring dead ahead, hands on his steering wheel.
“I genuinely had a wake-up call. It only took one look from Roy Keane. I sold the car that same week.”
Keane is 47 now and his place on the pantheon of Leeside greats, sporting or otherwise, is assured. Only Christy Ring can possibly occupy the same plinth in Cork minds.
The comparisons with the Glen man are striking: Not just the wiry bodies and intense mental strength, not just the warrior instincts, but the refusal to wilt, the ability to win and win and win again, and treat the occasional defeat that comes along as a personal affront.
It would have been nice if Keane had emulated Ring and scored a goal at the Páirc — he smiled when his penalty in the shoot-out was saved — but no matter. His goal had already been achieved.
As he said himself: “I’m sure Liam will be looking down and will be delighted.”
Ring was four months short of his own 47th birthday when he scored 1-2 and set up another goal in the Glen’s championship quarter-final defeat of UCC in 1967.
While the Glen were scheduled to play Muskerry in the championship semi-final, he announced, without warning, that he wouldn’t be playing. After more than a quarter of a century of club hurling, Ring had retired. Just like that. No applause.
Like Keane, he detested the fanfare too.