Any close observers of Roy Keane will have given up long ago trying to suss out just what drives this most intense of footballers. But will his next port of call be the West Midlands, and one of the area's Premiership clubs?
Nods and winks are at the moment the order of the day, but I understand that Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion would all like to sign him. Birmingham City manager Steve Bruce yesterday effectively ruled his club out of the chase but the managers of all three clubs have links with this combustible and unusual character.
David O?Leary shares the same solicitor and business manager, Michael Kennedy. Bryan Robson, Keane?s former Old Trafford team-mate lives near the Irishman in Hale, Cheshire while Bruce, Keane?s first captain at Manchester United, is a known admirer. Bruce must have pondered the possibilities knowing Keane could still do a sound job in the Premiership, playing selectively while stamping his authority on the team as captain.
* Would you like to see Roy Keane playing for your club? Visit our messageboard and tell us what you think *
Recently Bruce played golf with Sir Alex Ferguson and you can bet that Keane?s escapades that led to Friday?s schism would have been on the conversational agenda as they circled around the putts. No matter, the Blues manager said yesterday: ?I think he has still got something left as a player.
?I know him well. I wouldn?t be surprised if something is already sorted.?
But then he said: ?Will we be trying to sign him? No, I think we can rule that one out, that?s for sure.?
On Saturday night, after West Brom?s impressive thrashing of Everton, Robson confirmed in an interview with me that he?d be interested in signing Keane. The words had to be dragged out of him and he denied that he?d spoken to him in the previous 24 hours, but yes ? most Premiership clubs would be interested in Keane and West Brom would be one of them.
Robson did add hurriedly-?But who?s to say that Roy Keane would be interested in joining West Brom??
Indeed. And which of the three local clubs would try to match his United salary of around a hundred grand a week?
Deadly Doug would baulk at it for a start. West Brom would need to find a particular sponsor willing to stump up while taking a chance on smashing the club?s salary ceiling for players, which is around #35,000 a week. David Sullivan at Blues might have found the necessary money if persuaded that Keane was an option that simply had to be pursued.
Judging by Sullivan?s recent sceptical comments about the high wages of certain Blues? players that would have required some persuasive advocacy from Steve Bruce. If the mooted casino project was already on-stream it would be easier for Blues to find the money if there was a prospect of playing in front of home crowds in the region of 50,000 every fortnight. Always assuming that Blues had a good enough side to attract such crowds.
Would Keane be worth a punt? If he agreed on a substantial cut in wages, shelved the sentimental option of going to Glasgow Celtic and proved his fitness for at least most of the final half of this Premiership season, then the answer is yes. But he has a chronic hip problem and relevant parts of his body are creaking under the strain of playing so relentlessly for the past 15 years. There?s simply no point in looking to Keane to safeguard your future in the top flight if he keeps picking up injuries.
And how would this most implacable of competitors view some of his new, flawed team-mates? We all know how Keane?s baleful stare alights on those who have failed to pass muster in his eyes. What would he make of Kanu?s elaborate flicks that give away possession on a regular basis, Jiri Jarosik?s conviction that he can beat any goalkeeper from 30 yards and the tendency of the Villa defence to concede so many goals from set pieces?
Having played with outstanding performers for so long at one of the world?s most glamorous clubs, could Keane mellow overnight, clapping his hands and shouting, ?Unlucky, mate ? keep trying, you?ll get there!??
Not a chance, it?s that amazing drive that helped make him the player he was.
Note the past tense. Signing Keane would be both a financial gamble, given his fitness record, and the chemistry of the dressing-room could also be affected. But the mere fact that so many clubs are considering a bid confirms just how important it is to stay in the Premiership. If Keane sparked off a revival at his new club, then the risk will have been worth it, if only in the short term.
The guessing game over Keane will increase in creativity and intensity over the next week. He has never been a fan of the press and will keep his own counsel while ensuring that his closest advisers don?t leak a morsel. That will also apply to any manager with whom he reaches a preliminary agreement. If that is leaked, the deal will probably founder, so don?t expect any steers from ambitious clubs.
Such is Keane?s capacity for surprise that it would be almost a let down if he did sign for Celtic, the club he has always supported. Keane has never conformed, so I wonder if the mischievous side of him has looked across the city of Manchester and the good work being done by one of his former team-mates at Nottingham Forest?
Stuart Pearce was Keane?s captain when he came over from Cork at the callow age of 19 and they shared many characteristics as players. What if Keane decided to go to Manchester City?
It would be a rare example of Keane possessing a sense of humour. And the reaction of Sir Alex Ferguson would be wondrous to behold.
Fergie adds fizz to Brewers? big night
Despite my oft-chronicled antipathy towards Sir Alex Ferguson, it?s been no hardship to feel sympathy towards him this past week as he wrestled with the Roy Keane dilemma.
With the Glazier family looking on from afar, Ferguson has had to reassert his authority and he was correct to see off Keane. Time and again he?d protected Keane from his worst excesses as both player and adult, on one notable occasion visiting him in a police cell after one particularly raucous night out.
Ferguson?s loyalty to his captain went over and above the call, even down to making the manager seem ridiculous at times when he had to defend the indefensible.
Ultimately, there could only be one winner when the issue came to a head and the deed was done swiftly on Friday. Despite his bluster about it being business as usual and deliberate evasions to the press that morning ? two hours after Keane had been told he was finished at Old Trafford ? Ferguson should be supported on this one.
Earlier in the week, he was at his most impressive in the unlikely surroundings of Burton Albion?s new ground. His presence and behaviour there confirmed that a genuine football man with the game?s best interests at heart lurks underneath the irascible facade.
Nigel Clough, Burton?s player-manager, was thrilled that Ferguson brought a United side to open officially the spanking new stadium. Nigel?s dad, sadly, could not be there but Brian?s widow and two other children were proud to see another chapter in the Clough tradition of management milestones.
Sir Alex performed the honours with good humour and then took the microphone to address the crowd of more than 6,000. He praised Nigel?s stint of seven years at Burton, stressing that in the modern world of management, such a stretch is rare. Of course, he had generous words for his old, late adversary ? mindful, I?m sure, that Cloughie often had a public pop at Fergie ? and charmed all who were there, signing autograph after autograph.
Ferguson showed that he can be a class act when inclined, something that?s always been the case with Nigel Clough. He had a good week. Two days after United?s visit, Burton knocked out Peterborough in the FA Cup and, with non-League Burscough due in the next round, the prospect of Nigel?s club squaring up to one of the big fish in the third round is alive and well.
But Nigel didn?t forget his loyalties after Peterborough had been sent packing. After a quick round of live interviews with TV and radio, he went to see the press. But he wouldn?t start his press conference until the man from the Burton Mail was in attendance. He?s in his seventies, an institution at the club, despite the swanky new surroundings, and Nigel Clough felt it was only respectful to wait for him.
Not one reporter demurred. It was a rare occasion when a manager showed appreciation of a veteran who had followed Burton through thin and thin.
It reminded other battle-hardened hacks of the time when Nottingham Forest won their first European Cup, in 1979. At the subsequent press conference, Cloughie insisted the first question should come from the Nottingham Evening Post reporter, not one of the big shots.
If Nigel Clough ever decides to throw his hat into the big managerial ring ? and personally I doubt if he will, because his life is too balanced ? then there is one certainty.
He will conduct himself with the same class and intelligence as he did as a player.
Hoggard's farcical fine fails to hide wider flaws
Those charged with administering world cricket need a sharp reminder of their current failings.
The ludicrous ?Test? between Australia and the Rest of the World is still fresh in the memory, with only the ICC?s figureheads believing it was a good idea. Just ask Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison about the wisdom of schlepping over to Australia a few weeks before going to Pakistan.
And now that England are in Pakistan, consider the case of Matthew Hoggard. He was fined 20 per cent of his match fee in the Multan Test for not appealing. Yes, you read that correctly.
In an age of demonstrative appealing from countless international bowlers that often goes over the top, one of the game?s most undemonstrative players gets fined because he didn?t make a fuss.
When Salman Butt edged Hoggard to the wicket-keeper, the nick could be heard all over the ground. It was a formality and the batsman left the crease straight away as Hoggard ran through to the slips to receive congratulations. But he should have appealed, according to the umpires, so he was fined.
That is simply unbelievable. Hoggard is an exemplary cricketer. He runs up and bowls, plods back to his mark and does the same again, over after over, without any dramas. He must be one of the easiest cricketers for umpires all over the world. If he beats the bat, he wipes his nose with the sleeve of his shirt, raises a quizzical eyebrow and tries again.
He?s the despair of the photographers because he doesn?t make a spectacle out of taking a wicket, so he rarely makes a spectacular snap. An honest Yorkshireman, he counts his blessings and leaves the showbiz stuff to others in the team more suited to thespian tendencies.
Yet now he?s got this pathetic fine on his record, due to the ICC?s regulations over appealing. It?s in the laws, you see ? you must appeal.
Wouldn?t it be better for the game if they left players like Matthew Hoggard alone and concentrated instead on weeding out bowlers who chuck it? Both Shabbir Ahmed and Shoaib Malik were reported by the umpires for bowling illegally during the Multan Test, but they didn?t get fined like Hoggard.
They could play in this current Test if necessary, pending biomechanics tests to ascertain the precise nature of the kink in their bowling actions. Guilty in the eyes of the umpires in last week?s Test ? and both bowlers have past form as well ? yet still eligible to play in the next Test.
Surely if an umpire has doubts over an action, he should call the bowler for throwing there and then? But they don?t, because they?re not certain they?ll get full backing from the ICC. The Australian umpire Darryl Hair?s umpiring career has been shrouded in controversy because he trusted the evidence of his own eyes and acted honestly and bravely.
Clearly the ICC feel cracking down hard on the likes of Matthew Hoggard shows decisive leadership. I fear the worst for international cricket until various ducks are put in a row and the ICC take aim at them.