Manchester United, more so than any other football club, is beset with icons. The legacy of Old Trafford is and always will be underpinned by the memories of those men who fought, and even died, for their cause. This is not to say that United are alone in this sentiment, for all teams have their heroes, and all teams have their memories. Yet for United, these legacies of passion, glory and tragedy run through the very veins of the club. For the fans of this great team, names such as Duncan Edwards, Sir Matt Busby, George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law will forever be etched into the foundations of Old Trafford. It is the legacies of these men, and others like them, that are the true heritage of Manchester United.
At the time of writing, this club has just lost one such champion. The bitter circumstances surrounding the departure of Roy Keane have fuelled a huge debate about the egos of Keane and Sir Alex Ferguson, the apparent quagmire of underachievement at the club, and a sense of malcontent that has seeped through the cracks of this once great empire. Right or wrong, true or false, it is pointless trying to accredit blame or divulge circumstance in this matter. Regardless, a groundswell of criticism now threatens to engulf Manchester United. Without Keane, there can only be despair. Without its leader, this team will implode. Without its voice, the good of Manchester United will falter. Or so we are told.
As the radio announcements of Keane's resignation/sacking/everything in-between seeped through last Friday afternoon, one was immediately dragged back to the summer of 1997 when the great Eric Cantona retired at the height of his powers, bowing gracefully as he exited the stage. This writer was overcome with despair, too young to understand football politics and the eternally dramatic mind of this mysterious Frenchman. It was hard to fathom how the club could go on once its leader, its heartbeat, had left. Yet go on it did.
Skip forward eight years. The same news is being relayed in an almost identical fashion. United's captain has spectacularly left the club. Yet for many United fans, there is no despair. Keane is a different breed of player to Cantona, you see. He was as much the heartbeat of the team as his predecessor as captain, yet his uncompromising and brutally honest attributes endeared him to the Stretford End unlike any other. Whenever Keane lambasted his underachieving fellow players, the day-tripping prawn sandwich brigade, and even his manager, he was echoing the will of every true red who holds dear the great legacy of this club. Keane became our voice. When people talk of United's icons, its history, it will be hard to find a moment more fitting of this man than when he headed the ball past Angelo Peruzzi in the European Cup semi-final six years ago. It was an act of defiance, a refusal to accept failure. It was what Roy Keane is all about.
Yet there is no despair now, as we watch our captain walk away from the club which he helped transform into an empire. For even in his final, ultimately fatal act of defiance, he was speaking as the voice of the United faithful. His malcontent was ours, his disgust at watching the Manchester United shirt be exhibited by inept men devoid of passion echoed our own sentiment. Even though it cost him his job, Keane would not relent in his distaste for the current direction that the club is taking. For that, if nothing else, we must salute him. Ultimately, however, people must realise that Keane, through his own faults of stubbornness and pride, would never go peacefully into the night like so many timid professionals before him. And in all honesty, there has been a degree of inevitability regarding an acrimonious departure such as this.
Yet the club will go on, much as it did eight years ago, much as it did in the wake of the Munich disaster of February 1958. Whatever the future holds for Manchester United, be it for better or for worse, it will be forever rooted in the heritage of its heroes. The name Roy Keane and the legacy attached to him has been etched into that same heritage, where it will thrive eternal. The club will live on.
But what now for United? Well, we do have Wayne Rooney.