Football can be the cruellest game. A leading theme of Roy Keane's new book is that even the very best players must eventually feel such pain.
That message was explicit in Matt Dickinson's excellent recent biography of Bobby Moore. England's World Cup captain never found equilibrium in a post-football life. Throughout the "Second Half," the indomitable former skipper of Manchester United's golden era forever fights the dying of his light. Management, punditry, even family life; none can replace the buzz of playing. "I remember thinking 'I shouldn't be loving it this much,'" is how Keane describes that lifelong addiction. "No matter what I do for the rest of my life, nothing will replace it."
"Now life starts," Keane admits, writing of the day he chose to retire from the game, ending his six-month spell at Celtic with a call to Gordon Strachan. "TV work felt like failure," he says later, having taken up the mic following his departure from managing Ipswich Town.
The timing of publication is uncomfortable since Keane has lately found his way back into the game. He currently holds down two jobs, as assistant manager for both Aston Villa and the Irish national team. As he reveals repeatedly, boredom is the greatest enemy, a gremlin that gnaws away.
"I can be sitting at home, the most contented man on the planet," he writes. "An hour later I go: 'Jesus -- it's hard work, this'."
The deal for the book was done around the time that Sir Alex Ferguson's second Manchester United-focused autobiography was becoming the fastest selling nonfiction book in UK history. Back then, Keane's sole involvement in football was with ITV. He undoubtedly wanted right of reply. Keane being Keane, he goes far further; his closure on his United days is by no means the dominant narrative, and his book is the better for it. The Ferguson farrago and the Alf Inge Haaland affair is old news, ground that hardly needed raking over for those paying any kind of attention of the time. Little new is revealed on either.
Ferguson's own rewriting of history was deeply flawed, its greatest problems lying in its author accepting little responsibility for the bust-ups and vendettas. Keane's is a far more inward-looking account. If Ferguson's book was a smug victory lap then his former captain and perhaps his finest player is penning an account of someone still looking desperately for directions.
He remains a fascinating figure, more than any other football figure of his generation. Those flaws and that honesty are the draw. When he managed Ipswich, Sky Sports News broadcast each of his news conferences, hoping for a gem to play on heavy rotation. They were rarely disappointed.
The peak years were over even before his last book was published, his infamous 2002 collaboration with Eamon Dunphy. The former footballer turned journalist and acerbic RTE TV pundit has been replaced by Roddy Doyle, the Irish writer whose closest previous association with the game was "The Van," a novel set in a Dublin fish and chip van during the 1990 World Cup.
Doyle's ghostwriting has a very similar tone to Dunphy's. The voice is undoubtedly Keane's, a character who expects the best of colleagues and even higher standards of himself -- standards he fails to meet time and again. For all the pre-publishing leaks of rows with Ferguson, Peter Schmeichel and a cutting anecdote about Robbie Savage, the greatest feud is with Keane himself.
"It's about dealing with the disappointments," is how he explains it. "It's not the highs. There are so few of them. Dealing with the disappointment and the self-loathing that comes with it. I didn't get over it quickly. I couldn't."
Keane failed to conquer the heights as a manager that he had as a player, even though he led Sunderland back to the Premier League, winning the Championship title in 2006-07. "I won it as a manager -- I have to say that," he says. "No-one else ever does." It is this part of the book that engages the most, stories that were not widely covered at the time.
Management is an uneasy fit. "Guilt comes with the job," he realises. All-encompassing involvement and the overriding pressure of needing results eat at him.
"A statistician might come in and say we didn't get enough crosses in. But I'd seen that already -- I was at the game," he snaps, before admitting he almost lost his composure with a Sunderland masseur who asked which flavour of soup should be served on the team bus. "I had so many things to do," he complains, craving the single-minded, cosseted life of a United player.
The end at Sunderland came after what Keane terms "a difficult three or four weeks" in the winter of 2008 and a quarrel with new owner Ellis Short. "I still think I should be the manager of Sunderland," he says, and the subsequent move to Ipswich is depicted as a decision that was wrong from the outset.
"My biggest failing has been recruitment," he admits; few players can match his exacting standards. Even players like Dwight Yorke, whom he says was his best servant at Sunderland, feel the lash of his tongue. Keane admits sorrow that the former allies are now no longer speaking. He cannot help but burn bridges.
Currently, he finds solace in his dual roles with Villa and Ireland, jobs he professes to enjoy, but still reveals that not calling the shots "might eventually frustrate me."
That inability to settle for second-best was the galvanising force that drove his playing career, but life after United has been a comedown, a litany of dissatisfaction amid some light moments -- Keane's dry wit and Doyle's prose combine for some humorous reading. Yet Keane will never see himself as an entertainer; the joke is usually on himself and his troubled soul.
It is as an account of descending from the summit that makes the new book become vital, recommended reading.