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Dublin: 5°C Saturday 27 February 2021

Action Replay: the night Keano redefined the word “captaincy”

This week’s retrospective takes a look back at Manchester United’s unforgettable Champions League win against Juventus on 21 April 1999.

Image: Michael Steele/EMPICS Sport

ONE OF THE more intriguing habits of football lovers is the tendency to occasionally engage in a touch of historical revisionism regarding some of the sport’s memorable moments.

For most Manchester United fans, Roy Keane’s performance in the Stadio delle Alpi on 21 April 1999 marks the Corkman’s finest hour in the club’s famous red jersey.

Two weeks earlier at Old Trafford, United had struggled to a 1-1 first-leg draw against Italian champions Juventus, with Ryan Giggs’ 92nd-minute equaliser the saving grace on an evening which very easily could have been disastrous.

The Welsh winger’s opportunism had kept the treble chase alive but after just 11 minutes in Turin, it seemed as though his last-gasp heroics had been in vain. Two early goals from the predatory Pippo Inzaghi put Juve 3-1 up on aggregate and, all of a sudden, United’s dream of a historic trophy haul was on its knees with precious little chance of revival.

What happened next is one of those performances which has become enshrined in footballing legend and hardly needs to be retold again.

The strip of black fabric on Keane’s left arm propelled the Corkman into a higher state of footballing consciousness. He launched the comeback with a towering header mid-way through the first half and, after picking up a yellow card which would rule him out of the final, he continued to dominate the game, driving United on to a 3-2 victory that had seemed unlikely if not impossible earlier that evening.

Of course, the more plaudits which people shower on Keane’s performance, the louder the naysayers grumble. The argument that it wasn’t even his best performance in a United jersey is a common one, as is the highlighting of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke’s unerringly telepathic collaboration that night.

The sheer number of barstool debates on the topic would suggest that there is much merit in both points of view – but the simple fact of the matter is that without Keane’s performance that night, United would not have made it to “that balmy night in Barcelona” and the treble would remain an elusive pipe-dream to this day.

Perhaps his most important contribution came between minutes 12 and 24, that crucial period between United falling two behind and Keane rising majestically to head United back into contention.

In those twelve minutes, it would have been easy for heads to drop. It would have been equally understandable if United had thrown all caution to the wind, leaving themselves exposed to a third sucker-punch.

They did neither, largely thanks to to their captain.

In those twelve minutes, his performance was about more than his trademark disruptiveness. It was about metronomic passing, measured risks and carefully-tailored attacks – restraint, invention and ambition all in equal measure.

His goal, booking and subsequent suspension were simply the most convenient points of reference as experts tried to articulate the magnitude of Keane’s contribution afterwards.

Yet shortly after referee Urs Meier had flashed the yellow, Dwight Yorke equalised on the night, handing United the advantage on away goals and allowing number sixteen to revert to type.

The Juve midfield may have been star-studded with class but Keane was their equal and then some. Relentless in his hassling and harrying, the captain established a rock-solid midfield platform which allowed United’s more creative types to flourish and thrive.

In terms of the tie’s eventual outcome, Andy Cole’s 84th-minute winner was irrelevant – but for United and the demonic Corkonian wearing the armband, it was a statement of total dominance.

This week in sports history

  • Evander Holyfield beats George Foreman to win the WBC, WBA and IBF heavyweight titles (19 April 1991).
  • Michael Jordan sets a NBA playoff record by scoring 63 points in a single game (20 April 1986).
  • Bjorn Borg plays his first competitive game in eight years, losing in the first round of the Monte Carlo Masters to Jordi Arrese (23 April 1991).

Read more of the Action Replay series here >

About the author:

Niall Kelly

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