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'The club's view is that you shouldn't sign him at all' - Roy Keane's bumpy road to stardom

League of Ireland legend and former Cobh Ramblers boss Alfie Hale recounts the ex-Man United player’s early days, 30 years on from his move to English football.

Roy Keane pictured in May 1991 on his Ireland debut, a year after leaving Cobh Ramblers.
Roy Keane pictured in May 1991 on his Ireland debut, a year after leaving Cobh Ramblers.
Image: INPHO

Updated at 14.18

THERE ARE, AT best, a handful of players who could claim to be Ireland’s greatest footballer, and Roy Keane is one of a select few that certainly belongs in the conversation.

Yet, as well as talent and hard work, an element of luck is needed to succeed in the game.

Were it not for the wisdom of a few key individuals, Keane might well have become one of the many talented footballers to go undiscovered.

Fortunately, a couple of people saw potential in the teenager midfielder when others didn’t.

Despite being part of a highly successful Rockmount team in his early teens, Keane was rejected after taking trials for local and national U14 representative teams — the only one of five players called up from his club who didn’t make the cut.

The word was that I was too small,” Keane recalls in his first autobiography with Eamon Dunphy. “Some also questioned my temperament.”

Keane also says that, in those early days, Brighton rejected the chance to take him on trial. “They’d heard I was too small to make a pro,” he explained.

These setbacks occurred in the mid-1980s, a time of economic hardship in Ireland. Keane was staring into a gloomy future. In desperation at the knowledge his dream was in danger of dying, the youngster wrote letters to countless English clubs, asking if he could go on trial. But the answer was always effectively ‘thanks, but no thanks’.

With youth unemployment high, the aspiring footballer was aided by the Fianna Fáil Charles Haughey-led government’s introduction of a FÁS programme, intended to train those out of work in a particular skill.

Elite young footballers were eligible for this programme, with all the League of Ireland clubs each permitted to include one of their players in this scheme.

Cork City, at the time, approached Keane to sign, yet his friend Len Downey had already been promised the FÁS course by the Leesiders.

Eddie O’Rourke, a carpenter who also served as youth team coach for Cobh Ramblers, and who had spent years watching the young midfielder play, got in touch and persuaded him to join his team instead. Keane agreed on the condition that the place on the FÁS course would be reserved for him.

And so Keane would spend the 1989-90 campaign playing in Irish football’s second tier — which had only been established four years previously.

He ultimately scored two goals in 29 appearances for a team that finished seventh in a 10-team league — from these humble beginnings, a year later, he would be making his senior Ireland debut, having been routinely snubbed by his country at underage level.

Upon signing for Cobh, Keane was paid £30 a week plus travel expenses, with a potential £40 in bonuses for making the first team, which he quickly became part of. There would also be draw and win bonuses (£5 and £10 respectively). During the week, meanwhile, Keane would travel up to Dublin for his FÁS course, regularly training with the other elite young players and developing physically, as well as technically and tactically.

alfie-hale Alfie Hale was manager of Cobh Ramblers when Roy Keane joined the club. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Much of the above is well established, given that Keane has two books to his name, but how he came to enter into senior football has not been documented as clearly from the club’s perspective.

Alfie Hale, who was manager of Cobh at the time having taken over in 1988, says O’Rourke deserves much of the credit for the signing of Keane.

The future Man United star had in fact already joined Cork City by the time Cobh made their approach, but crucially, without the FÁS course to fall back on. The club had also not yet sent his registration to the Football Association of Ireland.

Of luring him away from Cork, Hale recalls: “He was only 17 and I said: ‘Well, I like the look of him, but if he’s on the books at Cork City, I can’t touch him.’ [I was told] ‘he’s an amateur’.

“I said ‘if he’s an amateur, he’s entitled to leave the club any time he likes. But that has to be coming from him. If he’s leaving the club, I would be delighted to talk to him.’ 

I know myself I was an amateur in my Waterford days. If you signed a professional even for 10 bob a week, you were signed for life. But when you’re an amateur, you walked when you wanted to. You couldn’t play for a club in that immediate season, but the next season, you were a free agent to do what you like.

“The rule was if another club came in to offer him professional terms that his existing club doesn’t offer, he’s entitled to do what he likes. So I said I’m going to look at Roy Keane, and if I like what I see, I’m going to offer him terms.  

“The secretary of the club said to me ‘you can’t offer him terms, because he’s not in our budget’. I said: ‘He’s got to be brought in.’

“The situation with Roy was he was up for it if Cobh wanted him. But in the meantime, his father, the legendary Mossie Keane, came to see me at a home game in Cork. It was pre-season and he said to me: ‘Alfie, will you look at my boy?’ I said: ‘I will, I’ve heard about him, Mossie, but I haven’t seen him and I don’t know what he’s like to play.’ He said ‘he’s a good lad.’

“I said: ‘Why would you want him to come to Cobh Ramblers if he’s with Cork, but you think he’s good enough to play? There are other established clubs like Limerick and Waterford there.’ He said: ‘Your history is working with and bringing on young lads, and I think you could look after him.’ I got to know Mossie very well and we became great pals.”

soccer-axa-fa-cup-third-round-sheffield-united-v-rushden-and-diamonds Then-West Brom boss Brian Talbot got a chance to watch a young Keane in a pre-season friendly. Source: EMPICS Sport

Early on, Keane lined out in a pre-season game against West Brom, who were managed by ex-England international Brian Talbot, while legendary former Spurs boss Keith Burkinshaw was part of the coaching staff.

“Keith Burkinshaw was a great pal of my brother Dixie when they both played together in a club called Workington,” Hale remembers. “So I knew him very well. I said to Keith before the game: ‘Listen, there’s a guy here playing today called Roy Keane. He’s playing midfield with another guy called Paul Cashin. I thought the two of them were terrific talents. Cashin later went to QPR on trial, and they liked him, but on the last day of the trial, he was playing a match and he tore ligaments in his knee. The whole thing fell apart, he came back home and he never went on. He played for Waterford and Kilkenny afterwards — a superb player. He was very creative, not as muscular as Roy was.

“Roy at 17 was basically just a youthful Roy Keane as you know him today. Nothing fanciful. Straight passing. Give it, go, get on it again, get on the end of it and if you have a shot at goal, great. And when it’s in your half, you bloody well win it. That’s him. Always committed. A very quiet lad.

“But I played him against West Brom, I said to Keith Burkinshaw before the game: ‘Look at these two guys, they could go over.’ So we drew 2-2. And after the game, Brian said: ‘I’m not interested, we have our own lads, so I’ll leave it go.’ They did leave him go.

“So I met Roy after the game. I said: ‘Look, I want to sign you on pro terms.’ Roy at 17 looked me in the eye and said: ‘Yeah, I want to sign.’ He said: ‘How much are you giving me?’ I said: ‘Our guys are getting 20 quid a week, it’s a few bob in their pocket and that’s all we can afford.’ Roy said ‘I want £40′. I said ‘you haven’t even played yet’. I said you look like you can go somewhere, but you have a lot to do. I went to see the club secretary and said ‘he’s looking for 40′.

He said ‘it’s your budget and if it’s not in it, you’re not getting it’. He said ‘I can tell you the club’s view on the whole thing is that you shouldn’t sign him at all.’ I asked: ‘Why?’ He said: ‘We don’t pay 17-year-olds. We don’t pay young players. They have to earn their corn for a couple of years.’

“I said: ‘This young lad, I’m going to stick him in and I’m going to work on him. There’s got to be something at the end of the day that [ensures] he doesn’t walk away as a free agent. So you asked me to sign him as an amateur, and he’s walking away from Cork City as an amateur. If I build him up, and he walks away to another club, what are you going to do?’ He said: ‘Ah well, that’s something you’ll just have to deal with.’

“So I went back to Roy and said: ‘Look, I don’t have the budget.’ I’m letting one or two young players go that are not in my plans and I’ve already spoken to them. I said: ‘We’ll give you £30 and that’s it. So he said: ‘Right, I’ll take it.’

“Having said that, on getting Roy, I wanted to sign his brother Denis as well — a left winger, hell of a shot and great control. In my view, in [terms of] pure talent looking at him, he was a better player than Roy. They always say that about the ones that don’t make it: ‘He was better than his father, or his brother.’ But Denis was a fantastic player. He had a younger brother called Patrick. But I needed to get Denis onboard to get Roy fully onboard. So I signed Denis.

“Denis said: ‘I’ll play for you, but I don’t know how long it’ll last.’ The truth of the matter with Denis was he preferred to be one of the boys, go to training when he felt like it, go to the pub when he felt like it. ‘Don’t put me under pressure Alfie.’ But Denis played with Roy in the Cobh team.”

Source: Keepitonthedeck/YouTube

While Keane’s tenure at Cobh was relatively short-lived, he lasted longer than Hale, a League of Ireland legend, who had already managed his native Waterford, Cork Celtic and Thurles Town.

“I only stayed three months after [Keane joined]. I said: ‘Look, I’m out.’ And I made arrangements after that. I told the club well in advance that’s what would happen. The travelling was killing me, going three days a week to Cobh and again, on the Sunday, or up the country for an away game.”

Keane’s last game in Irish football was a disappointing 3-0 FAI Cup loss to eventual finalists St Francis on 29 March 1990. However, it was ultimately not a senior game but a youth cup match against Dublin side Belvedere, in which Ramblers were beaten 4-0, that Keane did enough to earn a trial at Nottingham Forest, after impressing their scout, Noel McCabe.

“The ironic thing about Notts Forest coming in to see him — he had written to every top club in England for a trial: Man United, Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool, every one of them. 

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“[One of the few] that replied to him was Notts Forest. They said: ‘Sorry son, thank you for the application. We’ll look at you later, but at the moment, there is nothing here.’ But he said [Forest] at least had the courtesy to respond to him.  

“When it came down to signing him, other clubs dashed in. There was a lad that played for me called John Hollins, he was the captain of Chelsea [as a player].

John came to Cobh to help me for a year. In that year, after he left, he joined Spurs on the coaching staff. When he heard about Notts Forest coming in for Roy Keane, he rang me and said: ‘Why didn’t you tell me, Alfie?’

“I said: ‘John, I told you three or four times and you never listened. I said ‘you’re only listening now because someone else has come in for him’. He said: ‘Can I talk to him, will you listen to me?’ I said: ‘You can.’ But nothing came of it. Roy Keane had made up his mind: ‘I’m going to Notts Forest.’ They gave Cobh 20 grand, plus add-ons (£10,000 apiece after Keane played 10 and 20 first-team games, and £7,000 after he won five Ireland caps). But it could have been 50 grand if they pushed it enough and if they put in more add-ons and all the little conditions attached to it, they could have made a fortune.

“But Cobh, and I don’t blame them as a young club, they saw it as: ‘We’re not into that sort of legal stuff, buying and selling players, or whatever. They just thought it was a great feather in the cap that Roy was leaving Cobh Ramblers to join Notts Forest, whereas they could really have done well out of it themselves.

“Basically then, it would have helped to create a team that would have consisted of more seasoned players, better players, with what they could have got from the transfer.”

soccer-barclays-league-division-one-nottingham-forest-v-coventry-city Keane pictured in his Nottingham Forest days. Source: EMPICS Sport

There had been those who have sought to dismiss Hale’s role in Keane’s progress, but the record was set straight when the Cork icon and Martin O’Neill did a benefit gig in Waterford, not long before their tenure in the Ireland set-up came to an end in 2018.

“The usual story going around was: ‘Alfie didn’t sign him at all, he was gone from there.’ I said ‘it doesn’t matter to me who signed him, because it was the chap who was coaching the youth team at Cobh [O'Rourke] that deserves the credit’. He found the lad and recommended him to me. But I had to get his signature and prove that this guy had something to offer.

“Another manager said: ‘I don’t see how Alfie could see anything in him.’ I said: ‘Are you joking?’

“I took him down the week afterwards to Waterford, because I was living there, to play a Waterford Crystal Selection, and everybody was raving about him. I said: ‘You can’t see this guy has ability?’ I don’t see myself as any visionary, or as smarter than anybody else, but this guy could play. He really could play.

But at the hotel in Waterford, it was a Q and A, and some guy asked the question, a friend told me afterwards: ‘Is it true Roy that Alfie Hale signed you with Cobh Ramblers? We don’t believe it.’ Roy said: ‘Yes, of course he did, and I was very happy to play for him and very pleased with the opportunity that he gave me.’ He said ‘a great football man’. 

“But if there’s credit due to anyone [in relation to] Roy Keane, it’s the Rockmount coach who coached him and the coach [who brought him to the attention of] Cobh Ramblers. 

“Brian Clough took Roy Keane after a couple of months and said to him one day: ‘Get your gear ready, you’re coming on the bus, we’re going to Liverpool tonight.’ He stuck him in the team without any questions, explanations or answers, and he did very well. And that was the type of man Brian Clough was. The guy was a headcase, but he was a genius in his own right too. He knew when a player could play and what he could do. Obviously Alex Ferguson saw it from there and picked up on it.”

Consequently, just a year after toiling away in the relative obscurity of the League of Ireland First Division amid an uncertain future, Keane had established himself as a regular in the English top flight and made his international debut, as he was beginning what would turn out to be a phenomenally successful career in the game.

30 years on, Keane is widely regarded as both an Ireland and Manchester United legend, with seven Premier League title winners’ medals to his name among numerous other accolades.

So has he been in contact with Hale since their days together at Cobh Ramblers?

“His first year with Notts Forest, in the close season, he came to Waterford. He had a connection with somebody in the Waterford youth or school league to contact me, saying he’d like to meet me.

“I brought the trainer who was with us at the time to a hotel out on the Cork road side of Waterford city. We sat down, shook hands, and he had just come to say: ‘Thank you very much for what you did for me.’”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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