Paul McGrath's first encounter with young Roy Keane left a lasting impression
"He would have got him back for that!"
Refuse Roy Keane a jersey swap at your peril. Paul McGrath would not be surprised if Matthias Sammer was on the receiving end of a chasing when he faced the Corkman again.
While he had already played at Euro 88 and Italia 90 by the time he shared the same pitch as Keane, McGrath earned just under half his international caps in the same starting XI as him. Indeed, the emergence of Keane saw McGrath settle back into the Irish defence after some impressive midfield stints.
McGrath missed Keane by four years at Manchester United but was well aware of how talented the young midfielder was, well before Jack Charlton handed him his Ireland debut in 1991.
"I would have known about Roy from coming up against him at Nottingham Forest [when I was at Aston Villa]," he tells us. "Jeez, he was frightening.
"I played against him up at the City Ground, because this lad ran from box to box, and wouldn't stop running.
"But, also, he was a brilliant footballer. He ran with the ball, without the ball, and wherever he was supposed to be going, he just got there."
Roy Keane, the unknown quantity
Keane had just turned 19 when he made his senior Forest debut, in 1990, against Liverpool. He famously says Forest boss gave him the simple advice of, 'You get the ball, you pass it to another red shirt' before the game.
McGrath had been in England since 1982 and had seen plenty of talented youngsters come and go, but knew Keane had something special about him.
"He kind of scared a few people, as well, because he was Irish and people [in England] were a bit more wary of him and were wondering, 'Where did he come from?' Because the Irish lads were often coming over at a later age and had not gone through the youth systems over there. He appeared and he was absolutely brilliant."
McGrath uses the term "frightening" again when he speaks of what Keane was then like to train and play with.
"When he was on a football pitch, doing a 5-a-side or anything like that, he was frightening, because he was that good," he says.
"He'd take the ball from anyone and he'd keep it, right until he was ready to give it to someone else!
"So, we knew all about him and we were thrilled that he was maturing into this kind of leader, as well."
McGrath on the Mick McCarthy bus remark
As for what Keane was like within the wider Ireland squad, McGrath says he fit in well with everyone and liked getting involved with the slaggings as much as anyone else.
In 1992, Ireland took part in a mini international tournament and went on a long drinking session after it wrapped. Captain Mick McCarthy, Niall Quinn recently recalled, was scolding a cadre of players as they boarded the team bus, after holding everyone up a while. Quinn and Ronnie Whelan took their licks, but not Keane.
Still a few weeks shy of his 20th birthday, Keane wasn't prepared to let McCarthy call the shots. "First trip," McCarthy remarked, "disgrace."
"First touch, disgrace," Keane responded, to leave the bus in stitches.
McGrath was there for that memorable moment, which helped Keane settle into the squad quickly, and says the back-and-forth was all in jest.
"He wasn't trying to be-little, hurt or have a pop at Mick, or anything like that. We wouldn't have allowed that.
"I got on really well with Roy, but I wouldn't have let him sound off too much, I don't think anyway. And I was not one to start a row - I'd be one of the quietest on the bus - but I wouldn't like to see a kid disrespect someone who was older. And Mick McCarthy, to my mind, was one of the best Irish defenders ever. So I certainly would not have wanted a new kid on the block telling him where he should go.
"But that was all taken well. I never had to say 'You're out of order' to Roy. Not once."
Given all the great Ireland players he shared a pitch with, over his 12-year international career, McGrath's regard for Keane is clear.
"Roy and Liam Brady," he says, "they are the two greatest Irish footballers I ever played with."
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