In the Balls What If series, we remember some of the close calls, marginal decisions, and random moments that altered the course of sporting history.
Roy Keane is a Manchester United legend. He spent 12 years at the club, winning every available honour, 19 major trophies in all. He established himself as one of the best midfielders in world football, and as one of the greatest on-field leaders we have seen in the game.
In many senses, Roy Keane and Manchester United were a perfect pair. He arrived at the club as a 21-year rising star, and came to a recently awoken sleeping giant. The two grew together, and the Corkman's personality meshed perfectly with that of Alex Ferguson (for the most part).
It was a match made in heaven. And yet, it came so close to never happening at all.
Manchester United were not the only club interested in signing Roy Keane in the summer of 1993. Blackburn Rovers, backed by the riches of Jack Walker, were out to make a splash in the transfer market.
As told in this piece in the Guardian, Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish had met with the player to hash out an agreement. While Keane had insisted on a £500,000 per-year salary, hours of negotiations saw both sides settle on a £400,000 pact.
The agreement took so long to be finalised that the Blackburn office had actually been closed for the night, and for the weekend. Dalglish and Keane shook hands on the deal, and all would be settled the following Monday.
When the player travelled back to Cork to celebrate, he woke up the next morning to a phone call from Alex Ferguson. When the Scot told him he wanted him to come to United, Keane's head was immediately turned.
He told Kenny Dalglish that he had changed his mind, to which the former Liverpool player replied:
Nobody does this to Kenny Dalglish.
You’re a wee bastard and you won’t get away with this.
Those extra few hours of negotiations turned out to be crucial. Had Blackburn agreed to the player's demands, there would have been time to draw up the contract there and then. Keane would have been headed to Ewood Park, and footballing history would have been forever changed.
So, what if Roy Keane kept his word and signed for Blackburn Rovers?
Blackburn Rovers were a rising force of football in the early 1990's. They had not yet reached the heights of Manchester United, who ended their title drought in 1993, but they had equally lofty ambitions. Backed by Jack Walker, they had the deepest pockets in English football.
They ran United close for much of the 93/94 season, ultimately falling short by eight points. Of course, they would go one better the following campaign, winning the Premiership on the final day of the season in dramatic circumstances.
There time at the top would be short-lived. They finished seventh the following season, and star striker Alan Shearer would depart.
How different could things have been if they managed to get the Keane deal over the line? It is difficult to say.
As talented as he was, an inexperienced Roy Keane is unlikely to have made up the eight point gap in the 93/94 season. Still, it could have been possible.
If they would have won that title, along with one the following year, English football could have been a very different place in the 90's. With the momentum of back-to-back league titles, and with Manchester United doubting their own progress, there is every chance Blackburn could have established themselves as the dominant force in the Premiership.
With the player he was, Keane certainly would not have allowed the slip in standards that we saw after the 94/95 campaign. He would have ensured that his team remained hungry, competitive, and tough to beat. He would assuredly have made things easier for Kenny Dalglish's successor, Ray Harford, who's appointment contributed to their downfall.
With another world class player at the club, would Alan Shearer have been so quick to jump ship? It seems doubtful. The two would have been an incredible pairing, and could have gone a long way to establishing a Blackburn dynasty.
English football would have had a much different dynamic.
Manchester United were the rising force in English football when they signed Keane, but Alex Ferguson had bigger things on his mind when he brought in the Irishman. He told the Nottingham Forest player that with him in their side they would win the Champions League.
It took six years, but that prediction would come to pass. Manchester United won an unprecedented treble in that 98/99 season, with the European Cup final victory over Bayern Munich the crowning achievement.
While Keane did not play in the final due to suspension, there is no way that they would have gotten that far without him. He singlehandedly dragged them through the semi-final against Juventus, delivering one of the all-time great individual performances in the process.
Without Roy Keane there is no treble.
In fact, without Roy Keane it could have been a very different time for Manchester United.
While there was no shortage of world class players in that team, he was the glue that brought it all together. The close title races with Arsenal and Newcastle could have had alternate outcome were it not for his mercurial presence in the dressing room.
With their 'number 16' instead on the books at Blackburn, they would have been another foe to wrangle with.
There is every chance that the trophy cabinets could have been a little bit barer without Keane, and that would no doubt have affected the legacy of Alex Ferguson. If his successes were diminished, it is likely he would not have remained at Old Trafford for as long as he did.
One might suspect that Roy Keane's decision to go to Manchester United was only a positive for Ireland, but there is a counterargument to be made.
Alex Ferguson didn't like his players playing in friendly matches for their country. That cannot be disputed. Ryan Giggs was the prime example, and Keane was not far behind.
After Mick McCarthy took the reigns as Ireland manager in 1996, Ireland played a total of 22 friendly matches in the time up until the 2002 World Cup.
How many did Keane play in? Seven, and two of those were warmup games for the World Cup.
It was even worse when there was a bit more travel involved. Roy Keane played one friendly away from home after May of 1994. That is a remarkable stat.
His continued absence from the squad grated on the patience of Mick McCarthy, and ultimately contributed to the deteriorating relationship between the pair. While he may have behaved in a similar manner as a Blackburn Rovers player, we would have our doubts.
Could the incident in Saipan have been avoided? There is every chance.
McCarthy called Keane out on his continued absences from Irish squads, something that was a major part of their falling out. Most of his absences were seemingly down to the wishes of Alex Ferguson.
The legacy of that Irish team, and Roy Keane in a green jersey, could have been so different.
Of course, we also would have been robbed of one of the all time great Irish television moments as result if he had opted for Blackburn.
As for Keane the player, there is no question that he was moulded by his time at Manchester United. His win at all costs mentality was brought to the forefront at Old Trafford, and in many ways made him the player he was.
There is no telling how different his development would have been if he did not grow under Alex Ferguson. Perhaps he would not blossom into the world class talent he became, the all-conquering do-it-all midfielder that perfectly encapsulated one of the greatest teams of the modern era.
Or maybe he would shed some of the sharp edges that made him the divisive character that he was, while also retaining all of his talent. Would that have granted him the unquestioned adoration of the Irish public, something that has deserted him?
Nobody knows. One thing we do know, is that football would have been very different if Roy Keane had kept his word and signed for Blackburn Rovers.