Squaring up against Roy Keane during his Manchester United heyday, whether physically or metaphorically, was the footballing equivalent of turkeys petitioning for a monthly Christmas.
Keane, with his insatiable will-to-win and infamously short fuse, would often win the mythical ‘midfield battle’ through sheer reputation alone. Countless Premier League midfielders required a change of shorts after encountering the Irishman in the Old Trafford tunnel.
This isn’t to do Keane a disservice; he wouldn’t have patrolled United’s midfield for over a decade if he was merely Lee Cattermole with an eye for a forward pass.
But it’s worth emphasising the cojones required to stick to your guns, have belief in your own ability and let your feet do the talking when United’s resident grizzly bear was your direct opponent.
In that vein, we can only salute Joe Cole for defying Noughties convention and leaving Keane spluttering helplessly like a broken locomotive during a Premier League match.
Manchester United were hunting for their fourth successive league title when they travelled to West Ham in March 2002.
While United were blessed with an embarrassment of riches, West Ham had made Upton Park a fortress and, with the likes of Cole, Paolo Di Canio, Frederic Kanoute and Trevor Sinclair in the side, possessed players capable of bloodying anybody’s nose in a one-off match.
A minor Barclays classic unfolded; West Ham took the lead twice before, like a pile of strawberry laces, United picked at them long enough to make Glenn Roeder’s side unravel into a purple-ish sticky mess.
As the goals flew in and the chilling March rain tumbled down, Cole made the rookie error of setting up residency in Keane’s personal space.
In the manner of a frustrated racehorse, the United captain threw a limb in the direction of Cole’s neck. Verbal obscenities were shared between them as the West Ham midfielder gesticulated his innocence.
Agitated by the referee’s refusal to remove splinters from his a*se, get down from the fence and discipline Keane, Cole would deliver his own form of revenge.
Receiving the ball from Sebastian Schemmel, the bottle-blond midfielder waited until he could feel Keane’s breath on his neck before pirouetting away from the United man with a filthy piece of skill that sent the Irishman in the direction of Canning Town.
No wonder the Upton Park crowd whooped with awe-inspired acclaim; forget that United would win the match 5-3, this was the real quiz. And Cole had turned Keane into the victim of a Victorian pickpocketing.
Cole was the very definition of a fantasy footballer during this period, treating each Premier League match as the chance to pull off the most outlandish pieces of skill away from the straight-jacketed win-at-all-cost environment of the biggest sides.
It’s well-documented that, despite the trophies he’d later win at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho would emphasise structure over sorcery from Cole at Stamford Bridge. While effective, it remains a crying shame that such impudent moments of magic were coached out of the playmaker’s game.
But perhaps Mourinho was acting in Cole’s best interests; not many square up to Roy Keane and live to tell the tale. It’s possible that he wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale of any second attempt.
By Michael Lee