Roy Keane and the friendship that redefines a legend

Roy Keane shared digs with Gary Charles when they played for Nottingham Forest

Roy Keane shared digs with Gary Charles when they played for Nottingham Forest

I don't know Roy Keane.

My opinions of him have been based on what I’ve seen on TV, in the papers and from his two autobiographies. The image I’ve formed is perhaps the same as yours - of a ferocious, unforgiving and uncompromising loner.

A man who, by and large, struggled as a manager because he couldn’t empathise with or relate to his players; a man who savaged anyone he felt had let him down.

A lot of that may well be true, but I got a different perspective from the former England defender Gary Charles, who has been Keane’s friend for more than 25 years. The duo first met as teenagers and shared digs together in Nottingham.

These were heady days for two young men making a name for themselves. Keane was a tenacious box-to-box midfielder with a knack for scoring goals; Charles was a rampaging full-back dubbed ‘the Brazilian’ because of his attacking prowess and appearance.

After one particular game, legendary manager Brian Clough could barely contain his enthusiasm about the defender's performance. "When Charles plays a one-two, he goes like a gazelle," he said, "it's so effortless - at first it looks as if he's not moving, yet he's 40 yards up the field!"

Away from the pitch, there were lots of nights out, plenty of girls, some heavy drinking and several scrapes.

They both played in the 1991 FA Cup final against Tottenham - when Charles was chopped down by that infamous Paul Gascoigne tackle early on in the game - and the defender went on to win three England caps under Graham Taylor in the summer.

At this point it looked as if each man was being fast-tracked to the very top. That's not quite how it worked out.

Keane moved to Manchester United in 1992 and became the most successful captain in their history, but his friend's form stalled - or, even worse, went into decline.

There were no more England caps and in 1993 new Forest boss Frank Clark did something Clough would have regarded as unthinkable - he sold him, for just £750,000.

Whereas Keane moved to the biggest club in the country, Charles's journey was - with respect - less glamorous: a short trip across the east Midlands to Derby County.

From the sidelines, it must have been hard to fathom why he hadn’t kicked on, although a car accident in the summer of 1992 undoubtedly had a profound effect.

Charles collided with a teenaged cyclist and killed him. Although he was cleared of wrongdoing, the experience - of seeing the look on the boy's face at impact, of seeing his stricken family at the inquest - was devastating.

His career as a whole was still pretty stellar - he played for a very successful Aston Villa side, including in a League Cup final; for Benfica in Portugal; and for his boyhood team, West Ham - but it never reached the heights once predicted.

Charles and Keane watching a match together

Drink had become an increasingly serious problem as his career went on, hardly helped by the fact that his managers tended to turn a blind eye. Although he didn't drink alcohol until late in his teens (because he didn’t like the taste) occasional confidence-boosting binges began to become more frequent.

Things got really out of hand when he suffered a career-threatening ankle injury at Villa and sought solace in the bottle.

In 2002, with his career nearing the end at Upton Park, there was an infamous incident in which he collided with another car in London and fled the scene after throwing the other driver his keys and saying he was a bank robber on the run.

Then came a four-month prison sentence for drink-driving in 2004 and a year’s sentence in 2005 for threatening a nightclub bouncer while serving a suspended sentence.

And this is where Keane comes in again. The pair had kept in touch only intermittently since going their different ways in 1992, so it was something of a surprise when Charles received a lengthy letter from his old pal while he was serving a sentence at Rutland Prison in 2006.

The letter reminisced about what good friends they had been and about what good times they had had, before ending, "There but for the grace of god - what happened to you could have been me."

When he was a wealthy Premier League footballer, Charles had dozens of friends. Almost all of them had disappeared when he was a retired player struggling with alcoholism.

In the letter, Keane, who was by now the Sunderland manager, vowed to help his old pal, saying that - if he wanted - he could help him take steps towards his coaching badges and find somewhere to stay once he was on the outside.

And he was good to his word. In fact, he was better than his word, because he didn't just help Charles find a place to stay, he took him in to live with his family.

And he didn’t just tell him about coaching courses, he took him training at Sunderland, where Charles sometimes took part in the sessions (he was still surprisingly good) and at other times organised drills and warm-ups. When the squad went on a pre-season tour to Holland, Charles went along as well.

The east Londoner has now taken some of his badges and is Director of Football at the University of Nottingham, as well as being the founder of GC Sports Care, an organisation which offers support and guidance to players with issues such as alcohol and substance abuse.

It's not all been plain-sailing, of course. But he has stayed sober and is doing well, which is quite some transformation and achievement. Of course Charles himself takes the credit, but perhaps a little should go to Keane as well.

Not that he'd want any - in fact you suspect he'd hate it. The Irishman has never spoken about this in interviews, or in any TV appearances, or in any of his books. The last thing he’d want is a pat on the back for helping out his mate, in private.

And Charles hasn't wanted to talk about it either, which is why there aren't any quotes from him here.

But I thought it was a story worth telling.

  • This article was first published in October 2014.

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