Does Roy Keane ever tell jokes?
To say that he doesn't seem the jocular type is akin to saying that Pep Guardiola quite likes passing football, or that Paolo di Canio has some distasteful political beliefs. Understatement feels too weak a word. Now that Keane has exchanged his boots and the dugout for loafers and a chair in ITV's studio, seriousness is more or less his defining attribute. Though it may help that he is generally flanked by Adrian Chiles, who since moving from the BBC has acquired the air of a failed actor trudging home through heavy rain after another child's birthday party, water soaking through the Winnie-the-Pooh costume, and Gareth Southgate, who seems eternally prepossessed by a mortal sadness, like a suburban library earmarked for closure.
And if seriousness is Keane's aspect, then a peculiar kind of schoolmasterly discipline is the result. His contempt for the cosseted ways of modern footballers is well-known, and last weekend's FA Cup ties afforded him plenty of opportunity to hold forth. On Sunday, Tottenham's rejigged, reluctant players were chastised, fairly, for a lack of desire and commitment as they struggled against a doughty and disciplined Stevenage. And the day before, Keane watched the other half of north London apolo-slumped their way to defeat at Sunderland. He was, shall we say, not impressed. And he was particularly unimpressed at half time, when he informed the nation that no footballer should ever wear gloves.
No footballer. Ever.
There are a number of responses to this remarkable assertion, most of them as reasonable as they are derisive. One is to point out that many of the greatest footballers in the history of the game have worn gloves; Lionel Messi does regularly, just for starters. Another was to find a picture of Keane wearing gloves; the wondrous internet duly obliged. And the third is to conclude that it's obviously and intuitively nonsense; that footballers should be permitted -- nay, encouraged -- to avoid discomfort, if such discomfort impinges on their performance. Whether or not cold hands make any specific player worse is beyond me, but it would be very strange if a total ban made all of them better. Would Messi have scored a mere three against Valencia on Sunday night, had his hands been warmer?
There are echoes of the Great Snood Furore of Last Season (and God, what a blessing a season where snoods were a talking point seems now, after the parade of dispiriting lows this term has vomited forth). Arsenal were again to the forefront: Arsène Wenger claimed that Samir Nasri's elasticated neck-snuggler had medical value, while Alex Ferguson and David Moyes banned the things outright in a fine display of Keane-esque harrumphing. Eventually, FIFA deemed them unsafe, and is it any coincidence that Nasri, his delicate neck exposed to the harsh elements, hasn't quite been the same since? (Yes. Yes it is.)
Ridiculous as Keane's proscription sounds, the notion speaks to something deep within the soul of English football: a ghostly memory of practical Victorian morality, when forbidding games masters drove red-cheeked boys out into the mud and the rain and the wind, in the certain knowledge that any boy not totally scourged by the elements would fall prey to that dark and sinister adolescent urge that begets first blindness, then damnation. Gloves -- indeed, anything that took the edge off the physical examination -- would have been unthinkable, and not just because self-abuse whilst wearing mittens is a strange and troubling thought. Boys were being driven, through cold hands and scabbed knees, closer to God.
It's a question of machismo. Arthur Conan Doyle -- aye, that one -- once remarked, back in those heady days of covered table legs and starched collars, "better that our sports should be a little too rough than we should run a risk of effeminacy". Discomfort, exposure, and even pain were tied up in the very purpose of the thing. And while I'm not suggesting for a moment that Keane thinks in such anachronistic or crudely gendered terms, such a wide-ranging loathing of gloves does seem to hark back to such notions of inadequacy.
Returning to the present, there are, I think, three options. One is that Keane genuinely believes that any footballer wearing gloves is worse as a result. But he's an intelligent man, so let's assume that it's not anything so straightforwardly silly.
The second is that Keane sees gloves as somehow symptomatic of a more general lack of up-for-it-ness, a demonstration of a lack of warrior-spirit (or whatever). That footballers -- including some of those north London residents Keane watched over the weekend -- don't always fancy it is an uncontroversial (if disappointing) truth; that a player who didn't fancy it might wear gloves as a result seems at least possible. That you might be able to identify such a player by his gloves, though, is more problematic: all footballing gloves are disappointingly conventional. Were our shrinking violets to wear large flowery oven gloves, things would be more straightforward. Nonetheless, the idea that a willingness to tolerate a certain amount of physical discomfort is both character-revealing and character-building persists, or did until recently, a sentence that provides an ideal opportunity to link to footage of Jock Wallace's hill.
The third possibility, of course, is that Keane, well-aware of his own seriousness, was exaggerating, just a touch. Doing a little joke. A reader writes -- @cheshiregooner, off of the Twitter -- to recount meeting Keane in an airport. They discussed Arsenal's malaise, and Keane opined that they needed a new manager, before adding, with a chuckle, "but not me".
Not quite Tommy Cooper, but there's proof: the man does both humour and self-awareness. So let's give him the benefit of the doubt, and conclude this meander by placing him in the Arsenal dressing room. Andrei Arshavin puts his gloves on. Keane stares at them. A moment passes. The offending hands erupt into hot, blue flame. A hush falls, broken only by the muffled sobs of the tiny Russian playmaker.
Arsenal, obviously, win 3-0.
Footnote! For more on the origin of football and Victorian anti-masturbation panic, see the first chapter of David Winner's excellent Those Feet.