DRACULA v WOLF MAN at Old Trafford

ROY KEANE has left Old Trafford. Unceremoniously booted out by the waning but unforgiving Alex Ferguson, whatever the camouflage the club has placed round the decision. It is all too tempting to compare what has happened with what happened to David Beckham. Another arguably irreplaceable star turn, who was shuffled off to Real Madrid after he'd clashed with the implacably authoritarian Ferguson — `He' who must be obeyed, and must have his way even at the manifest expense of the club.

Keane and Beckham, of course, are two radically different personalities. Keane is a rough hewn, violent, coarse-grained man, who comes from the back streets of Cork, the Irish city, son of a hard drinking father who exults in the prowess of his son. Beckham is altogether a milder, more civilised man, though he has occasional outbursts of temper and petulance. Notably and disastrously that moment in the 1998 World Cup in Saint Etienne when lying on the ground, he kicked out at the provocative Argentinian Diego Simeone and was sent off, thus condemning his England team to play all the way into the end of extra time with just 10 men. But he has none of the latent viciousness of Keane.

What has happened to Keane and United? Briefly, Fergie couldn't forgive him for his outburst on the club's closed circuit television, when he was asked to give his opinions on their recent disasters — a European Cup defeat in Lille and an abysmal 4-1 surrender away to Middlesbrough. Keane opened fire on the team, which, of course, had been without him and his galvanising presence in both the games.

He damned one player after another for his inadequacy, not least the young Scottish international Darren Fletcher who had been trying to take his place. At the apparent orders of Ferguson, that interview was never shown. But you have to ask yourself why it was ever scheduled in the first place. Keane ever ready to call a spade a spade or something worse, a self-driven perfectionist who never suffers fools or inadequates gladly was bound to deliver such a tirade.

There is an obvious analogy with what happened on a Japanese island shortly before the beginning of the 2002 World Cup. Keane was appalled by the primitive training conditions in a place noted chiefly for its casinos and its houses of ill fame; and he said so. He was then confronted by the team's manager, Mick McCarthy, but it was not a one-to-one meeting. McCarthy, whether foolishly or perhaps even by design, faced Keane in the presence of several of his teammates. A humiliated Keane let fly a torrent of abuse, and was accordingly sent home. So Ireland lost a crucial asset.

Beckham, of course, was the victim of the flying boot, propelled across the United dressing room by an incensed Fergie. It hit him and cut him on the forehead; for some days afterwards Beckham wore two crossed small strips of plaster as an implicit condemnation of Ferguson's behaviour. So it transpired that Fergie, never averse to cutting off his nose to spite his face, got rid of Beckham, selling him to Real Madrid the following summer. It meant the loss to United of Beckham's remarkable right-foot, with its deep crosses, potent free kicks, and shots from afar.

What was also lost was Beckham's enormous impact on United merchandising programme, especially in the Far East where he had attained an almost mythical status. Though Beckham failed to excel on the field for Real Madrid consistently, there is no doubt that he made them millions in sales of their impediments. United, by contrast, found their sales in the Far East falling steeply away.

Keane has done great things for United, never more so in the year they won the European Champions League. He was alas suspended from the final in Barcelona when they squeaked home in the final phases though they'd probably have won more easily had he been there. But it was his superb display against Juventus in Turin in the second leg semifinal that had surely got them to the final in the first place.

Keane's abrasive memoirs have sold a gigantic 300,000 copies; and they do him no favours. His encounters with the hapless Norwegian international midfielder Alf Inge Haaland show him at his violent worst. Things began in a match against Leeds United at Elland Road. Trying to foul Haaland, Keane succeeded only in severely injuring his own knee, putting him out of the game for months. Whose fault was that? Not Keane's, in his own estimation. What he perversely wanted was revenge and he brutally exacted it when he later came across poor Haaland at Old Trafford, hacking him to the ground and standing over him delivering a volley of obscenities. Haaland wouldn't play again though in fact it was his other knee rather than the one that Keane had attacked which subverted his career.

Keane is 34 years old now and clearly has lost much of his pace, can plainly no longer cover the ground as he did so impressively. But he remains a powerfully influential figure, an inspiration and a goad to his teammates, even if it is true that, to accommodate him, United have had to readjust their tactics, with an extra man in midfield.

As for Ferguson, his autocratic methods can endure only while the team succeeds. It still has enough talent to do so, but the moment of Ferguson's departure surely comes closer day by day. Hardly helped by the inadequacy of his Portuguese side-kick, Carlos Quieroz, who failed at Real Madrid and hardly seems to have the confidence of the players.

Meanwhile Dracula, you might say, has met the Wolf Man and won; a Pyrrhic victory.