Robbie Keane was an under-appreciated Emerald genius

Date published: Friday 8th January 2021 5:02 - Matthew Stead

Who’s this then?
Robert David Keane is now 40 years old. A 5ft 9ins Dublin-born striker, he is Ireland’s all-time top goalscorer and has been capped more than any other Irishman. He played for 11 different clubs in a 21-year career, scoring a mighty 325 goals in 737 games, as well as knocking in 68 for his country in 146 matches.

He started his professional career at Wolves in 1997, scoring twice on his debut aged just 17. He netted 29 times in 87 games for them and was easily the most exciting youngster in English football at the time, making an immediate standout impact. This earned him a transfer to Coventry City in 1999 for £6million, a record at the time for a teenager. But his time at Highfield Road lasted just a season: 34 games and 12 goals.

It’s important to realise at this point, barely three years into his professional career, just what an outstanding young talent he was. People regularly talked about him as an Irish Gazza. A brilliant, instinctive goalscorer with a liquid mercury quality, he had vision and was as bold, fierce and quick as a whippet. Which is why Inter Milan gave Coventry £13million for him. This was a huge deal for such a young player and already reflected his standing in the European game.

Marcello Lippi was his manager at Inter but he was soon sacked and the new guy, Marco Tardelli, for some reason didn’t fancy Robbie and so loaned him to Leeds. He played just 14 times in Italy, scoring thrice.

His time at Leeds started well but then tailed off as the club fell apart financially. He’d scored 19 in 56 by the time he was sold to Spurs for just £7million. David O’Leary had brought him to Leeds for £12million, so Spurs got a bargain in the Yorkshire club’s fire sale.

He settled into life in north London for the peak years of his career and would initially be at the club for six years. His final year before a controversial transfer to Liverpool was his best, netting 23 times in 54 games. He had formed a great partnership with Dimitar Berbatov. In the calendar year of 2007 he notched 31 goals and 13 assists from just 40 starts.

The transfer to Liverpool for £19million was a puzzling one despite his claims of always being a Liverpool fan, which would come back to both haunt and taunt him. Worse still, it just didn’t happen for him in a red shirt. He couldn’t find form or score goals, and after 19 league games he went back to Spurs in the January transfer window. He played 28 games in total, scoring seven times. It wasn’t great but Liverpool have had worse strikers. He was no Sean Dundee.

Even though he’d only been away from north London for six months, the spell had somehow been broken and although he played three more seasons there, he didn’t reach double figures for goals in any campaign. He was loaned out to Celtic and he was a massive hit with the Bhoys, scoring 16 in 19 in a short spell at Parkhead. There then followed ten games at West Ham where he wasn’t any good at all. But then, West Ham can do that to even the best players

Spurs offloaded him for the final time to LA Galaxy. He’d played 306 games for the Lilywhites and scored 122 times.

He was only 31 when he left for California and surely had plenty more top-flight goals in his tank. He’d scored eight in ten games for Ireland that year. But he liked the LA life and stayed for six years, 165 games and 104 goals, nipping back once for a handful of games for Villa. His last season was in West Bengal in India for ATK as player-manager, taking over after Teddy Sheringham and his replacement Ashley Westwood were sacked. He managed eight goals in 11 games, then hung up his boots.

He took up the assistant manager role for Ireland under Mick McCarthy and then signed up for the same position at Middlesbrough under Jonathan Woodgate. However, his tenure on Teesside wasn’t a long one and when Woody was sacked it was soon filed in the ‘nice ideas that didn’t work’ folder.

He was a living legend for Ireland, the man whose goals hauled them through what seemed like endless qualification games for Euros and World Cups. His distinctive forward roll and pistol-firing goal celebration seemed in our lives for two decades and even while others were transferred for bigger fees and had much higher profiles, Robbie’s record was up there with the best. It has to be said that for some, he was never held in the sort of high regard by Ireland’s fans that the likes of Paul McGrath or John Aldridge had been, though quite why this might be is a bit of a mystery.

Perhaps there was always a feeling he never quite fulfilled his early promise when at Wolves and the six years playing for LA Galaxy didn’t help in that. It seemed like he’d ducked out of the limelight too soon, even though his 104 goals in 165 for them proved he still had goalscoring powers.

Whether his coaching career will reach the heights of his playing days is open to question but without doubt he was one of the early 21st century’s greatest strikers.

 

Why the love?
Humble is an overused word in football but Robbie has always embodied it. He retained his boyish love of football throughout his career, as delighted with his last goal as his first.

He was also a highly distinctive player by which I mean, you would know it was him even if you were at the back of the most distant terrace. It wasn’t just the goal celebration, it was something about the slightly slanted way he ran, leaning to one side, that made it always obviously him. He didn’t run as such, he gamboled or cantered. This wasn’t the sprint of an athlete.

Also – and I don’t know how this is the case – he somehow just looked very, very Irish. If you knew nothing about him and saw a picture of him, you’d just know he was a son of the Emerald Isle, though you’d never guess he is actually a cousin of former Smith’s singer and vegan agitator, Morrissey, who once said poetically of his footballing relation:

“To watch him on the pitch—pacing like a lion, as weightless as an astronaut, is pure therapy.”

The interesting thing about our RK, though, is that if I was to ask you what he was really good at, apart from scoring goals, it would be hard to say. What sort of striker was he? Did he play on the shoulder? Sort of but not really. Was he a tricky dribbler? Sort of but not really. Was he a speed merchant burning off defenders with space? Sort of but not really. Was he a target man? Sort of but not really. He was all of these things but none of them too.

However, one thing he definitely was, was one of those strikers who you always feel will score when the chance comes. They’re quite rare. More usually, there is an element of doubt, but when RK was running in on goal, did we feel he’d put it wide or hit the goalies? No we didn’t. At his peak he was lethal. If you wanted someone to put a through ball into the net to save your life, Robbie would be a man you could rely on.

For a player of such talent, his silverware collection was meagre, ending with a League Cup win with Tottenham and three MLS Cup wins in 2011, 2012 and 2014. Some of his career choices were either unlucky or misplaced. Leeds went into a spiral of decline; Liverpool was just a wrong move on every level; his second Spurs spell was less than stellar.

In many ways, outside of his peak seasons at White Hart Lane, his legend status was established on the international stage with his country. That’s pretty unusual. For a player of his prodigious goalscoring abilities, that he never played for a really top team meant that perhaps he was never truly acknowledged as the wonderful striker that he so clearly was. That he was an opportunist who was nerveless in front of goal, who was great at making and taking chances, rather than someone who reached the peak of the sport via a specialised skill has also meant he is not acclaimed for something specific.

When I think of Robbie I think of him running late onto a ball in the box, hitting it first time to score. The goal below scored against Germany in 2002 is the absolute classic Keano strike. To do that is a great art and involves vision and timing and yet he makes it look easy. This has also probably counted against him when it comes to hanging his portrait in the halls of legends.

And yet ironically, he had a huge grab bag of football skills. He could drill a long-range power shot from any angle, he had superb close ball control to dribble past the opposition, he had a trick to beat a defender, he was a great poacher or he could run 50 yards and beat the keeper in a one-on-one.

Put it this way, you don’t score 393 goals for club and country without being a bit bloody special.

 

What the people say
Despite his stellar career over 20 years, to some Robbie is less of a legend for Ireland than others. There is plenty of snark directed at him, not least for his statements on joining Liverpool and LA Galaxy. That seems unfair. These are words forced out under pressure at press conferences. To hold them against someone for so long is unreasonable. His dedication and loyalty to his country deserves recognition and appreciation.

We start with a 4_4_haiku:

‘Robbie has said it has always been his dream to be featured on the Everybody Loves column.’

‘Great player, crap celebration. That stupid head-over-heels and gunfinger nonsense always tainted some cracking goals for me.’

‘His partnership with Berbatov at Spurs was based on instantly achieved understanding, almost telepathic. Couldn’t head the ball, don’t recall him linking the play that well, no real burst of pace and yet his numbers and longevity in the game are amazing.’

‘He’s treated very shabbily by a sizable minority in Ireland, both in public & media. Because he’s deemed a ‘failure’ at Liverpool & never played for United, there’re plenty out there who treat him as a 2nd class player. Sad to say, but Aldo is more important to many than Robbie.’

‘For some reason unloved by some, but worshipped by the sane people left here in Ireland.’

‘Robbie Keane. Got one of those names that, as it trips off the commentator’s tongue, seems tailor-made for the sort of upbeat, chipper, tricky and skilled footballer he was, if that makes any sense.’

‘We loved him at Wolves, especially that brief period he played with Bully, proper master & apprentice feel. It was a real heartbreaker when he then scored against us for Spurs & Villa.

‘Always been a dream to read something about Robbie…for reals tough, absolute legend and all round sound bloke.’

‘He is the best forward we have ever seen and will ever see on this island.’

‘Enjoyed his goal celebration so much I became a fan of the Irish NT. Top top finisher and good tier positioning. Love him.’

‘Once apologised to my now ex-wife for Mark Venus’s, let’s say, ‘over zealous’ handling of wife’s friend.’

‘Busy and skilful,  he was a tireless presence in some very good and not so good Tottenham sides. Famously chinned Edgar Davids. Wonderful partnership with Berbatov. Good man Robbie.’

‘I was at his debut game, scored 2 amazing goals, instant hero. We knew we would have to enjoy him while he was with us because it wouldn’t be long before he moved up a level. I remember saying to my dad “that’s Ireland’s goals sorted for the next 15 years” and I was right.’

‘Always found his ‘since I was a small boy growing up in Ireland I dreamt of playing for (insert club here)’ amusing… especially towards the end of his career when he was in on the joke himself.’

‘Always liked and rated him. Delighted when LFC signed him (despite the seedy antics we seemed to get up to at that time, see also Christian Ziege), gutted it wasn’t a success and frustrated to see him leave so soon. Class player.’

‘He hit me in the face with a ball at Whaddon Road during the warm up in a preseason friendly just before he left wolves and didn’t apologise and I resolved to hate him for life but then he came to Spurs and was glorious so I softened my grudge.’

‘Swear to god when we first signed him he was being interviewed and he did a crafty look at his own shirt because he briefly couldn’t remember who he was playing for. Lethal finisher.’

‘He could be brilliant and infuriating in the same passage of play (who you flicking the ball to Robbie you’re up front on your own?). But him and Berba together at Spurs was pure joy.’

‘Always remember either Alan Hanson or Graeme Souness once saying “he’s half a yard off being the best player I’ve ever seen”. Sounds over dramatic, but he was a fantastic player on his day. So clever. And it’s easy to forget that weirdly brief period at Inter Milan, somehow…’

‘It must be hard to coach those strikers to be fair when you, even at his age, were probably the best player in the room.’

‘Cov didn’t even have him for a full season and he’s still one of my favourite players. Although we never won a league away game with him!’

‘Always got unfair stick for Ireland, part of me feels like we have an ingrained dislike towards someone with his confidence & tend to appreciate average workhorses more. What we’d give for someone with even a % of his goalscoring exploits now.’

 

Three great moments
An absolute classic Robbie Keane goal and his stand-out memory from his international career. An injury-time equaliser for the Republic of Ireland against Germany in their Group E match at the 2002 World Cup. The late run onto the ball, one touch and blasting it home. Bloody thrilling.

Two great goals on his league debut aged 17.

A classic one-two with Berba and a left foot burner.

 

What now?
He is looking for a career in coaching if not actual management and while it has not started spectacularly well, he has a reputation for being a good sport and generally rubbing along well with people, which will do his chances of being a good cop against a manager’s bad cop routine no harm.

At 40 he’s still youngish by management standards, if not in normal life, so plenty of opportunities should present themselves in the future. His problem could be that like many footballers whose art was more instinctive than learned, there is always a question as to what degree he can really train and educate players. When it comes naturally to you, it can also be frustrating working with people for whom it is a less easy-to-access artform.

However, he is reportedly a good vibes man and that is an often under-appreciated quality in the psychological side of the game. Somehow, it is hard to imagine him having the gravitas to be the gaffer in the sheepskin coat. Much easier to see him in the waterproof jacket with RK on, shaking his head in sympathy as the boss bitches about his useless players.

His place as a legend in Irish football history is assured and his goals have given a whole generation much joy. We should all wish for such a great legacy.

John Nicholson

 

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