Robbie’s temperament and character define that Keane edge
It is easy to forget how long the Irish international has been on top of his game
Robbie Keane: The Liverpool experience could have been scarring but Keane just shook it off. Photograph: Donall Farmer
If Stephen Ireland exhibits supreme indifference to the idea of playing football for his country, then with each passing year it seems that Robbie Keane represents the far end of the spectrum. At 33, the Tallaght kid is still mad for it.
On Thursday afternoon he waltzed into a press conference at a big hotel overlooking the Hudson river and lower Manhattan, delighted with the world and nodding at familiar waiting faces. He spotted someone was wearing shorts on what turned out to be a dismally wet morning. Keane’s eyes lit up at the sight. He couldn’t resist. The nutmeg was on.
“Did you not check the weather forecast before you left?” he deadpanned as he took his seat. And there it was; the cheeky one-liner, neat as any of his deft passing shots, then the impish grin giving way to the beaming smile which has become as much of a trademark as his complex cartwheel celebrations: Robbie Keane, still mischievous and still winning.
He could have been forgiven for growing tired of the international malarkey by now, and even if he doesn’t quite say he’d be lost without it, there is no disguising the fact that playing for Ireland has become precious to him as he navigates the closing years of what has been a blessed football life. But as Keane answered the questions in his usual way the thought occurred that however strange it will be for Robbie Keane when he finally quits Ireland, it will be stranger for everyone else. It seems as if he has been here forever.
It is easy to forget how long Keane has been on top of his game. Recently, he sat down with his old international team-mate Kevin Kilbane, and over the course of an interview recalled his first impressions as a 17-year-old at Wolverhampton Wanderers and his assumption that the English lads would be so much more advanced because of their coaching background.
Exceptional talent “And you had me training twice a week at Crumlin,” he said, a throwaway remark that contained much about his natural, instinctive talent for putting a football into the net
. He recalled an early training session when he set the tone by flicking a ball over Keith Curle and making look dizzy. Keith Curle! The name was a rarefied blast from the past, to the England of Platt and Lineker.
Keane was the archetypal prodigy, scoring twice on his debut against Norwich in August of 1997 at the age of 17 and making his full Irish debut at just 18. There seemed to be no apprenticeship for Keane: the star turn in Brian Kerr’s exceptional underage Irish sides. He seemed to be universally known as “Robbie” by the time he was old enough to vote and seemed to be ticking off the accomplishments of the football career ladder with stunning swiftness, famously holding up his Internazionale Milan jersey at the age of 20. From Tallaght to the continent in the space of five years, he was the original young man in a hurry, fearless and tough and cocky to the last.
The thing about prodigies, particularly in sport or music, is that they are supposed to burn out. But Keane never did. When you scan his CV it is almost laughable how much he has packed in. It is easy to forget the six months he spent at Liverpool, his boyhood club, when he was asked to take on the role of iconic goal scorer in a club beset by anxieties. The league goals dried up and he was withdrawn early and sat by Rafa Benitez but he remained honest.
Then Spurs brought him back to Whitehart Lane and that was that. The Liverpool experience could have been scarring but Keane just shook it off and played his game. And then, in a move which was almost as surprising as that early jump to Milan, Keane took his family to join the Beckhams and the Galaxy club in Los Angeles. He hasn’t looked back. In all, it has been an impeccably smart and distinguished career. Lesser players have finished their Premier League days with more medals than Keane but unless he was to move to one of the big four clubs, winning stuff was always going to be arbitrary. Spurs will probably be regarded as Keane’s club when he finishes up but his career has been so nomadic that the Irish dressing room has been the most reliable and constant feature of his football life. Ireland has always meant home.
Little wonder that Morrissey, the former Smiths front man, saw fit to break his misanthropic ways in order to meet Keane and inform him that they were, in fact, related. Of all the Robbie Keane photographs, the picture taken with distant cousin Moz after a Galaxy game last season, best illustrates how peculiar and fabulous his football life has been. Little wonder that Morrissey was intrigued by this unshakably confident Irish youngster, pure Dublin in attitude, lighting up north of England winter days with his old-fashioned goals and extravagant celebrations.
Morrissey related For a man who spent his life making music out of the exquisite misery of adolescence, it must have been fascinating to see a youngster from the same bloodline comfortably accepting the adoration of the masses.
“His chin is my chin, my chin is his,” he said of the famous cleft they share and went on to describe as Keane in terms that would have made Giovanni Trapattoni weep in despair, “prowling like a lion, as weightless as an astronaut”.
In the early hours of this morning, the light floater was back in green and prowling around a football stadium on the fringes of Philadelphia. You could see on Thursday that he was itching to get out there. You could tell he wants nothing more than to end the goal drought which has clouded the performances of Martin O’Neill’s early reign. And you could tell, too, that O’Neill was glad to have Keane back in the squad. During the painful experience of Euro 2012, the rationale was that it was time to move on with Robbie; the speed was beginning to leave him and Ireland needed to look elsewhere for future plans. It seemed like an entire generation disappeared after the Trapattoni era ended but Keane didn’t blink. And as O’Neill tries to steer Ireland towards football relevance, the kid seems more crucial to the cause than ever; 62 goals and a slim chance of eclipsing Miroslav Klose’s all-time record of 68. When asked if he felt he got the credit he deserved as a footballer, Keane replied: “I don’t know. Look at Tottenham and the number of goals scored. I am not so sure if I was English would I be respected a bit more? Yes, I think so, that’s the truth.
But that’s the thing about Keane: from the first day, he has been heart on his sleeve Irish.