I'm Robbie. Who are you?

 

He's 21 going on 35. He meets everything and everyone eye to eye.He'll be Ireland's leading goalscorer before you can blink. Robbie Keane talks to Tom Humphries

This is the World Cup. Steve Staunton told him so. You live your life at the speed of light and things can look blurry outside, so Steve Staunton sat down beside him a while after the Germany game and began talking about roses and when to stop and take in the fragrance.

"Do you remember when you were a kid back in 1990 and 1994 out on the streets celebrating."

"Yeah."

"Well that's what people are doing now because of you."

It didn't strike him until then. The sweet smell of success.

"I didn't really cop on in the first game that this is it, this is the World Cup. After the Germany game, when Stan said that, it hit me. I found it a little strange really, a bit hard to take in. Yeah, that really hit me."

The lads call him Whacker or Whack and the tag catches some of the essence of him, his Dubness, his resilience, his strength. Alright Whack? Yeah.

Robbie Keane, footballer from Tallaght. There's a lot of him to understand. He has moved through football like a comet. Fettercairn to Crumlin United, to Wolves, to Coventry, to Internazionale, to Leeds United in about the time it takes to read this sentence. His transfer fees if totalled would buy a fair portion of the estate he grew up on, his goals have been wonders, and now, at 21, what was once a series of brilliantly-articulated epigrams is becoming an epic poem.

Twenty-one. Jesus. And going down the long, bloody slide to fulfilment. He has 12 goals in 36 games for Ireland and at least a decade of green-jerseyed heroics left. The national scoring record of 21 goals, bickered over by Givens, Stapleton, Aldridge, Cascarino and Niall Quinn, is already beginning to look silly. Robbie Keane will own it and he will own it for a long, long time, because he is moving towards his prime and playing in a team going the same direction.

Robbie Keane is scary. You look at what he is and wonder what he can become. You look at where he has come from and the speed at which he has accumulated a lifetime's worth of experiences and you can't figure out why he isn't shell-shocked or broken.

Like one day he was training at Coventry and Gordon Strachan pulled him aside and said, well, that Internazionale of Milan had agreed a deal for him, Robbie Keane, and would he like to go and speak to them about it.

Nineteen he was, and settling into a routine at Coventry. He'd been turning a blind eye to all the newspaper nonsense and getting on with it. Inter of Milan. For nine kids out 10 it would fit into that category: too much, too soon.

"It's a great opportunity for you," said Strachan, trying to explain. "We'd love to keep you here, I personally want you to stay, but if in my career something like this had come along I would have at least gone along to talk to them."

"Well, it would be rude not to," said Keane quietly, even though as soon as Strachan had mentioned Inter he had made up his mind to go. He had a chat and signed two days later.

"It seems ages ago. I knew I wanted to go straight away. I wanted to play there. Good club. Top players. I never had a doubt. When Lippi got sacked and Tardelli came in he was going to get rid of a few. That's the way it goes."

So, no regrets?

"Nah. I still speak to a few of the lads. Clarence Seedorf and Christian Vieri. We keep in touch a bit, talk every now and then. Good set of lads."

Your jaw is on the floor. Clarence Seedorf and Christian Vieri?

"Sure you're in the same boat as them, you're a professional footballer just like they are. Things like that don't bother me. I enjoyed every moment of it and when it was over I could see that I'd still have a long career."

Forever his career will be coupled with that of Damien Duff, whose progress he has shadowed and sometimes eclipsed over the last five years. They are contrasts, though. Duff is a homeboy in a permanent state of sleepiness, jolted to life by the sight of the left touchline and the roar of the crowd. You can't imagine him leading the life Robbie Keane has led, but Keane seems to live in a permanent state of feline grace where all things come right in the end and no matter how he's thrown, he always lands on his feet. The accumulation of experience on the journey has made him more savvy than any kid has a right to be.

He sits before you 21-years-old but 35 next birthday. Two World Cup goals in his pocket and there isn't a whisper of giddiness in his approach to the world. He meets everything and everyone eye to eye.

I'm Robbie Keane. Who are you?

Overawed? Wrong guy. The last two games his name has come out of the hat for drug testing. He has nothing against drug testing, just something against his name coming out again and again. Twenty-one and at the World Cup? He just gave them a piece of his mind.

"No, I wasn't happy. There must be some way of doing it differently. Germany and Saudi Arabia my name came out both times. The first game nearly three hours, the other night four hours. They can just get it all out of the blood test. It's a nightmare. Why don't they urine test everyone before the game? They do this blood test and then wait until you go the toilet. You can't eat or anything."

So he sat with Kevin Kilbane and drank about eight bottles of water, drank and drank until his stomach was sore and distended for the whole night. At two in the morning, they were done. The team bus had vanished so they took a car back to Chiba.

A few of the team's stragglers were still eating and talking. Robbie Keane took some food on board and went and packed for the next day's journey to Seoul.

So what was it like becoming the first Irish player ever to score two goals in a World Cup finals? That's what it was like. Sitting and waiting. Four hours almost. Stomach sore. Heady weary. A car back to the hotel and fade to black.

He started a little late, which is just as well considering how quickly he has travelled. He rambled out and played for Fettercairn, starting off operating as a right back for a year or so when he was nine or 10. Then his uncle Noel Byrne took over the team and Robbie was top goal scorer from right back so he moved the kid up front.

"I played there for three years and went to play for Crumlin when I was 12 or 13. I wanted to play for a bigger team; no disrespect, but no scouts were going to watch me playing for Fettercairn. Ma and Da's family are both from Crumlin, so there was some mini-leagues going on and me Mam knew some of the people. I joined Crumlin at 12."

The trademark somersault celebrations began about then, which must have gone down a treat with defenders around the Dublin parks.

"Yeah, I got a fair few kicks over it, but I was small and skinny and I could get away from them then."

So small and skinny that he got overlooked for a good while when the scouts began trawling. He was 14 and beginning to feel that life was passing him by when he went to Wolves on trial. He'd already been to West Ham and drawn a blank. There would be sessions also with Liverpool, Forest and Leeds.

"But I picked Wolves. I wanted to get into the first team as soon as possible and I thought I'd have a better chance of playing in the first team at Wolves. I liked the whole feeling there. It felt like it was right for me. Chris Evans was the youth development officer, and he's become a good friend of mine. He helped me settle in. It's a nightmare at first, I missed the Irish way of doing things, missed the family, but if you want to be a footballer . . .

Does he remember? C'mon Stan! Collecting World Cup stickers as if they were currency. Quinny was hard to get. Have you got Quinny? For a Quinny you'd give an Aldridge and a Houghton. Straight up.

Remember? Where was he when Dave O'Leary scored that goal? He was in the house across the road. They'd two young fellas as well and Robbie's brother was babysitting the lot of them, and when Packie saved and Davo scored, they abandoned all responsibility and ran out onto the streets where the world was wildand happy.

So Niall, if you were wondering, that's where Robbie Keane was that day. Being babysat. And now Quinn lays on the service and Packie is in a room down the corridor and Mick and Davo are his gaffers. He walked out of childhood and straight into every Irish kid's dream.

At first he hated it. Three of them took the plane. Alan Dixon and Steven Hackett and Robbie Keane. Off to the midlands thinking they'd never see home again. Two more Irish lads came a week later, Keith Andrews and Seamus Crowe, and the five of them clung together to save themselves from drowning.

Hackett and Keane found themselves in Josie Edward's digs for a while, but as always he was just passing through. By the time he was 18 he had his own house in Telford and the club were providing him with a car, a Fiat Brava, in case he'd go mad and buy something too flash.

Was there a day during that time of brief apprenticeship when he knew this was it, he was going to make it, a match that stood out as the calling card? It was like this.

"I got a good contract when I went to Wolves . . . I got a four-year contract. Next year that was ripped up and they gave me another. I signed four contracts in two years at Wolves. I was quite clued in as a young fella, needed a bit of advice but knew what I was doing."

When the club are tearing up contracts and offering you new ones and better ones, you know. You don't hold the ace. You are the ace.

"You never think you are going to make it or your not . . . I never come away saying that's it. I was doing well though. I scored 38 goals for the youth team. I remember Don Goodman, who's at Walsall now, took me and another chap, Mark Jones, the other striker, aside and Don said '50 quid for the top goal scorer' and when he said that, well when you're that age 50 quid is big. It's still a good bit of money. I scored 38, managed to beat him by about 12."

Through the winter he thought about the World Cup. Things at Leeds weren't perfect and he had more than splinters in his backside to bother him from all the sitting on the bench. He wanted playing time. He wanted sharpness. He couldn't concentrate sitting on the bench.

People said he wanted to leave. He didn't. People said he would put on weight. He didn't. People said it would kill his World Cup. It didn't. He was born to be a kingfish, and even in Leeds' teeming pool of talent he had an eye on that destiny.

"You think about the World Cup but you want to concentrate on playing for Leeds. The two are a bit connected. If you play for Leeds you'll probably do better. It was a frustrating season. I want to play every game, but it's not the way it goes. The manager has his own views. We'll have to have a chat when I go back. We had a few chats last year. I'd knock on his door, but I wouldn't be one to rant and rave."

He moved into his own house at 18. His best football mate, Carl Robinson, and another player, Kevin Muscat, lived near. Their wives would feed him.

He missed home, oh he missed it. He comes from a smallish family consisting of one brother and two sisters, but he has a load of uncles, six on his Ma's side alone, and a clatter of aunties and more cousins than a mafia don. He missed the noise and the big family holidays. He even missed school.

"I wasn't interested in school, always just there for the football and the Gaelic, played everything just to get half days. Never concentrated in school. Went to St Aidan's. Could never concentrate, always getting other people to help me out. I'd come home and it was bag down and out playing football on the street. That's how I grew up."

He loves to sing. When he's alone he sings all the time just for the love of it. Gets him into his own little world, he says. At the drop of a hat he's up on a karaoke stage or giving it a lash at a team sing-song.

The Da used to have his own band, Renegade. Used to do the pubs and go down the country even. Frontman, a good singer. Even now in the local he'll get up at the first bar being played or he'll do the karaoke, no bother to him. Robbie knows the repertoire.

"If he was playing local, maybe I'd have gone to see him, but when you're a kid you can't get in to the pubs. Anyway you'd be sick of hearing him in the house!"

His parents didn't travel to Japan. Not fond of flying and, anyway, it gave him a clear run - no worries about tickets or if they were alright and if everything was fine for them. They call him. They're having a ball. He can always hear singing.

He had a sense of it. Just a feeling. Strikers are like that sometimes, but by the 92nd-minute it was unbearable. He knew he was going to score, but maybe the gods didn't.

"Against the Germans I knew that it was coming. Just as the game was going on it got worse. It was like a film in my head. I said to Quinny that I knew he was going to come on and he'd flick one on to me. When I saw he was coming on I knew that was it. When I scored I realised that it had been in me head. Saudi Arabia same thing. Just hope I get a few more of those feelings. Quinny couldn't have placed the header any better for me, even when I imagined him doing it."

When you are a striker and this is your business, your bread and butter, sometimes you kick the ball and you just know that the netting will bulge and the crowd will rise and the old somersaults will be required. Against Germany, though, it happened so quick.

"The feeling was there and when Quinny headed it down it came off my stomach and fell well for me. Kahn was on fire all night and it looked like nothing would go past him. I'd had an overhead shot before that and I fell back a bit for that and missed it when I should have scored. I saw Kahn coming out this time, he comes out very fast and he looks huge. So I kept coming and I just hit it. He even got a hand to that. Sometimes you need the bit of luck. It hit the post and went in."

The radar was working too. He knew Carsten Ramelow was coming in from the side with murderous intent.

"If he'd caught me he would have killed me. The next thing though I just remember the lads

He's a man now and he's probably forgotten as much about life as you and I remember. These last four years, he says, he should have bought a mobile home and just driven around from club to club, but these are the years that made him grow up fast.

on top of me. Quinny was first to me and I think he was trying to protect me. I fell back against the board because the boys were pushing me and for a while I was on the bottom and I thought I wouldn't be able to get a breath. Stan was crippled and he was still running down to jump on."

It would have been a striker's way to expire. Last breath under a heave of bodies having scored in the 92nd-minute against Germany in the World Cup finals. A little piece of heaven before you go.

"I was 17 at Wolves and in the first team, playing with people who were a lot older than me. I learned a lot off them and I grew up a lot quicker. People said when I was 18 that I was quite mature, but I was working with men. Then it was new faces and new people. You learn a lot."

And miss a lot maybe. When he was in Italy he was supposed to open a new centre in Fettercairn, a place for the kids who once rode their horses up and down the roads of Tallaght. Now they have stables and grooming and the kids have somewhere good to go. He couldn't make it and some politician opened the place instead, but he's proud of it, likes the idea. He'll never leave Tallaght behind.

A good friend of his from childhood, John Ledwith, lives with him in England. "We have the crack together, good friends. A few of the lads from home come over now and then and the family come for a week and stay for a fortnight."

Another friend of his asked that if he scored against the Saudis would he do the bow and arrow gesture for him. "It came into my head at the last second. I spoke to him afterwards, he was buzzin'."

And through it all you get the sense of him being at the head of things. Twenty-one and head of it all, still moving, but with all the satellites revolving around him as he goes.

His brother said it to him on the phone and it was the first he knew of the landmark. "I hadn't a clue about that. Scored two in the World Cup. You wouldn't think it would be an Irish record."

The second was more straightforward, one of those deposits on an account which is expected to grow. Staunton in the centre circle, a glance up and the sweet left foot pass all the way from Dundalk to Drogheda. Gary Kelly didn't need two touches, he swept it across, "and it just fell right for me. I hit it and the goalie got his fingers to it again but I think I knew it was going in. After that we just went asleep."

Eddie Corcoran, who sorts the trips now for the Irish team, scouted him and sent him over to Wolves. They used to tell Robbie that there were loads of scouts coming to the games, but he only half-believed them. But Eddie came and he had weight with Wolves.

He got off school on the day he was supposed to sign. It was a Tuesday and he knew what he was going to do. His Ma spent the morning cleaning and making cakes and in mid-afternoon she looked out the window and a long black car with smoked windows was pulling up. "Jesus!"

"Eddie came to the house with Rob Kelly and Chris Evans from Wolves. They all came up in a big black car, me mother is looking out, and next thing she's in a panic. Is the place clean enough? They asked me to sign. I knew it was definitely Wolves for me, but I said to them that I'd think about it. 'Just give me a few weeks to think about it.' I could have signed for Liverpool, I supported them as a kid, but Mam said don't just sign for Liverpool because you followed them and it was good advice.

"When they came I knew it was Wolves, but I didn't want to rush into it though and regret it later. I signed a couple of weeks later and went over just before I turned 16 on July 4th. Independence day. Then I was 16 on the eighth of July. It seems like years ago now."

He played in Molineaux for the first time and burned the house down. The youth team won the Cup and Robbie scored a hat-trick with all the first team there watching.

"Then I got taken and put into the first team. They seemed to like me. I went to Scotland on pre-season and played against Dundee United and Stirling. An hour against Dundee, then Stirling, and I think I scored in them both and got given the nod to play against Norwich. Wolves flew the family across and I was lucky enough to score two goals in my first professional game. We went back to me Mam's hotel afterwards but that was it. Just went to bed early."

Lucky enough to score two goals, he says of the afternoon when he arrived as a kid from Dublin and left as an instant legend in the old gold of Wolves. No, lucky isn't the word. Never has somebody seized the day so firmly. His two goals were a showcase of his genius.

First Don Goodman, now playing alongside the whippersnapper instead of holding the carrot in front of him, chested down a ball which any respectful kid would have sidefooted back into the senior man's path. Keane whipped a volley with his weaker left foot, sending it curling from about 25 yards into the Norwich net.

It was one of those moments. Water into wine. You longed to see what else he could do. Soon he was darting like a fish through the Norwich defence, beating two and poking past the goalie.

Nearly all the lads he went away with are back in Ireland now. Alan Dixon is back. Steve Hackett is back and maybe moving to England with his girlfriend. Seamus Crowe is with Galway. And Keith Andrews is still at Wolves. He'll do well, Robbie thinks. And they must wonder when they look at their televisions at the somersaulting superstar if they'll be telling their side of the story for years to come. Could have been a contender. Played with Robbie Keane you know, played with Robbie Keane.

Tonight, being the night before a game, he'll do the usual. Have a bath, have a stretch, have a shave in the bath. Have a little think. Nothing else special.

He might think about Spain. He might think about Tallaght. How quickly he's come from there to here. The kid who left Fettercairn because the scouts wouldn't watch him will play in front of billions tonight. And he'll love it.

Confidence. He watched Spain on the box the other night. They scored three against South Africa and conceded two. He was more interested in the smaller number. You ask him if he didn't think the Spanish defence wasn't a little creaky around the centre. He shrugs. What if they are, what if they aren't.

"You're always confident. I don't go to games thinking he's great and he's great. My job is to get the better of them on the night. I love that. I can enjoy a game if I'm playing well and we're winning, but I love scoring goals. I want to score in every game. I look at any defender and think I can score against him. That's the way I am. That's the way I have to be."

I'm Robbie Keane. Who are you?