Often an opinion divider, always a goal scorer, Robbie Keane is one of Ireland’s best strikers of all time, and Willie Gannon provides us with a concise overview of the Tallaght native’s career thus far.
To say that Robbie Keane is much maligned would be something of an understatement. The ex-Leeds, ex-Inter Milan, ex-Liverpool and quite possibly the soon to be ex-Spurs striker has had to suffer more than his fair share of “slings and arrows” during his 14-year career.
It is, however, more than worth noting, though, that Keane is his country’s top scorer of all time with 51 goals in 108 games for Ireland.
He is also the ninth highest goal scorer in Tottenham Hotspur history with 121 goals from 291 matches and the 10th highest scorer of all time in the English Premier League with 123 strikes.
Keane is the 10th highest scoring European international footballer of all time, the 27th highest scoring international footballer of all time, and, probably, most importantly, he is the most prolific international striker of all time from the British Isles.
Which isn’t bad for someone who many feel isn’t exactly a great player.
Keane has literally travelled the seven seas as a footballer. Between six transfers, nine teams, 14 managers and 14 years, he has accounted for £70.3 million worth of transfer fees. He has travelled from the Auld Sod to the Black Country to Lombardy, Liverpool and London and has played some 657 matches and has scored some 261 goals (1 goal :2.6 games).
He has lived the life of an ordinary decent pro to the fullest and has fought back from the dead of being taken for granted so many times now that he can only be possessed of hope in Andy Dufresne sized quantities.
In short, Robbie Keane never gives up.
His career is a well worn tale. From a schoolboy footballer in the working class urban sprawl of Tallaght, he was picked up by Crumlin United before Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers came stalking the young striker.
He chose Wolves and Steve Bull over Liverpool and Roy Evans because he felt first team football would come sooner at Molineux, and he was right.
He made his debut within two years of moving over to England, and within one season, the 17-year-old would become top scorer of the club while a number of Premiership teams lurked in the stands as his star began to rise.
He made his international début for Ireland against the Czech Republic in Olomouc the same season and then followed this up with impressive performances against Argentina, Paraguay, Sweden and Mexico before he scoring his first goals for his country with a brace against Malta in Dublin.
So it was surprising to see that it was Gordon Strachan and Coventry City who made the first move for the youngster.
All of a sudden, Keane was the most expensive teenager in British football history with a £6 million price tag sitting on his head.
The Sky Blues had taken advantage of Wolves’ growing debt after years of chasing the Premier League and had picked up the hottest young prospect in British football for what they considered a snip at half the price.
Once again, the move to a team without high expectations and little pressure paid off as Keane added to his 24 goals in 73 games for Wolves (one goal : three matches) with 12 goals in 31 games for Coventry (one : 2.6). Perhaps though, the most important statistic was his four goals in just eight games for Ireland.
This impressive jump in statistics at a higher level prompted many leading Premier League managers to re-evaluate him as a player and it became common place for them to be asked about the young striker as a potential transfer target. One such question prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to state “I wouldn’t pay £600,000 for the lad never mind £6 million!”
That didn’t put Marcelo Lippi off though, and less than 12 months after joining Coventry for a record fee, the young Irishman moved to Inter Milan for another record fee, a cool £13 million.
The Sky Blues saw the chance to double their money on Keane as the opportunity to consolidate their Premiership status and make some major money into the bargain, but in reality, his sale was the main reason behind their relegation the following season. Without his presence and goals, Coventry sank without a trace ever since.
The wisdom of Keane accepting the transfer to Inter was questioned on all fronts as virtually every Premier League and Irish pundit had their say. Conventional wisdom being that Keane had moved to Italy too early in his fledgling career.
In the end, it looked like the pundits were right as he returned home to Dave O’Leary’s title chasing Leeds United after just four months. However, the truth was very different.
Lippi was under increasing pressure from Massimo Morati, Inter’s owner, after they were knocked out of the Champions League at the qualifying stage by Helsingborg. They then lost their opening match of the Serie A season to lowly Reggina and Morati decided to axe the legendary manager and replace him with the untried Marco Tardelli who had just guided the Italian U21′s to European success.
Keane had just began to eke out an understanding of Inter’s style of play as Lippi had made the youngster an essential part of his plans and saw him as a vital cog in the future of his team.
This inclusion by Lippi was no small statement as Inter possessed some phenomenal talents at the time. Players like, Christian Vieri, Ronaldo, Hakan Sukur, Ivan Zamarano, and Alvaro Recoba were all chief rivals to the slight 20-year-old from Tallaght.
However, despite a goal after just two minutes against Lazio in the SuperCopa Italia, Marco Tardelli decided that Keane was just not going to be part of his plans. Right from the start of the new regime, Keane was basically ostracised.
Armed with the knowledge that he was never going to be part of his managers plans, the Irishman chose to return home to the Premier League and Leeds United.
It is now one of the great questions about both Tardelli’s and Keane’s careers that their futures may have worked out differently if their working relationship had been better. Keane’s time at Inter was short-lived with only three goals to show from just 14 games. (one : 4.6)
Also, in an ironic twist in February 2008, Tardelli became Assistant Manager to Giovanni Trapattoni when the former Italian boss was appointed Ireland manager. Like true professionals who recognise the game for what it is and how simple opinions can shape destinies, Keane and Tardelli have since forged a superb working relationship.
Leeds’ 2000-01 season, from a point of offering so much, was looking like going belly up before Keane joined the club in late December. His addition to the squad seemed to rejuvenate the club almost immediately.
Before his first start, Leeds had only won nine games from 22, including just three wins from the previous 13. Keane helped turn that around as he waded in with nine goals from 18 matches and from the time he made his first start against Middlesbrough, Leeds only lost twice from the next 18 games and rocketed from 13th to fourth in the table.
Unfortunately, in 2001 a fourth place finish in the Premier League could only guarantee UEFA Cup football, and Leeds having tasted success, in the Champions League, wanted more.
Despite losing to Valencia in the semifinals of the Champions League and having just missed out on the competition for successive seasons, Leeds decided to gamble yet again as O’Leary spent another £18 million to bring their spending to an staggering £93 million in just four seasons since 1998.
Robbie Fowler fresh from his battles with Gerard Houllier at Liverpool, was added to an already packed forward line and, quite remarkably, Robbie Keane found himself falling down the pecking order.
Without game time, his form dipped from nine goals from 18 matches to nine in 33 and just three games into the following season, he was sold to Spurs to help aid the financial difficulties of the Yorkshire club. His goals for games rate at Elland Road had improved from his time at Inter though to one : 2.9.
The one respite during this poor period at Leeds for Keane was international football.
He scored seven goals in 15 games during this period for Ireland including three goals in four games as Ireland crashed out of the 2002 World Cup to Spain on penalties in the Last-16.
In scoring in three games in a row in Japan, Keane became only the 10th player to achieve the feat in World Cup history. In doing so he joined the likes of Pele, Jairzinho, Ronaldo, Eusebio and Mario Kempes amongst others.
Tottenham Hotspur would become Keane’s fifth club in just six years – he was still only 22 years of age – and White Hart Lane became a home for the travelling Irishman for the next six seasons.
Initially under Glenn Hoddle, his time at Spurs started well. In a side that was listing badly, Keane became the one constant that fans could look to as the club struggled to cope with expectation whilst dealing with life in the middle reaches of the league.
From the fans point of view; Spurs were a sleeping giant but in reality they were a mid-table club who weren’t particularly run well and for players such as Keane, expectations weren’t high and were certainly no where near the levels expected of a club in the higher reaches of the league.
Despite all this, and with Hoddle being replaced by Jacques Santini and just 13 games later Martin Jol, Keane would become Tottenham’s top scorer for the third season in a row. Yet somehow he found himself being taken for granted yet again and being relegated to fourth choice striker behind Jermain Defoe, Mido and Frederic Kanoute.
Jol started off the 2005-’06 season with Defoe and Mido whilst selling Kanoute to Sevilla, with Keane the odd man out yet again. The giant Dutchman had decided that the Irish striker was no longer part of his plans and made him train with the reserves while letting every EPL team know that he was available for transfer.
Spurs wanted around £12 million, for the player but there were little or no offers as life in the shadows began to play with his confidence.
It was international football for Ireland, once again, that would lift Keane from the doldrums of little or no club football. Since joining Spurs, his output for Ireland improved from 14/38 to 24/57. It was this impressive form for his country that would make Jol stand back and reassess the player.
Instead of selling him, Jol was forced to drop Defoe as his form dipped badly and Keane found himself in a new partnership with Mido. The new strike force hit it off almost immediately as both reached double figures with Keane, once again, finishing as the clubs highest scorer for the fourth season in a row.
Jol ended up being so impressed with Keane’s professionalism, honesty, and decision not to play his troubles out in the media, that not only was his faith restored in the striker but he went one step further by making him vice-captain of the club.
This move by Jol is not without significance.
Ledley King’s chronic injury problems are well documented during that particular period are well documented and by making Keane vice-captain Jol was basically issuing a statement that Keane was now one of the first names on his team sheet.
The season ended on a miserable note for Spurs and Keane though. On the eve of their last game of the season against West Ham, and after holding onto fourth place for the previous 23 weeks running, the entire Tottenham Hotspur first team were struck down with gastroenteritis. The end result was a last day loss to the Hammers and Arsenal overtaking Spurs into fourth.
The following season after literally hitting the crossbar of Champions League qualification, Spurs would push on yet again, and Keane was paired with Dimitar Berbatov despite the two players sharing many of the same qualities. Their partnership blossomed into one of the most effective in the Premier League.
Keane went on to become only the 13th player to score 100 goals in the Premier League and was then rewarded with a new five-year contract for his endeavours. During the same period, Keane also became the first Spurs striker to hit double figures six seasons in a row. Once again, all of this was achieved while turmoil reigned off the pitch. Martin Jol was sacked from the bench during Spurs’ 2-1 loss to Getafe and replaced by Juande Ramos just a few days later.
The same season, he also won the very first trophy of his career when Spurs beat Chelsea in the Carling Cup Final.
Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this look at Robbie Keane which will be with you tomorrow!