It's a joke
Published 05/02/2010 | 05:00
It would take a cruel sense of humour to force a smile but Robbie Keane's arrival at Celtic Park is hard not to see as a joke.
A forlorn one no doubt, one trailing still another new dawn for the man whose somersaults of celebration once spoke of career hopes that have mostly been unfulfilled, but still a joke about the theme of futility, an ultimate failure to find a permanent home for a singular talent to score goals -- and make an enduring mark.
He arrived at midnight and was greeted by an estimated 2,000 loyalists. They greeted a messiah and Keane, naturally enough, was anxious to promote the concept. Celtic were his team, he declared; he had carried a torch for them since boyhood, like so many footballers bred in Ireland.
Yet it all seemed, for both the fans and the players, so out of time. The crowd was attempting to prod the embers of a spent fire. And how you could not feel the same about Keane's latest attempt to rally his own self-belief?
Doesn't the Celtic glory belong to yesterday? And isn't that to where Keane, as a front-rank Premier League striker, resigned himself when he had headed away from White Hart Lane for a second time in 18 months?
Indeed, at 29, it is almost impossible not to believe that Keane has finally settled for the status of the nearly man mostly consigned to the shadows.
A harsh assessment, some might say, of a striker who has not so much beaten, but engulfed, the Irish international scoring record, who in one fertile, 23-goal season become a hero at White Lane, a place which such a ranking tends to die hard. But there it is -- a record that stretches back into one false trail after another.
Of course Keane remains indefatigable in projecting a profile of hope, a belief that in the end he will find the recognition that is his due.
The man from Tallaght refused to be dismayed by the early and potentially shattering disruption of his latest hope of career fulfilment -- defeat by Kilmarnock.
A 10-point deficit to Rangers, a budget which required Dermot Desmond to personally finance the loan deal and Keane's basic weekly wage of £68,000 -- no one said that disillusionment was accompanied by the onset of poverty -- might have dampened most early optimism. But Keane, plainly, is past the point where he cannot dwell too long in the harshest realms of reality.
The fiasco of his brief stint at Liverpool, and the appalling treatment he received at the hands of Anfield manager Rafa Benitez, probably cured him of that last possibility. Certainly the nose-dive against Kilmarnock was deflected in typical fashion by the man bedding down in his seventh top-flight club.
Of course the race for the Scottish title remained on. Said Keane: "There's no reason why we can't have a chance. I need a few games and we need to put a run together. There's every chance because there's a long way to go. It was disappointing not to win at Kilmarnock. We were the better team and had a few chances but it was not to be. We just have to move on and look forward to the next."
He would say that -- most players in his position would -- but in Keane's case there is the uncomfortable sense that it has become almost his mantra.
Each time he arrives at a new point of challenge, starting in Coventry to where he moved from Wolves 11 years ago, through Internazionale, Leeds United, Spurs, Liverpool, Spurs again and now, perhaps the last challenge, or should it be illusion, Celtic, there is the same Keane imperative to wipe out the past and build a new future.
And all the time he is maybe subliminally dogged by the rough assessment of Alex Ferguson, who was already deep into assembling one of the most formidable squads in the history of English football when he contemptuously questioned Coventry's rating of Keane at £6m.
There was, naturally, a whiff of classic Ferguson angst when he went public with his doubts. He was said to be interested in Keane but only at a much reduced asking price. At the time you could only sniff at a certain lack of grace by the master of Old Trafford.
Yet the years have been kinder to his assessment, ultimately, than the potential which was sufficient to persuade the great Marcello Lippi to invest in the young Irishman.
Inter paid £13m but when Lippi was fired his successor Marco Tardelli made a withering reassessment. Keane revived his somersault at Elland Road for David O'Leary, with sufficient frequency to turn a loan deal into a £12m purchase.
But the verdict of Ferguson has kept its hard edge, as most recently those such as Benitez and Tottenham's Harry Redknapp have joined the Tardelli school of thought.
What is it about Keane that so persistently fails to meet even, you have to believe, his own expectations? Of course he has to continue to talk the talk. He is certainly not the only footballer to fuel a career on the belief that just around the corner is the recognition he deserves.
Yet with Keane it seems to be a hope taken beyond the accumulating evidence of his limits, a suspicion that is highlighted graphically enough by the fact that at Celtic he is an inheritor of the No 7 shirt once the property of the great Henrik Larsson.
Here, surely, is the most acid of comparisons between Larsson, the man who became a legend in Glasgow before confirming the weight of his talent in a European Cup final for Barcelona, and Keane, who in a Champions League game for Liverpool against Atletico Madrid probably in one moment turned Benitez against him, quite irrevocably.
Keane had the chance to slide home a killing goal, the goal of a hard-nosed striker utterly at peace with his challenge.
Instead the Dubliner attempted a boyish flourish, a fanciful miscue which Larsson would not have entertained in a thousand years.
A passing incident perhaps, but also maybe one at the root of why Keane, at what should be the peak of his career, is now in the company of the ghosts of Celtic. You look at his career and it reads like nothing so much as a roll call of the highest opportunity.
Then you try to reach out for the reality of it, as Keane does perhaps in the privacy of his own thoughts, and how does it feel? Maybe like sand running through his fingers.