Friday 31 March 2017

Tallafornia dreaming

Dion Fanning

Robbie Keane had plenty of choices when he considered a new football club in the summer. He could have joined Blackburn Rovers or Leicester City. If he had joined Blackburn Rovers, he would have had to find somewhere to live in Blackburn.



Robbie Keane has been criticised for choosing to live in LA rather than Blackburn or Leicester. Some suggested it was his wife's decision and not his. But where would you choose? Admittedly, the LA lifestyle and the huge support the couple will have with getting cars, houses and so on, will certainly make settling in easier. However, says Dion Fanning, who spent time with the footballer in California when he first moved, Keane's new employers will expect him to deliver on the pitch as well.



Alex Higgins lived in Blackburn when he was making his way as a snooker player and making his way, his own way, in the world. At one point, Higgins lived in 9, 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19 Ebony Street, Blackburn, moving along as each house was demolished. It remains unclear if the demolition of each house was the fault of Higgins or of Blackburn itself. Perhaps it was a potent combination of the two, but the town has challenged more serene men than Higgins, although nobody was challenged quite so much as he was.

Keane would probably not have lived on Ebony Street or any other street in Blackburn. Plenty of footballers choose drab towns because the football club offers the possibility of playing in a winning team or a team that challenges for competitions. Blackburn Rovers doesn't offer these prospects. It offers pure dysfunction.

Since last year, the club is owned by Venky's Ltd, an Indian firm that specialises in chicken-meat processing, as well as offering a series of pharmacological products for the chickens who may, or may not, be subsequently processed. There's nothing wrong with the chicken-meat processing industry and their chicken vaccines are said to be excellent, but Venky's Ltd has taken a strange approach to football. It fired the reasonably successful, if unappealing, manager Sam Allardyce and replaced him with an equally unappealing, but less successful, manager Steve Kean. Allardyce complained of betrayal. Kean was recently convicted of drink-driving and his claim that his drinks were spiked was dismissed in the court. For Robbie Keane, the 10th highest goalscorer in the history of the Premier League, it wasn't an appealing offer.

Leicester City was Keane's other option. Leicester is a quiet town, where rugby is more popular than football. Gary Lineker is the most famous footballer to come from

Leicester and as a representative of the town -- bland and safe -- he does a pretty good job. If Keane had joined Leicester City, he would have worked under the former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson, a man who has made his appearance as a beleaguered Stockholm bureaucrat no impediment to getting close to rich men and beautiful women.

These seemed to be Keane's choices. This is a man who, three years ago, had joined Liverpool for close to £20m, as part of a squad challenging for the Premier League title. Well, he was for six months, at least. That was until, in January 2009, Rafael Benitez, who had only wanted Keane to come to Liverpool if another player, Gareth Barry, was bought as well, sold Keane back to Tottenham Hotspur. Barry hadn't been delivered and the tactical plan Benitez had for the two players was redundant.

Instead, Keane floundered. Latterly, he has been parodied for saying that every move has been a dream move, but Liverpool had been the club he wanted to play for and now that dream had fallen apart. At the press conference in north London to announce his return to Spurs, Keane seemed baffled, but there was still the veneer of the self-confidence, even arrogance, that had made him stand out as a teenage player. Keane had always believed he was going to be a superstar and had always acted accordingly. He returned to Spurs behaving the same way. But, inside, he must have been jolted by the Liverpool experience.

Things were never the same at Spurs second time around. In December 2009, Keane told manager Harry Redknapp that, as club captain, he had organised a golf day for the players in Dublin. Redknapp, who had just spoken of the dangers of Christmas parties for Premier League footballers, agreed to the trip. The golf day consisted of an afternoon in Gibney's pub in Malahide before moving on to Copperface Jacks, naturally. When Redknapp found out he was furious. The next month, Keane moved on loan to Celtic, returned in the summer, and was then loaned again to West Ham last season. This led to the point in 2011 where Blackburn and Leicester were the clubs who wanted him.

In the second week of August, Keane was in Dublin to play for Ireland in their friendly against Croatia. When he was asked about his future, he said he expected to remain in the Premier League. In fact, some said Leicester were favourites to sign him. Three years after he had joined a club that would challenge for the Premier League title and the Champions League, Keane was looking at dropping a division and battling for promotion.

While Keane was speaking in Dublin, in Los Angeles, LA Galaxy was trying to solve their own problems. Since they invested heavily in David Beckham, the Galaxy had become the most famous club in Major League Soccer, but it had yet to win the MLS Cup, the trophy that defines the season for football teams in America. Beckham is in the final year of his contract and he may not sign an extension. Listening to him, it's hard to see why he would. He has pursued fame and achieved celebrity in the US. There would appear to be no reason for him to keep playing. For the Galaxy, its investment in Beckham -- he is paid $6.5m a year -- makes success essential. The Beckham Corporation has delivered off the field but on it, the Galaxy needs to win and quickly.

The president of the club, Tom Payne, and the head coach, Bruce Arena, had decided they needed goals if they were to win the MLS Cup and make football sense of Beckham's career. If they were to get a striker, they needed to move quickly. The MLS deadline for international transfers was Sunday, August 14. If the Galaxy were to persuade a player to move, they would need to have him signed by 8.59pm Pacific Time that Sunday.

The club knew Keane could be interested and, once they received encouragement, the deal moved quickly. Keane didn't hesitate when his agent Struan Marshall informed him of the Galaxy's pursuit, and the close relationship between Tottenham and AEG, the global sporting events company that owns LA Galaxy, ensured that things went smoothly. AEG's president Tim Leiweke conducted the negotiations and by the time the story broke on Friday, everything was advanced. A deal was agreed for a two-and-a-half-year contract at approximately $3m a season.

Keane then had to take the flak. He was, it was said, removing himself from the challenge of playing in England to take an easy dollar. Some said that his wife Claudine was behind the move. It was said that she wanted to live in LA instead of Blackburn or Leicester -- as if a man would never conclude that life in LA was more attractive than life and a struggle at Blackburn or Leicester.

Keane's wife was clearly happy with the move, but while she will probably be pictured in the Irish papers shopping and relaxing in LA, there is unlikely to be huge interest in her among the natives. She will have anonymity whether she likes it or not. Angelenos feign a lack of interest in the celebrities they come across on a daily basis, so it won't be hard to show a genuine lack of interest in somebody they haven't heard of.

Local journalists point to the story of Victoria Beckham's recent experience in a Venice Beach restaurant. Dining with Gordon Ramsay, Mrs Beckham asked for the dressing of her trout salad to come on the side. She was heavily pregnant but the restaurant held to their strict 'no changes and modifications' policy, even after Ramsay's intervention.

There is a stubborn insistence on normality in a town where everyone believes they have a right to be famous. The photographers who follow Claudine will only do so because they know that papers in Ireland will pay for the pictures. There is unlikely to be any great interest in the US.

The reality is that Robbie Keane wanted the move. The week that followed the deal was frantic. On the Saturday, the Galaxy had a game at home to the San Jose Earthquakes. The club's staff worked hard on the paperwork that would give Keane the visa to make his debut. They were helped by Finbar Hill, the Irish consul in LA and Keane was told to fly over on the Thursday so he could be presented to the press on the Friday and make his debut on the Saturday.

When he arrived at LAX, he was met by a group of Galaxy supporters who were determined to demonstrate that the club had fans who cared.

His move was helped by AEG's extensive interests. Apart from owning the Galaxy, they run the Staples Center in LA and own the Ritz-Carlton in downtown LA, where the Keanes stayed until they found a home. His agents SFX are owned by the Wasserman Group, which is also based in LA. They ensured that by the Monday after his arrival, the car Keane wanted was at the training ground. They also will help in the search for a house.

Beckham lives in Malibu, while the Galaxy captain and their other star player outside the salary cap, Landon Donovan, takes the short drive from Manhattan Beach every day.

Sports journalism can sometimes follow some pretty hoary pre-defined lines and Keane was asked in his first week if choosing a place to live was a chore he would leave to his wife. Keane said no, he would be involved too. Keane didn't care for the preconceptions.

He had told Bruce Arena he wanted to play, not retire, and the American clubs, especially the Galaxy, are always sensitive to any hint that a player saw the move purely as a lifestyle choice. The idea of living in LA clearly excited Keane, but the alternatives in England depressed him too. He had, he told me, done the same thing since he was 17. He had trained and played, played and trained. LA offered reinvigoration. This wasn't to do with lifestyle, it was to do with life.

Keane had grown tired of what he described as the "repetitive" life in English football. The Galaxy promised change. He scored on his debut and he will score a lot more. The standard is average but the challenge is a physical one, with the tolerance for aggressive challenges much higher than it is in England.

"The perception of MLS is still something that hurts us, but respect and credibility comes with time," Alexi Lalas, former US player and the general manager of the Galaxy when Beckham arrived, told me.

Beckham's arrival changed the perception of MLS, although perhaps more in America than in Europe where, within football, he was regarded by the time he moved as a marketing tool rather than an effective footballer. But his PR skills are formidable and Beckham had done what he was expected to do, at least off the field. Despite the corned beef, cabbage and Guinness on offer during Keane's first press conference, he wasn't signed as part of a marketing campaign. He was signed so that the Galaxy would win the MLS Cup.

Of course, there will be consolations. Keane had never been to LA before, but within days he looked like he never wanted to leave. He will live in Malibu or Santa Monica and he will enjoy the days on the beach and the sense that he has left it all behind. LA is designed to ensure that nobody ever gets a sense of where they've come from.

The Galaxy's ground, the Home Depot Center, is about 15 miles south of downtown LA in Carson City. If you take a wrong turn on Avalon Boulevard, as I did, you can find yourself driving around Compton. It's a more peaceful place than in the early Nineties, but not a place you'd want to be. If Robbie makes that mistake then, and only then, he'll think that maybe he'd have been better off in Blackburn. But the feeling won't last long.













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