Friday 20 September 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Can maverick genius as a player even be coached?'

Instinctive gifts that made Robbie Keane our greatest striker are probably not teachable

Rep of Ireland 1998-2016. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Rep of Ireland 1998-2016. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On Sunday, the photographers didn't see Robbie Keane slip inconspicuously into a front-row seat for Irish football's latest coronation.

In fact, Mick McCarthy was almost halfway through his opening press conference before his "cheeky b****x" reference drew attention to the country's leading goalscorer, sitting next to Terry Connor and all those superannuated figures of the FAI Board. Stealth always serves a striker well and the records show that Keane was better served in that department than most.

Wolves 1997-1999. Photo: Mark Thompson / Allsport
Wolves 1997-1999. Photo: Mark Thompson / Allsport

But the burning question now must be is it possible to coach that stealth? Can you teach things like spatial cleverness? Composure? Rapacity? In essence, is it feasible to think that the kind of music Robbie had in his feet can be given to another through his work on the training ground?

At a time the national team struggles to score a goal every equinox, the idea of putting the man who hit 68 of them in green on McCarthy's coaching ticket has obvious, seductive appeal.

But can he actually coach someone to do what he did for those 23 years?

Irish football waited generations to find a striker with Robbie's clairvoyant knack in front of goal, so it requires a leap of faith to imagine a successor on the horizon any time soon. Because Keane was never a manufactured footballer.

Inter Milan 2000-2001. Photo: Claudio Villa /Allsport
Inter Milan 2000-2001. Photo: Claudio Villa /Allsport

His was a gift of instinct. He came to us a teen with attitude, dancing into Irish squad five-a-sides, treating senior professionals - as Niall Quinn put it - like traffic cones. Someone so full of moxy every time he scored in training, he'd wonder aloud whether anyone knew anything about those mysterious ghosts of our past, 'Aldo' and 'Stapo'.

"What are you looking at?" he'd roar whenever he spotted Quinn staring at him during training. "Hopin you might learn something?" That was Robbie's persona. Glorious, unblinking, in-your-face impudence.

Can you coach that?

In McCarthy's first spell as Irish manager, he'd sometimes have to take the ball away from Keane while trying to give a team talk. Head down, Robbie would be a blur of flicks and feints, absorbed in his own private world, until an exasperated McCarthy punctured the bubble with: "Robbie, do you mind?"

Liverpool 2008-2009. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Liverpool 2008-2009. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Last Sunday, McCarthy spoke of how on other occasions they'd end up just applauding one of those little off-the-cuff miracles that only Robbie could pull in training.

Miracles that nobody can coach.

Quinn always maintained that Robbie was "better and more confident" than any previous Irish striker. He'd already become the country's record goalscorer at 24, yet there was always a sense that we were maybe too busy chronicling his shortcomings (lack of pace; prone to theatrics; inclined to fluff an easy chance) to recognise the freakishness of Robbie's figures.

And Robbie kept his distance to a point.

Celtic 2010 (loan). Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Celtic 2010 (loan). Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

He has never looked entirely comfortable in front of cameras and microphones, often allowing his agent speak for him in public and almost never granting journalists a one-on-one interview. Yet Quinn, whose record as top Irish goalscorer Robbie obliterated, saw only a kid of extravagant self-expression.

"My ideal player is somebody with the enthusiasm and brashness of Robbie Keane," he wrote in his autobiography "somebody who doesn't care what anyone thinks, doesn't care for reputations, who wants to be marked by the best, who wants the world to bring it on."

But how do great strikers memorise, duplicate or recycle their talent? Is it even possible?

As Sean Dyche tells Mike Calvin in 'Living on the Volcano', there's an art to delivering information in a dressing-room. But it has to be done, Dyche says, "in a manner that, even if it's theatrical, it's believable."

And getting Ireland's threadbare line of strikers to believe in what he says might not be straightforward for Robbie Keane now. No question, he will have the respect of his audience. And it's true the idea of, say, an 18-year-old Michael Obafemi hanging on his every word holds huge appeal.

LA Galaxy 2011-2016. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images
LA Galaxy 2011-2016. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

But you have to feel that so much of Keane's brilliance on a football field was down to a maverick's impulse. To dong things and making runs that had no planning. To spontaneity in effect.

And that spontaneity, we know, wasn't to everybody's taste. His dream move to Liverpool didn't work out, essentially because Rafa Benitez believed he lacked the requisite pace to be a top rank Premier League number nine. Robbie himself hoped Liverpool would use him as a playmaking ten, but that was Steven Gerrard's role.

"There wasn't room for both Robbie and me in Rafa's team" wrote Gerrard in his book, 'My Story'. "I could see why Rafa had his doubts about playing Robbie in front of me. He had none of Torres's pace. Robbie was far better when allowed to drop in behind and pick up intelligent spaces where he could set up and score goals.

Uncomfortable

"But it was obvious that his relationship with Rafa would never work. Instead of letting Robbie be the player he had signed, Rafa tried to change him. He had Robbie attempting movements which clearly made him uncomfortable. Robbie would have been a success under most of the managers I played with at Liverpool.

"But Rafa made it personal. I couldn't understand why Rafa tried to change a top player. Let him play his own game - that's why we signed him."

Yet managerial whims aside, Keane's reputation as a model professional, someone conscientious, hard-working and likeable, never wavered from the time he joined Wolves as a 16-year-old. And those qualities ARE teachable. The commitment to be the best that you can be.

Beyond that? The hope must simply be that his presence on the Irish coaching ticket can remind McCarthy's players that there will always be room in the game for imagination and bravery in possession. For befriending the football as distinct from the recent condition of being panicked by it.

We've no idea of knowing if he will be a good coach, no idea if he will even be a good communicator on the training field. Because for all his years carrying our hopes in international football, Robbie remained zipped-up to the outside world. Patently much loved in the dressing-room, yet a bit of an enigma outside it.

And some things simply are not coachable. Genius being one.

Irish Independent

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