Sport Soccer

Monday 23 April 2018

Leaving for LA - Robbie's revenge?

Robbie Keane perfrms his trademark goal celebration during his debut for LA Galaxy. Photo: Getty Images
Robbie Keane perfrms his trademark goal celebration during his debut for LA Galaxy. Photo: Getty Images

From Tallaght to Hollywood, Robbie Keane still divides opinion. Dion Fanning travels to LA to talk exclusively to the Galaxy's newest star

Robbie Keane isn't the first person to arrive in Los Angeles thinking he can leave everything behind. The city was built on reinvention. Los Angeles is a place where so many go looking for the impossible. Many more arrive on the west coast fleeing impossible lives to dream it all up again.

"If you come to live in LA and don't like it," a man said to me last week, "go back to where you came from. You'll soon realise why you went to LA."

Robbie Keane went to Los Angeles for many reasons. There may have been a multi-million dollar contract, although Galaxy sources suggest it is less than the $9 million reported, but there would have been millions wherever Keane went.

There was undoubtedly the lifestyle but there was something else as well. Keane moved to Galaxy to avoid the inevitable, or at least make the inevitable feel different.

"I don't have one ounce of regret about the Premier League," he told me last week. "I scored over 100 Premier League goals. What more can you do? You can win the Premier League but the chances of that now are pretty slim."

Keane could see his future in England and he didn't like it. LA Galaxy, by offering something different, offered him a chance to forget. We have all joined in the criticism of Keane and it is baffling sometimes even as we do it. He is Ireland's record goalscorer yet he is always only one wrong move away from running straight into the posse.

When he chose Sunset Boulevard over Sven's Leicester, he was said to have given up on the challenge. There is no question that he grew weary of what was left for him in Britain and wondered what his career there had become. Three years ago, he joined a Liverpool side challenging for the title but left them six months later peripheral to that title challenge.

There would be no more title challenges in England. He faced the prospect of relegation battles, promotion possibilities or simple mediocrity. Instead two weeks ago, he took a decision that offered change and hope.

Keane admits to very few doubts -- "When I make up my mind, I'm strong" -- but the move to Liverpool, the return to Spurs and the loan moves and attempts to move him on have clearly ground him down. He left England ten days ago, no longer a target for the big clubs and simply a wage burden at Tottenham Hotspur.

Keane may have avoided the sense of painful decline, fading powers and the inevitable hurtling towards retirement by travelling to a league which will make him feel young.

He is one of Galaxy's three designated players, signings that fall outside the salary cap of MLS. He will have to assimilate in many ways, playing alongside team-mates who, in some cases, will earn in a year a little more than he earns in a week.

Those who felt he was ducking out of top-level football when he agreed to join LA Galaxy ignored the restorative effect on Keane of doing something different.

"I've played in England for so long, you know," he said, sheltering from the sun in the Home Depot Center tunnel on Wednesday. "What do you do? Do you stay in the Premiership and just play for the sake of playing? Just to try and score a few more Premiership goals or something. It's not like I'm going to go to a team like Chelsea or Man U who are going to win something."

This was the reality Keane faced as the summer went on and he looked for a club. He admits to being jaded with that routine and if a move to LA excites him, it's hard to see how it will damage his international career. He has played his best football under Giovanni Trapattoni despite three years of uncertainty and injury. A reawakening in California can only help.

"He's not going to get any easy afternoons," La Galaxy coach Bruce Arena says. "I don't think you're going to be disappointed with the kind of form Robbie will have with Ireland."

Keane has entered a league of questionable quality but one of vigorous physicality which is intensely competitive.

"Listen, it's a challenge for me because the teams are quite even, you know," he says "It's not as if one team is like Man United and then a Wigan, that kind of gap, without being disrespectful to them. Obviously you get two or three players who are designated players but the rest are quite even."

He will be tested in a league that wants to test itself, that asks those who arrive the same question.

"We've had a number of guys on different teams throughout the years who've come in and thought it was going to be easy, that the pace is going to be slower," Galaxy's captain Landon Donovan says. "They're in for a rude awakening."

Spend a week talking to fans, reporters, players and those who work in MLS and you begin to hear the same things. They look for one thing in players because they sensed for so long that players looked for something different from them. The MLS makes it hard because some have thought it's going to be easy.

Bruce Arena recalls one of his first conversations with Keane: "Robbie told me 'I'm here to play, not to retire'."

Tuesday morning in parking lot 6 of the California State campus in Carson City. Five adults and four children are sheltering from the sun. All the children wear Galaxy jerseys with 'Beckham 23' on them. Suddenly a group of 50 or 60 teenagers emerges as if from nowhere. They shatter the stillness with their collective noise of the carefree.

The Galaxy fans are worried. They scatter and assume defensive positions. Their niche market is under threat. They spread out as if under command. It looks as if they are protecting a set of concrete steps that seem to lead only to a basement. From these steps, their quarry will emerge.

But the schoolkids are unaware and uninterested. Their leader addresses them and they march happily away towards some other pursuit on campus in their meandering summer.

Seconds later, the most famous footballer in the world and a man who has cost more than £70 million in transfer fees climbs the steps. They belong to the nine fans and the nine alone.

Beckham spent longer posing for pictures on Thursday night than he did on his way to training on Tuesday. He was pestered as he tried to leave the Home Depot Center and he moved mechanically from one picture to the next. It was as if he was clearing his desk. This was office admin for his job of being famous.

There was only one difference on Thursday night -- those who queued up for his picture had spent the last 90 minutes playing against him. The players of Alajuelense had no professional reticence and asked Beckham to pose which he did every time. This is the impact the Galaxy expected Beckham to make, it's not what they're expecting from Keane.

"You do some things because the off the field is just as important as the on the field -- and that's David," Tom Payne, LA Galaxy's president, told me. "David had to do the business for us on the field but also had to help drive business for us, for the league, for every club in the league. Robbie's a different case. We thought about it. I had long talks with Tim Leiweke [head of AEG] who ended up doing the deal about the business ramifications of it . . . Obviously we hope he helps us off the field but more importantly we need his help on the field."

Players don't pose for pictures with Beckham in MLS anymore. On Thursday, Galaxy won their Concacaf Champions League game easily. It's a competition that everyone at Galaxy concedes has yet to make an impact but they are as quick to say that it doesn't represent football in the US.

Not many fans want to make the journey through LA rush hour to make a 7.0pm kick-off for a competition they don't understand. The Galaxy ultras, the LA Riot Squad and the Angel City Brigade, are there but, unlike Keane's debut against San Jose, the stadium isn't engaged. On nights like these, it is easy to agree with those who worry about Keane's choices. Under a beautiful sky and in a gentle breeze, he could be playing for the entertainment of billionaires in the desert. As Eduardo Galeano once wrote, "The stadium of King Fahad in Saudi Arabia has marble and gold boxes and carpeted stands, but it has no memory or much of anything to say."

Alexi Lalas arranges the meeting for the Hangar Bar in Manhattan Beach. "I've met a lot of football people here," he says. There are six men sitting at the bar drinking beer and watching two baseball games on five TVs. A short-order cook fries lunch at the end of the bar. You never took Beckham here, I suggest. "No," he says, "this isn't David's kind of place."

Lalas was general manager of the Galaxy when Beckham arrived. He describes the effect of dealing with the Beckham Corporation as a "hurricane". He was among those scattered when AEG decided that it wasn't working and fired Ruud Gullit, who failed to appreciate what was required during his short time as the Galaxy's coach, and Lalas, who maybe appreciated it too much.

Lalas is a missionary for MLS. He sees his own dismissal as a necessary part of the process to get Galaxy to where they are today. They might be a club known around the world because of David Beckham but they have to get ready for a time without Beckham.

Keane's signing demonstrates that the Galaxy are doing that. It has to have football merit, he argues, because it doesn't make business sense.

"In that respect, I like it," Lalas says. "This was done purely out of competitive reasons. A lot of decisions we made over the years balanced business and competitive. Make no mistake about it, this was a competitive decision."

Keane has been signed to win the MLS Cup, the final of which will take place in the Galaxy's stadium. They will have to negotiate the play-offs to get there and then win a final to demonstrate that they are, as most observers agree, the strongest team in the US. "We're expected to win championships," Tom Payne says. "I make the argument that our club is a bigger brand around the world than our league."

Clive Toye, who was general manager of the New York Cosmos, says it would have made business sense for an east coast club to sign Keane. The Galaxy may have laid on corned beef and Guinness for Keane's unveiling, but there isn't the same Irish community in LA as there is in Boston or New York.

Galaxy had offers to play in Ireland during their close season before Keane's signing. His arrival might change things in one respect -- "We might ask for a little bit more," Tom Payne says of the money on offer from the promoters who want to put on the game. But there are as many as 15 different proposals from around the world that the Galaxy will consider. "I don't know if we'll have the opportunity or not."

Keane wasn't signed for that, he was signed to score goals. Bruce Arena arrived when Lalas and Gullit left. He changed the culture of the club and he made the side hard to beat. Under Gullit, they had leaked goals. Arena fixed that while Beckham continued to drive the business.

Lalas and Gullit didn't agree on much but they both knew that Beckham made business sense. For too long, David Beckham has known that he makes business sense.

The struggle to assimilate the perfect business logic of signing Beckham with the passive aggressive anarchy Beckham brings to all accepted codes of dressing-room behaviour was chronicled in Grant Wahl's book The Beckham Experiment. Central to the story was the tension between Landon Donovan and Beckham. Donovan would hand over the captaincy with some reluctance to Beckham.

Donovan is captain again now and the player who demands most from his team-mates.

He's an unusual footballer ("Thank you for your time," he said to me at the end of our interview) and one who understands what's required.

"I love playing here, I love being a part of this," he says. "I don't think people give it enough credit. I'm a realist and I know we're not anywhere near the Premier League or La Liga or the Bundesliga but it's a league that's growing. I promise you, ask Robbie in a couple of months and he's going to have high praise for it."

Donovan says it will require hard work to succeed in America. "To be honest, it's often times harder to play here. Not from a quality standpoint, but the games are harder some times. You don't necessarily get the same service you'd get in the Premier League, you don't have the same talented players around you. Robbie playing in the Tottenham side doesn't have to do a whole lot. He just has to get in front of the goal and hit the target. Here he has to do more, he has to help out, he has to defend, he has to help us move the ball. It's not as easy as people think and often times it's more difficult."

Keane, through his trademark displays of encouragement and a goal on his debut, has overcome any initial problems. Arena and Donovan both praised his work ethic and honesty last week.

"There have been instances, not in our franchise but in other teams, where people have come in and haven't taken it seriously and they've failed," Tom Payne says. "One thing about this league, and sports over here, is that there are athletes. If you're not here ready to work, you won't make it. It doesn't matter how good you are."

On his first day, the Galaxy staff asked Keane was there anything he needed at the training ground. He wanted one thing: a kettle.

Now there is a kettle at the Galaxy complex as well as PG Tips and Barry's Tea. Galaxy are going to be asking Keane for a lot more. He seems ready for the challenge.

"Robbie, we've got a meeting in two minutes." Landon Donovan sprints past the new signing who is leaning against the tunnel wall at the Home Depot Center, talking about the week he's had. Donovan offers a reminder of the quality that can be glimpsed in the MLS and of the changing face of football in America.

There was a time when it was a very different game. MLS was a 'Wild West' when Lalas came back to play -- under Frank Stapleton -- at the New England Revolution but before that there was NASL.

Clive Toye was the man who signed Pele for the New York Cosmos. He compares the approach of the two.

"The NASL was akin to getting on the wagon train and hoping we could build a nation," he says. "The MLS is akin to getting on a plane and complaining if it's a bit late." Toye says Pele was the man "who made so much possible." When asked via email about Beckham, he replies, "Who? Oh the chap who turns out for LA sometimes when he isn't off making personal appearances."

Beckham has played 20 times for the Galaxy this season, but few could deny Toye's essential point. The Galaxy once needed Beckham more than he needed them.

Keane will have to prove himself on both sides of the Atlantic. Everyone I spoke to dismissed the concerns about travelling, pointing out that Americans, north and south, do similar journeys all the time.

If anyone will be worried about jetlag at the moment it will be Galaxy. Keane misses a game against Kansas next Monday as he'll be in Moscow with Ireland and the club are trying to get him straight back from Russia so he's fresh for their home game against Colorado three days later.

The football world Keane enters is different from anything he has known and that's what he wants. He has a few friends playing for the New York Bulls and they told him to expect a physical challenge.

Keane gives the sense that nothing excited him about playing in England anymore.

"Sometimes you need different things in life, you need different challenges that will give you that little boost. To be going through the same routine again in England that I've done since I was 17. It was repetitive stuff for me. This is all new. It's a great place to live. Great town, great team.

"It's not the Premiership, of course it's not -- what is? The Premiership is the best league in the world but you've got people like Beckham and Landon Donovan, who could play in the Premiership. (Thierry) Henry came over, although maybe he was a bit older than me. I think David was the same age, maybe a year older than me. It's a thing that's grown and I want to be a part of that."

There was nothing he wanted to be a part of in England. "I'd have been going to a team that maybe would be top ten or mid-table or something like that. I was in the Premiership a long time and it just came at a good time for me. I had one year left on my contract at Spurs. I wouldn't want to come here when I was 34, 35 when I was kind of finished. I still have a lot to offer. I could have stayed in the Premiership but I've got a lot to offer. I want people to say 'he's done really well over here' rather than 'he's at the end of his career. He's 34 and his legs have gone'."

He has no plans to quit international football. "I'm committed to Ireland, which I've always been. You know that, I always have been since I've been 17. I don't pull out of games for the sake of pulling out, unless I'm out of a game with a genuine injury. For me, it's more or less the same. I'll play for the club and if we've got an international game I'll go back for it. For me, it's as simple as that unless somebody tells me otherwise."

Keane knows that even on the new frontier, there are old truths. Above all else, no matter what he does, he will be criticised. He knows what has been written about the move.

"I've been aware of a few little things. One or two people writing about it but ten people saying different things so it's not really . . . I've been playing since I was 17," he shrugs his shoulders and wonders if he can say what he really thinks. "It's just like, I don't really . . . to be honest . . . I don't really care."

Does he ever ask himself why he gets the flak? He shrugs again, then he stretches his arms out wide, his palms in the air, almost as if he has reached the point in one of his longer goal celebrations when he stands to accept the acclaim. He is signifying apathy but doing it with grand gestures. "It doesn't really bother me, that's being totally honest with you. As long as I keep scoring for Ireland, that's the most important thing."

He smiles. There are no doubts right now. Landon Donovan wants him in a meeting and then there is another day of LA sun, promising a land forever young, There is eternity here and the critics aren't among the chosen.

"As I said, if they're that worried about it and I'm not interested . . . If they're that bothered by me, then don't write about me. Simple."

Right now it's simple and new in California. He will face more questions and he will be tested physically in a league that may lack many things, but not the intensity of its examination. At this moment it all makes sense. But Keane soon will face the setting sun and that can never be eluded.

No matter what Los Angeles tells him about reinvention and endless youth, he can't avoid the truth that the sun always sets in the west.

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