Wednesday 17 January 2018

The great Robbie Keane mystery

"At this stage of my career," said Robbie Keane, "I can't afford to spend week after week on the bench waiting for a chance to impress in the closing stages of game."

He spoke those words in 2002, as a frustrated 22-year-old requesting a move from Leeds United, a club he joined after quickly becoming surplus to requirements at Inter Milan.

He could have uttered a similar sentence in 2005, when he was storming off the bench in disgust at his slide down the pecking order at Spurs, or in 2008, when his dream move to Liverpool rapidly developed into a nightmare.

Certainly, the quote wouldn't look out of place in a Robbie Keane interview in 2010. The only slight amendment is that, last week, Harry Redknapp couldn't even find a place for the Dubliner in his list of substitutes. A grim situation.

Why is it always this way with Robbie? It would be inaccurate to say that managers don't want him. Again, he will have his pick of clubs in January, with West Ham, Wolves, Aston Villa and Newcastle amongst those willing to request his services.

Leicester were knocked back in a cheeky loan bid, while you can be sure that Celtic would have him back at Parkhead in a heartbeat.

However, the story of Keane's career is that the thrill of the chase is followed by periods of frustration. He is a paradox, the prized asset that is often dispensable.

Yet again, we enter another transfer window hypothesising over the next step in the Tallaght man's career.

His story would make a great autobiography if he charted every nuance of the transfers and contract negotiations that have been a regular feature of his last decade, or revealed his theories on why certain managers showed him the door.

Keane probably wouldn't do that, though. It is one of the reasons why managers will always refer to the 30-year-old as a great pro.


He respects the code which decrees that you never reveal what goes on behind the dressing room door, unless it is to shower somebody with praise.

On Ireland duty in September, he approached journalists at the conclusion of a press conference to inform them that stories in the UK press which were circulating at the time -- suggesting he had a post match showdown with Harry Redknapp -- were nonsense. When Redknapp speaks about his deposed skipper, he goes over the top in his praise.

It's an unusual relationship.

For it is an inconceivable that an individual with a desire to line out every week could enjoy a harmonious relationship with a manager who has effectively been trying to get him out the door for the past 18 months.

Especially Keane, so notorious for his expressive behaviour on the pitch, particularly when disappointed with errant offside calls or stray passes from his team-mates. It's hard to imagine somebody with that mentality taking exclusion meekly.

Ultimately, though, Keane's problem is nothing to do with personality.

In truth, he has never been enough of an all-rounder to hammer down a position and make it his own at a club challenging for honours.

Leeds spent £13m to end his Italian exile, and then both David O'Leary and Terry Venables decided to build their forward line around Mark Viduka.

They preferred the versatility of Alan Smith and Harry Kewell in support. Keane is at his best in the predatory role, playing off the last line of defence. But Leeds couldn't find a regular spot for their purchase in that berth.

In his first stint at Spurs, the arrival of Jermaine Defoe provided Keane with serious competition.

Some managers tried to use him in a deeper role, and he even ended up in midfield under David Pleat, but it wasn't really suited to his strengths.

Martin Jol preferred Defoe for a period, partnering the Englishman with Fredi Kanoute or Mido in the archetypal 'little and large' strikeforce.

To his credit, Keane turned that around in 2006, producing arguably the best form of his career to unship Defoe who was eventually sold to Portsmouth. The arrival of Dimitar Berbatov provided a striking team-mate who roamed to good effect and helped create opportunities for Ireland's record goalscorer.

That precipitated his big money move to Liverpool, but Rafa Benitez -- leaving aside the politics which were a part of the transfer -- never really figured out to accommodate the new boy.

With Fernando Torres most effective as the forward most attacker, Keane frequently ended up out of position, sometimes in a wide role. Once again, his face didn't fit. They had bought the wrong player for what they needed.

At Spurs, he dirtied his bib with the forbidden Christmas party shenanigans in Dublin, but the hard truth is that Defoe is preferred by Redknapp, and has probably developed into a better option due to his pace, though even he isn't guaranteed a starting spot.

With a number of top clubs now choosing to operate with just one central striker, and a playmaker in behind, Spurs have entered important encounters with Rafael van der Vaart operating off Roman Pavlyuchenko or Peter Crouch. Keane has failed to provide a compelling case for change.

When asked the identity of his favoured strike partner over the course of his career, the name of Niall Quinn invariably pops up. Their combination worked as he could feed off the giant man's knockdowns.

Meanwhile, his hot streak of form for Ireland in 2009 was largely down to the industry of Kevin Doyle, and Giovanni Trapattoni's insistence that Keane should be buzzing around the box rather than taking throw-ins at the opposite end of the field, as he memorably managed in one game under Steve Staunton.

But Ireland have such a shortage of quality that successive managers have always endeavoured to build a team around their talisman.

At the top level of the English game, however, those with options at their disposal always seem to find an alternative with a greater range of attributes.

The reality for Keane is that, at this stage of his journey, his best chance of happiness is life as a big fish in a small pond. Perhaps that's always been the way.

Irish Independent

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