What you don’t expect before a critical, tense-ridden international fixture is a mutual appreciation society to form between two of the significant combatants.
When asked by FourFourTwo magazine recently to select his greatest team from those he has both played with and under, Robbie Keane handed the manager’s job to Gordon Strachan.
The fee was a lot of money at the time. We got him from Mark [McGhee], who was Wolves manager. Of course, he tried his best to tell me he was rubbishGordon Strachan
Although he has also played for the likes of Marcello Lippi and Martin Jol, Strachan, who the striker worked with at Coventry and then Celtic, was the one to get the best out of him, Keane explained. The Scotland manager has now returned the compliment, describing Keane as the best young player he has ever worked with.
The pair will be reunited at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow evening in a clash between Scotland and Ireland that is critical to both teams’ chances of qualifying for Euro 2016. Keane, Ireland’s all-time leading goalscorer, is a potential spoke in Scotland’s wheel. If so, Strachan might rue the day he helped set a young Keane on his way to stardom.
At a cost of £6 million, the sum that turned Keane into English football’s most expensive teenager, you would expect the Irish striker, then only 18, to have been blessed with special qualities. Strachan considered the skinny youngster he enticed 16 years ago from Wolverhampton Wanderers to Coventry to be worth every penny of this surprisingly large transfer fee.
Alex Ferguson questioned Coventry’s decision to splash out such a large sum on the striker, describing him as worth only about £500,000. A year after moving to Coventry, Keane was sold on again to Inter Milan – for £13m.
Strachan was confident enough in the player’s ability to push on through with the move, even if he later admitted he was surprised Coventry had agreed to pay such an eye-catching fee for a striker who had only recently emerged on the scene at Wolves.
Intriguingly, Strachan got Keane from a club then managed by his great friend and current international assistant, Mark McGhee, who did his best to persuade his old Aberdeen team-mate that the striker wasn’t up to much. But Strachan was persistent, even though he originally thought he had hallucinated the news of Keane’s arrival at Highfield Road. Suffering with a fever, Strachan was consigned to bed as negotiations reached a climax.
“Actually, the chairman [Bryan Richardson] bought him,” recalled Strachan. “I had some sort of virus at the time. I had something terribly wrong with me and was in bed for two days. The chairman must have spoken to me when the virus first started. But after coming through it after 48 hours I said to him: ‘I had a dream we’d signed Robbie Keane.’ He said: ‘We are signing him, it’ll be done in the next couple of days.’ And I said: ‘Oh Jesus.’
“The fee was a lot of money at the time. We got him from Mark [McGhee], who was Wolves manager. Of course he tried his best to tell me he was rubbish!”
Strachan conceded that the transfer, at the price quoted, was a “gamble”. But the manager didn’t have to wait long to be satisfied that it was a gamble worth taking. Keane scored twice on his debut in a 2-0 win over Derby County. Keane’s team-mates were immediately impressed.
His talent was so outrageous he sometimes disrupted training. Players had to take time out to digest in admiration the latest little dink or feint that had left a hapless opponent flummoxed.
Asked if he is the most talented player he has ever worked with at that age, Strachan needed little hesitation. “Yeah, because of the whole package, which was just fantastic,” he said.
“He used to do things which were just incredible. He’d do things I’d been trying to teach kids for two or three years. He did this thing where he’d come in for the ball and then spin in behind.
“After watching him do it a couple of times, I said to him: ‘Who taught you how to do that?’ thinking it must have been a youth team coach. But he said: ‘Nobody’. I was like ‘okay, right, good.’ Well done to the Academy!”
“I just thought he was wonderful to watch,” added Strachan. “I remember [Coventry defender] Paul Williams laughing one day when Robbie stuck his mate, Richard Shaw, on his backside. Willo was laughing so much we had to stop the game, it was just fantastic. The boy just had so much natural ability.”
Although Strachan used the past tense, the bad news for Scotland is that Keane still has such talent. These rhapsodies about the player suggests Strachan might have devoted special time to the question of dealing with Keane this week in training. However, he has denied this.
In any case, there is no certainty the LA Galaxy player, who turns 35 next birthday, will play from the start, or, indeed, feature at all. He was introduced only as a late substitute in November, when Scotland gained a 1-0 victory over Ireland courtesy of Shaun Maloney’s stunning winner. Strachan, too, is unsure of opposite number Martin O’Neill’s plans. But he has a reasonable idea of the group from which he will select his starting XI.
“You are always on your toes when you are a manager,” said Strachan. “You never think I know what the team is going to be. I am looking at 13 players who he will pick 11 from. I don’t think any of us will be too far wrong if we picked those 13 players.”
As for both he and McGhee’s extensive knowledge of Keane’s strengths, might this be a bonus when it comes to figuring out ways to prevent him adding to his international tally of 65 goals?
Strachan doesn’t believe so. In this day and age, there are fewer secrets left. The Scottish defenders know just as much about Jonathan Walters and Shane Long, Keane’s forward colleagues, from playing against them and seeing them on Match of the Day.
“I don’t know if it helps at all,” said Strachan. “I think they [the Scottish defenders] have seen enough of Robbie to know what they are going to get. And they have seen enough of [Jonathan] Walters and [Shane] Long.
“Sometimes when you get squads together you have to do a lot of individual analysis,” he added. “But we know each other so well. And I don’t think there will be much in this game. If you look at the last game there was nothing in it – apart from the wonderful goal.”