Euro 2012: Despite Robbie Keane’s record, his report card reveals doubts

FOR as good and as popular as Robbie Keane has been down the years, the consensus is that he could, maybe should, have achieved more. Despite the goals and guile that marked him out as one of the most productive strikers in the English Premier League, he has had only limited success at the biggest clubs, won just two trophies – neither of them among the game’s most glamorous – and, since his ill-fated move to Liverpool in 2008, suffered quite a decline during what should have been the peak of his career.

If Keane’s life in football lacks fulfilment, he could go some way to rectifying that at Euro 2012, starting in Poznan this evening, when his Republic of Ireland team take on Croatia in their opening match. A year on from his controversial decision to join Los Angeles Galaxy shortly after his 31st birthday, the captain of Giovanni Trappatoni’s side has the chance to prove that he is still the striker he always was, that he can continue to make his presence felt at the highest level.

Keane is the classic victim of his own success. Here, after all, is a player who is 11th in the Premier League’s list of all-time goalscorers, a man whose instincts in the penalty box have attracted a combined total of £73m in transfer fees. Perhaps most influential in a role behind the main striker, he has been compared, by Trappatoni, to Francesco Totti, even Michel Platini.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

That, of course, is an exaggeration, but the Dubliner has produced some of his best work on international duty. Since helping Ireland win the under-18 European Championships in 1988, he has scored 18 goals in qualification for the Euros proper, a total beaten only by Turkey’s Hakan Sukur and Jon Dahl Tomasson of Denmark. In the last campaign alone, he grabbed seven, which only Dutch star Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Germany’s Miroslav Klose were able to eclipse.

Keane, in fact, is the most prolific international scorer in the British Isles, with 53 goals in his 117 appearances for Ireland. Three of them came at the 2002 World Cup finals, including his thrilling last-minute equaliser against Germany, one of only three goals conceded by the eventual runners-up that year.

What Keane didn’t know then was that it would be another decade before he experienced a major finals again. He scored in the famous play-off against France for a place in the 2010 World Cup but Thierry Henry’s notorious handball denied Ireland on that occasion, leaving Keane to reflect on a barren decade in international terms, at least compared to the exploits of his country under Jack Charlton.

Keane has been similarly frustrated at club level. Of course, he has been dazzlingly good at times, particularly in those early days at Wolves and Coventry City, as well as in his first spell with Tottenham Hotspur. Towards the end of that six-year stint, he was revered at White Hart Lane, where he won his only winner’s medal in Britain, the 2008 League Cup.

That, though, could not disguise the long stretches he had on the bench for Spurs, contributing to the impression that his unpredictable qualities were not what managers of the biggest clubs needed. When Keane was 20, Internazionale, left, signed him for £13m, only for Marco Tardelli, who replaced the sacked Marcello Lippi, to deem him surplus to requirements. Liverpool, too, changed their mind about the striker within six months of spending £20m to acquire him. For most of that time, he was a substitute, unable to persuade Rafael Benitez, who was engaged in a power struggle with the club’s board, that a team with Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard in it should be redesigned to accommodate him.

That turned out to be the worst move of Keane’s career, the one from which he has never recovered. Before long, he was back at Spurs, only to find that some of the fans were less than welcoming. Soon, he was shipped out on loan, firstly to Celtic, where he contrived, despite scoring 16 goals, to miss out on a trophy and be part of the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Ross County. Then, there was a temporary stint at West Ham United, where his exorbitant financial demands, together with a series of glaring misses that culminated in relegation for the London club, scuppered a permanent move.

And so, at a time when he should have been at his most valuable, Keane found himself sitting down last summer, wondering where he could get himself a regular game. Blackburn Rovers were interested, as were a couple of mid-table Premier League sides, but so too were LA Galaxy, where David Beckham had gone at a similar age. When Keane opted for the MLS, the perception was that he had made a mistake. With nothing attractive or lucrative enough on the domestic table, he had decided that it was as well to call it quits and see out his career in America, where he would be paid ¤2.75m a year, and his wife, Claudine, a lingerie model and prospective reality show contestant, could soak up the Hollywood lifestyle.

A bit harsh perhaps, but there is no mistaking the mixed feelings about Keane among some Ireland supporters, a problem alluded to by Tony Cascarino in an interview last month with L’Equipe, the French sports newspaper. “Robbie is considered a bighead by some Irish supporters,” said the former Ireland striker. “He’s had difficult moments with them. He’s not the same guy he used to be. Money has transformed him. In Ireland, people who change aren’t liked. But I like him a lot because I know another Robbie. He went for the money and it has changed his life totally. He should have stayed in England because there would always be a place for him in the Premier League. He would have scored more goals there.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In Keane’s defence, he has always been a player who needs regular starts. It is one of the reasons why he has left so many clubs so quickly. Sure, his MLS Cup success with the Galaxy last season, and his seven goals for them this term, will mean nothing against Croatia, Italy and Spain, but the move to America appears not to have hampered his international career. In the middle of his domestic season, he will be sharper than any of his team-mates when he lines up in the Stadion Miejski tonight. Shay Given, the Ireland goalkeeper, said that America seemed to have repaired Keane’s broken confidence, a view shared by the player himself.

In their first European finals since 1988, Ireland have a mountainous task in Group C, from which it will be almost impossible to progress if they do not secure at least a draw against Croatia tonight. Their 14-match unbeaten run is the product of a workmanlike squad, stuffy and difficult to beat and, if Keane can complement that with a dash of the old swagger, who knows what might happen?