Football: Keane learns quickly how to dance with Wolves


Wolverhampton Wanderers have discovered a young Irishman who could become as big a hero in the Black Country as the legendary Steve Bull. Tomorrow, at The Valley, Robbie Keane expects to play his first FA Cup game. Phil Shaw reports.

The way Robbie Keane tells it, in his lilting Dublin brogue, the story of how he embarked on a life less ordinary is made for a Roddy Doyle screenplay in the same vein as The Commitments.

Scene one is a muddy park pitch surrounded by tight streets and flats. A crowd of boys, aged eight to 11, has gathered to form a new team. Its founder is surprised by the numbers that have turned up. He picks the bigger lads and turns the rest away.

Now this is a real-life drama, so let Keane tell it like it was. "Because I was one of the youngest there, I was left out," he recalls. "But when the manager turned his back, my brother Graham pushed me in with the ones he'd chosen. The manager didn't realise and I just went on from there."

The funny thing is that Keane - now 17 and playing for Wolverhampton Wanderers with such panache that he is being hailed as one of the most exciting Irish discoveries since George Best blew in from Belfast - still looks so youthful that he could almost play himself in the intervening years.

Keane (no relation to Roy, who is from Cork) was "a football-mad kid" who grew up a Liverpool fan in a close-knit working-class family. He remembers collecting World Cup stickers in 1990. When he was not acting out the role of David O'Leary in Genoa, coolly clinching the penalty shoot-out for the Republic against Romania, he was being Ian Rush or John Barnes.

Sometimes he watched Shamrock Rovers or Shelbourne, but what really fired his imagination was English football on television. He loved the FA Cup, wallowing in the wall-to-wall coverage of the final, and is "chuffed to bits" by the thought of making his debut in the competition in tomorrow's tie away to one of Wolves' rivals for promotion from the First Division, Charlton Athletic.

Keane will be roving across the front line, striving to add to the seven goals he has scored since Mark McGhee elevated him from the youth side to the first team on the season's opening day. However, had it not been for the intervention of another relative, his dancing feet might have been lost to the attacking arts.

"I'd started out as a right-back for two years," says Keane, clicking the metaphorical clapperboard for scene two. "When my Uncle Noel took over the team (called Fetteocaion, or Fedderkane as he pronounces it) he thought I was too skilful to play in defence. He put me up front, I scored a few goals and that was it."

From there it was on to Crumlin United, one of the city's best park teams. Scouts began inviting him for trials. When he went to West Ham it was the week Harry Redknapp took over from Billy Bonds. Nothing came of it.

At Leeds, his father's team, Keane and two other Irish hopefuls played in a practice match. "We all scored in a 3-0 win, but they weren't interested."

Wolves, Nottingham Forest and Liverpool were keener. It ought to have been no contest, but his parents warned him not to jump at Anfield simply because of his allegiance. "Wolves treated me and my parents brilliantly," he explains when asked what swung it for Molineux. "I also reckoned there would be more opportunity for me here."

Neither he nor McGhee, who inherited Keane from Graham Taylor, expected it to come so rapidly. "Robbie scored 36 goals in the youth team last season and had a couple of games for the reserves," the Wolves manager says. "When we saw him in pre-season training with his own age group, he was so good that he looked out of place."

Keane has not looked back. At Norwich he marked his First Division bow with two stunning goals and the celebratory cartwheel he has been doing "since I was small". His mum and dad cried when he scored.

After his winner against Middlesbrough, audaciously curled in from 25 yards, he cocked an ear to the acclaim. Andy Townsend, the Republic's captain, swallowed his disappointment and was the first to congratulate him at the end.

What makes Keane so special, to McGhee's mind, is his fluid movement and his touch. "Regardless of how the ball's delivered, Robbie sucks it in and keeps it. He's got good vision, can go past people and scores goals. There's also a lovely uninhibited quality. He's a true individual within the team framework."

His effervescence is not universally appreciated. Steve Bruce gave him a tough time. Swindon and Fulham (in the Coca-Cola Cup) left their mark. McGhee believes their rugged response owes more to Keane's precocity than a cynical approach by defenders.

"When there's a 50-50 ball, he'll try to nick it and come out clean. When he doesn't quite time it right, and can't flick it over someone or roll the tackle, he gets clattered."

Yet ask Keane if it is becoming harder, whether he needs to develop new tricks as his reputation spreads, and he says: "No. To be honest, it's getting easier. I'm still young, I'm still learning, so I just play my normal game."

While accepting that his prodigy has not proved himself at Michael Owen's level, McGhee is confident he would not be out of place in the Premiership even now. Mick McCarthy is no less sure that he will be an asset to the national side.

Wolves, though, are wary of risking future injuries to Keane, who is 5ft 10in and still growing, by placing him under undue physical strain. So he was rested for the third-round tie at Darlington. Despite a 4-0 win he was back in the side three days later.

"Some young players," says McGhee, "bring 50 per cent of what they need and you have to give them the rest. Others bring 75 per cent and you have to supply 25 per cent. Robbie brought 90 per cent. Maybe we'll give him five per cent and the other five will come through maturity."

Talking of percentages, Keane has signed two contracts since last season. One when he reached 17, the other after he established himself alongside Steve Bull in the company of Wolves. It had become obvious the club could no longer pay him a fraction of what colleagues were receiving.

The money has not gone to his head. He still calls Dublin home - "I'm only a phone call away and it's just 45 minutes by plane" - though he has treated himself to one symbol of his new-found status.

Keane's pride and joy is a gleaming blue Fiat Brava, and he has already passed his test. Premature as it may be to start scripting the final scene in a story which has barely begun, heading towards a dazzling future is no mean rehearsal for that time-honoured drive into the sunset.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power