Football: Keane learns quickly how to dance with Wolves

FA CUP COUNTDOWN

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.

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