Football: Remarkable rise of Keane the younger

Conrad Leach says Croatia should be wary of the prolific young Irish talent
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The Independent Online
THE CROATIA side who face the Republic of Ireland in Dublin this weekend could well feel they are having their legs pulled when they see the Irish team sheet before their Euro 2000 qualifier. One R Keane - Roy of Manchester United - is understandable, but to have two listed, well surely the Irish have made a mistake. Not true.

The only mistake made will be entirely Croatia's if, after their World Cup adventure when they finished third, Slaven Bilic, Davor Suker and company have neglected to do their homework on the other R Keane in the home side - Robbie of Wolverhampton Wanderers .

Perhaps the Croatians could be forgiven for not being glued to their televisions just two weeks after their World Cup debut had ended in such exhilarating fashion. But if any of them had flicked to Eurosport in late July they would have seen Robbie Keane scoring for the Republic against their compatriots in the European Under-18 championship in Cyprus, a tournament the Irish went on to win, against Germany, on penalties.

That was not his only contribution though, as the midfielder-cum-striker scored twice against the hosts and helped set up his country's goal in the final, before it finished with the shoot-out.

Given that he turned 18 only early last month, and his feats for his club - 11 goals last season - as well for his country, albeit not in a World Cup, there are already shades in Keane of another teenage wunderkind, Liverpool's Michael Owen.

Ireland's Under-18 coach Brian Kerr, who has worked with Keane for a year, agrees. "Comparisons between the two are fair," he said. "It was a pity even that Owen didn't play for England in Cyprus. It would have been very interesting to see.

"Owen is special but he works a bit closer to goal and around the penalty area whereas Robbie likes to come in late from midfield. But they are similar. Both have good close control, great pace and although they have slight frames they are able to handle the pushes and bumps. Also they both have very good temperaments, as they are not easily put off by players knocking them about."

It was the Wolves manager Mark McGhee who first gave the Dublin-born Keane his chance on the opening day of last season. Playing just behind the strikers he scored two goals on his debut, the first time anyone in the black-and-gold had done that since Ted Farmer in 1960. Not that McGhee will take much credit for Keane's lightning-quick progress: "It wasn't down to any great insight on my behalf. It was obvious to me he was better than the other players in training, so regardless of his age he deserved to play for the first team. Our defenders can't get anywhere near him."

Already for Keane the memorable goals are beginning to mount up - not unlike Owen. A volley on his club debut and then, this season, against Barnet in the Worthington Cup, when left tight on the byline with a shot apparently not worth considering, he conjured up a goal by flicking the ball over the goalkeeper.

Moreover, not only does he have skill and pace on his side, but he also possesses the art of good timing. As the senior Irish side have waned over the past two years, their manager, Mick McCarthy, has been forced to consider alternatives in attack. With John Aldridge retired and Tony Cascarino and Niall Quinn close to following them, Keane's goals last season forced McCarthy's hand.

Against the Czech Republic in March he became the second youngest debutant in his country's history. The following month he started, and starred, against Argentina. The Irish lost 2-0 but Keane, with his drive and fondness for nutmegging defenders, ran Ariel Ortega close for man of the match and, in some observers' eyes, made up for the absence of his Manchester United namesake. He won his third cap against Mexico in May.

Not that playing for the full international team before he was allowed to cast a vote or drink alcohol gave Keane any airs or graces when he went back to playing with his teenage team-mates in Cyprus. He did his fair share of donkey work in between games, lugging kit and balls around the training ground. It did not do him any harm - McGhee noted that he has put on more muscle - indeed he has stayed in the goal-scoring vein, with three already in five games this season.

Assuming he plays this weekend, Keane will have gone from Barnet to Bilic in a few short weeks, not that it is likely to worry him, as both Kerr and McGhee attest to his considerable self-confidence. Two R Keanes in the side - as Croatia will find - it's no joke.