It's May 1996. Robbie Keane is just 15 – and still 15 months away from signing his first professional contract as a footballer. On the streets of Tallaght, the sprawling town absorbed into the south-west of Dublin, his reputation is growing even if all eyes are elsewhere. It's FA Cup final day and Keane's beloved Liverpool - cream suits, Spice Boys, Stan Collymore and all – are playing Manchester United.
"The match that stands out most for me," Keane said yesterday when asked of his memories of Wembley stadium, "was that United final when Cantona scored [and won a dire game 1-0]. It's every kid's dream, even in Ireland, to play at Wembley. I dreamt of playing there. I'm no different. Every kid growing up on the street talked about Wembley, and hoped one day to play there."
Tomorrow, almost 12 years later, he finally gets his chance, as Tottenham Hotspur face Chelsea in the Carling Cup final, to fulfil that dream. In the intervening years Keane has driven past – and got lost nearby – Wembley several times but has never trodden on the turf. It's an oddity that such an accomplished player has had to wait so long. And it's also a curiosity that, as he lines up for Spurs, he will be partnered in attack by Dimitar Berbatov who is, perhaps, the player closest in style and confidence to come to these shores since Eric Cantona's retirement.
"He has everything," Keane said of the Bulgarian, who he readily agreed is the best strike partner he has had in a career that took him on a whirlwind tour of Wolves, Coventry, Internazionale – where he played alongside Christian Vieri – and Leeds United before settling at Spurs in 2002. "He can go short, long, he holds it well, can see a pass and his assists are unbelievable," the 27-year-old added of Berbatov. "His all-round game is a different class." But what of that Cantona comparison? "He has that style, if you like, in the way that he plays," Keane acknowledged. "To be mentioned in the breath as Cantona – phew – is something as he was the best around. But Berba has that style of Cantona."
Keane is less comfortable when talking about his own style, but is clearly pleased to hear that Jonathan Woodgate, Spurs' latest recruit, rates the duo's prolific partnership – 36 goals so far, this season with the Irishman accounting for 20 of those – as the best in the Premier League. "We do complement each other the way we play," Keane said. "We read each other quite well." Indeed, such is their understanding that the Spurs midfielder Jermaine Jenas said that he has often seen the pair pass the ball to each other without looking.
If the telepathy is in tune tomorrow, then it could be some final. Given that Spurs are also coached by the "cup king" Juande Ramos, who has built up a formidable reputation, not least in knockout competitions, then the chances of a victory in their first Wembley final in nine years should not be dismissed.
Unsurprisingly Keane has been impressed by the Spaniard's work. "His attention to detail is very good," he said. "He's a manager who, if you are in a final, you'd want with you because he's been there and he's done it. That gives the players confidence, also. The way he wants us to play suits the players we have – attacking players, Lennon, Malbranque."
Indeed, Keane said, Ramos made an immediate impression after replacing Martin Jol, albeit in messy circumstances, last autumn. In the first team meeting it was clear the club had recruited a force to be reckoned with. "The first 10 minutes he came in and he told the team what he wanted us to do," Keane said. "They were simple things that we already knew. We knew what to do but it was to push it into our heads a bit. That first 10 minutes everyone was impressed. He came with a presence because of what he had done at Seville."
That presence also involves clear, detailed and – crucially – simple instructions. Spurs are more organised, more athletic (although Keane is reluctant to discuss the debate over the players' weight) and, importantly, mentally tougher. "The neutrals like the underdogs to win and people will see us as that, given the history Chelsea have over the last few years of winning trophies," Keane said. "Everyone will probably want to see Tottenham win, but that means nothing. We're desperate to win something. There aren't many players in that dressing room who have won things. So we'll be going out there on Sunday desperate. There's nothing worse for a player than the feeling after getting beat in a league game. You can times that by 100 in a final."
Strong performances against Arsenal and Manchester United have also seen confidence soar. Reaching a final, after so many near misses under Jol, is a significant landmark but, Keane added, is not the goal. "It shows we are going in the right direction," he said. "We haven't been there for a while but, with the squad we have, we should be aiming to get to finals. In the next few years you will see even more improvements with this squad."
A significant improvement to this team would be the return of Ledley King. If the defender plays it will not only enhance Spurs' chances but also mean Keane is no longer captain – and would not lift the trophy in victory. Not that he will do so even if King doesn't play. "Ledley's the captain, he's a born and bred Tottenham fan who came through the ranks," Keane said. "Ledley will do it." It would provide another rich Wembley memory.
1967 and all that: When Spurs won the 'Cockney final'
Spurs and Chelsea will walk out at Wembley tomorrow 41 years after their last Cup final meeting. Bill Nicholson's side defeated the West Londoners 2-1 in the 1967 FA Cup as Tottenham lifted the trophy for a fifth time.
The White Hart Lane side went into the showpiece event on a four-month unbeaten run and were strong favourites to take home the trophy for a third time in six years.
Leeds and Nottingham Forest lost in the semi-finals, making it the first all-London final, referred to since as the 'Cockney final'.
In a dull first half Spurs enjoyed most of the play and went ahead a minute before half-time. Chelsea failed to clear a free-kick and Jimmy Robertson volleyed past Peter Bonetti from 18 yards.
Spurs continued to lay siege to the Chelsea goal after the break and increased their lead half-way through the half.
A Dave Mackay throw was headed back into the box by Robertson for fellow midfielder Frank Saul to find the net with a smart shot on the turn.
The play deteriorated in the final 20 minutes as heavy rain affected the Wembley turf. A late Bobby Tambling header, steered over the onrushing Pat Jennings, proved mere consolation for the Blues as Spurs emerged victorious.
Tottenham Hotspur: Jennings, Kinnear, Knowles, England, Mackay, Mullery, Robertson, Venables, Saul, Greaves, Gilzean.
Chelsea: Bonetti, A Harris, McCreadie, Hinton, R Harris, Hollins, Cooke, Tambling, Boyle, Baldwin, Hateley.
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