"This is it then; it's ours. Robbie Keane - Jesus, he's still a kid - just takes the ball, puts it down and wham. Not a second thought. Then it's over. Final whistle." Niall Quinn: The Autobiography
That was Suwon. Last year, the World Cup finals. Spool back and it is Italia 90. Quinn is in Rome, Keane is in the streets of Tallaght, in the sprawling council estate in south-west Dublin where he was raised. The kid really is a kid. And he wants to be Niall Quinn, he wants to be John Aldridge. He collects all the stickers. And he dreams. "When I came home from school it was bag straight down, uniform still on and out until I got a call for me dinner and then straight back out again until it was time to go to bed. I love football, you know. It's a joy to play."
As Robbie Keane recalls memories of two World Cups, it's as one. He hasn't changed a bit. He is that boy, then and now. He has the same joy of playing the game. And so, when training is over at Tottenham Hotspur, the young man, for whom £38m in transfer fees have been paid, returns to his Hertfordshire home. It is, literally, bag straight down and into the back garden. "I like to have a little mess, do a few tricks," he says. "I've got a little goal out there."
Tallaght was a poor area. Facilities were few. The one thing it did have was fields. Lots of them. "Football is my life," Keane says. "I play football as I played in the park back home. Just enjoying it, running about. Of course it's different now, but the way I play I like to express myself and enjoy my football. I've always done that since I was a kid. The way I play doesn't really change. That's the way I am."
Keane is, of course, still a kid. Just 23. But with 45 international caps and a lifetime of experience crammed into his six years as a pro. "I know," he says when asked about his age. "Actually in training today I was talking to Bobby Zamora and he said he couldn't believe I was only 23. He was asking what it was like being around so long."
It's his calmness. His self-possession. Spend an hour with him and it's clear. "I don't let things worry me. If I was having a bad time I wouldn't let it affect me, I just carry on playing football. Of course everyone has had times, or a few games, when you don't score a goal but I just get on with it. I'm not one of those who sits and hides."
So when Ireland, 1-0 down, get a penalty in the dying seconds in the World Cup against Spain he wants it. "I was just enjoying it. I'd scored in the two games before that and my confidence was high, and going into the game I really believed we were going to win. And we should have beaten them. I was very confident with the penalty. I just knew I was going to score for some reason. I always feel that when I play I'm going to do something. If you don't, you've got no chance." No wonder Niall Quinn simply said "Jesus".
Where does it come from? "My family - my mum and dad and my brother as well," Keane says. "My whole family. They were always behind me when I went away to England even though it was hard for them to let me go. They always made sure everything was OK."
His father, Robbie Snr, died earlier this year just as Keane was about to set off with the Republic of Ireland for the Euro 2004 qualifiers in Georgia and Albania. "They say time is a healer and, obviously, it was hard. But when I do play, I play for him," he says.
And so, after the funeral, he got on a plane and flew to Tirana. And played. "I just wanted to," he says. "He would have wanted me to go, my mum said that. He wouldn't want me to be sitting back home watching it on my backside. He knew that every game I wanted to be involved. I would have been no good to anyone just watching it."
The blood ties are strong. The Keane family live in the same street in Tallaght that they have done for the past 20-odd years. "They are happy there and I love going back," he says. "My sister lives at the end of the road, my brother lives up the road and I've got a place of my own. Even though I've got one I never stay there, I'm always at my mam's house. Just because I play football doesn't mean they have to move. They've got all their friends there and are happy there so when I go home it's just, 'Howya doing Robbie?' The people who are living there are just the same to me."
Keane almost didn't make it as a footballer. Almost didn't leave Tallaght. "When I was younger, before I was 15, I got overlooked," he explains. "A lot of people - scouts, people from the Irish team - said I was too small, too weak. I never played for the Irish team until I went to an under-16 tournament in Austria. It was my first call-up and it was only because someone got injured. Every week I was playing for the team I was playing for, Crumlin United, and I was top goalscorer. Through the whole league - and I still never got picked."
The scouts finally came calling. Keane went to five clubs - Nottingham Forest, Leeds United, West Ham United (who never got back to him), Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool. He was a Liverpool fan - "more a fanatic. I had posters all over the walls, bedsheets, everything". But he turned Anfield down. "They wanted to sign me. But my mam and dad said to me, 'Don't just go to Liverpool because you support them, go somewhere where you feel more comfortable, more at home'. And that was Wolves. I went to Liverpool and saw my heroes Ian Rush and John Barnes and watched them train. It was a dream come true. It was a tough decision to make, but where was I going to get into the first-team quicker? And that was Wolves." The love of the game.
His career has been a whirlwind. Two goals on his debut, an international at 17, taking the man-of-the-match award ahead of Gabriel Batistuta, and five clubs in six years - but not one transfer request. He's simply been in demand. "It's all right - it's not my money," he says. "It's fine if people pay that money for me. I just want to play football and the transfers haven't much to do with me."
So Wolves sold him for £6m - the most expensive teenager in British football. He gives a potted history of his career after that. "So I got an opportunity to play under a great manager in Gordon Strachan at Coventry. And then one of the biggest clubs in the world [Internazionale] came calling. Only a fool would have turned that down - an opportunity to learn so much, and I certainly did."
He moved to Milan - taking a friend from Tallaght with him - and roomed with Clarence Seedorf and was friends with Christian - "Bobo, we call him" - Vieri. "But then it was the first game and the manager got sacked," Keane says. "They seem to be like that in Italy. [Marco] Tardelli came in and wanted his own people.'
He was out - along with "10 or 12 others". "Who knows, if Marcello Lippi had stayed I may have played a lot because of all the pre-season games and the Cup games I had done. When he was there things were going well, but suddenly football can change. Tardelli wanted to change it and that was his choice. Of course you don't want to be somewhere where you are not playing," he says.
It's a theme that recurs. Lippi says he has never encountered a footballer who needs to play so much. "I love football and it is no good me just going training, I want to be playing every week. David O'Leary came in and I moved to Leeds and things went well for me there for the first season. I scored nine in 14 starts and the following year he just decided to play other people ahead of me and I was on the bench quite a lot. I'm not one of these people who likes to sit on the bench and be happy to pick up my money. There are a lot of people like that but, for me, I wasn't playing enough."
The World Cup was approaching. "I just kept myself ticking over and did my own extra training. Before the World Cup I wasn't playing and I wasn't happy with that. There were good strikers there [at Leeds] but maybe in the second year I didn't get a proper chance. I spoke to the manager about it, of course. One week I was playing, and scoring, and the next I was on the bench. It was frustrating.
"It's amazing how things can change. I was happy at Leeds and the people were great and when I did come on the fans would give me a good reception. But when you are not playing, it's just horrible. Regardless of being a Premiership footballer, if I was playing Sunday league and was on the bench then I wouldn't be happy."
He sounds remarkably like that other young Irish player Damien Duff, who was the victim of some extraordinary media spin earlier this season for simply saying he didn't like being substituted at Chelsea.
"It could be a lot worse," Keane says. "He could have turned round and said, 'I don't want to play this week, I want a rest'. That's not normal." He goes on: "I know Duffer, he's a good friend of mine and a great player. Of course Chelsea have got a big squad and some tremendous players there but, believe me, Damien is one of the best players at that club. Damien is just like me - he loves to play football and no one should be happy on the bench and getting chopped and changed." It's said with incredulity at the mere thought of it.
Unfortunately, neither player will be at Euro 2004 after Ireland's failure in Switzerland last month. "You get a taste for something, and a lot of us got a taste for the World Cup, and we wanted to get that again and the championships are the next best thing. I was desperate to play."
The defeat in Basle is already being erased from his memory. "Brian [Kerr, Ireland's manager] said a few things afterwards but to be honest I can't remember - I was just so devastated."
Now he is at Spurs, signed by Glenn Hoddle on a four-year deal the summer before last. ("I don't know who's going to replace him. I've heard 15 names so far," Keane says of the now sacked manager, someone he feels was a little harshly treated. "Our luck was always going to turn. Maybe it was a bit sudden.")
"I'm enjoying my football. I always enjoy my football when I'm playing every week." He adds: "You know, you hope to be a footballer, you dream of being a footballer but really you never think it is going to happen."
Keane is regarded as a Tottenham-type of player but says, "I haven't a clue what that means. You can tell me, if you like. A lot of people say that to me."
Then he offers, "Maybe I think they like someone who can do a little bit different and that's my game. I like to come off and get involved, do a few tricks. That's the way I've always been."
Whether it is at White Hart Lane, South Korea - or on the streets of Tallaght.
Robbie Keane the life and times
Born: 8 July 1980 in Dublin, Ireland.
26 July 1997: Signs his first professional contract at Wolverhampton, where he stays until August 1999. Partners Steve Bull up front, scoring 29 times in 87 appearances. Labelled "wonderkid", and larger clubs quickly develop an interest.
20 August 1999: Sold to the then Premiership side Coventry for £6m. Quickly impresses in the top flight, scoring 12 goals in 34 games.
1 July 2000: Takes a massive career leap, joining the Serie A side Internazionale for £13m, but has trouble adapting to the Italian league. He makes only six appearances, without scoring, and leaves on loan to Leeds.
20 December 2000: Arrives at Elland Road, where he spends six months on loan and instantly rediscovers his goal-scoring form with eight goals in 18 appearances.
25 April 2001: After he has performed consistantly well for Leeds during his loan spell, the club's manager, David O'Leary, signs him for £12m.
31 July 2002: Partly due to 15 months of mixed fortunes at Leeds, in which he managed 19 goals in 56 games, and partly due to financial trouble brewing at Elland Road, he is made available for transfer. One month later he is picked up by Tottenham for £7m. Makes an immediate impact at White Hart Lane, scoring 13 in 32 games.
They say: "He is world-class, and a down-to-earth lad too - and as long as he keeps it that way then he'll keep on getting better." Keane's Spurs and Ireland team-mate Stephen Carr.Reuse content