Bemused and bruised, but sanguine, Robbie Keane yesterday attempted to look forward to his second life at Tottenham, rather than backward to his ill-fated sojourn on Merseyside.
Yet, tempting as the prospect of leading Spurs out in tomorrow's north London derby may be, it was impossible to avoid picking over the entrails of his sobering six months at Liverpool.
"I'm as baffled as you are," said Keane as he revealed the background to his rapid return to White Hart Lane. Slowly he told of a dream turning sour, of an uncommunicative manager, of a confused, and ultimately rejected player. "Sometimes," he said, with the clear vision of hindsight, "the grass is not always greener on the other side."
As Kevin Keegan, one of Keane's predecessors in the Liverpool No 7 shirt once said in a different context, it was "not like it said in the brochure". Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, sold Keane a vision of playing behind Fernando Torres in a split-striker attack. Partly due to the Spaniard's injury problems, and in part due to Steven Gerrard's excellent form as a second striker, it did not turn out like that.
"I was left playing on my own up front or left wing sometimes which is not my game," Keane said. "Everyone can see I was played out of position a few times, so I'm not speaking out of turn by saying that."
Keane tried not to attack Benitez, though the Liverpool manager has been critical of him, justifying his sale, on which Liverpool made a loss variously estimated at £4m to £8m, as good business because Keane had not delivered and was only going to decline further in value. The striker, Benitez intimated, was not able to cut the mustard at such a big club.
After Harry Redknapp, the Spurs manager, had taken issue with the suggestion Tottenham were not also a "massive club", Keane responded: "That's up to Rafa what he wants to say. I'm not going to get into a feud with anybody. I'm too big for that. I respect Rafa, unfortunately I didn't fit into the way he wanted to play football. Maybe under another manager it would have been different."
"Did he explain to you at any stage why you were being left out of the squad?" "No."
"Did he explain to you why he was selling you?" "No."
"Did Rafa ever say what you needed to do?" Keane responded at greater length to this question but the essential answer remained "No", in the sense that any instructions given were part of general team talks rather than a case of Benitez sitting Keane down and explaining exactly what he wanted from him.
Keane added: "I was doing everything I could possible to play football and do well for the team. If I'd been a bad egg I could understand but I never had one bad word to say about anybody there. I never had a problem with the manager. I was never late for training. I came in every day and worked me socks off. Sometimes the manager doesn't fancy you. You're probably as baffled as I am."
It all came to a head when Keane was left out of the 18-man squad for the first FA Cup tie against Everton 13 days ago. Keane, who has played senior football for 12 years, said: "I'd never been left out of the squad before, not since I was 17. Being left out the squad was severely disappointing. As a player I love being involved and playing games and to have that taken away was difficult. I believe that I should have been in the squad, I believe in my ability and that I should have played a lot more games. The fact is I didn't. The manager had his own opinions on the way he wanted to play football, it's as simple as that."
But was it? Keane added, pointedly: "I want to be treated the same as everyone else. I think I've proven over the last 10 years that I'm quite capable of doing the job and scoring goals. If you look at my record and compare it with most of the players ahead of me [in the case of the Everton match notably David Ngog and Ryan Babel], I think it's probably a little bit better."
Despite being frozen out at Anfield, Keane made enough appearances to qualify for a Championship medal should Liverpool win the Premier League. A consolation?
"It wouldn't really mean anything to me," he said, adding that would still have applied if he was at Liverpool but not playing regularly. "As a player you want to be involved, if not you don't feel part of it."
So what would he do with a medal if he received one? There is a pause, then he says: "My brother's a Liverpool fan, so I'd probably give it to him. But he's a Tottenham fan now."
Keane also grew up a Liverpool fan, which is why he was so keen to move in the summer, upsetting Daniel Levy, the Tottenham chairman. All that, he insisted, was behind him now. He and the chairman had remained good friends. Keane was also confident that Spurs' fans would forgive him his elopement, citing the ovation he received when he played at White Hart Lane in November.
"This club is close to my heart," Keane said. "I've had the best period of my career here and it is the only one I would have come back to. I'm training with a smile on my face again."
The last line suggests he was not doing that at Melwood. It is interesting, too, that he cites Gerrard and Jamie Carragher as the two friends he made in the Liverpool dressing room, the only Englishmen. Meanwhile Jermaine Jenas, Jonathan Woodgate and Michael Dawson had been ringing him up, asking him to "come back to Spurs". Keane literally never settled on Merseyside. "I rented a house," he said, "and I hadn't sold my one down here, so I've moved back in. It was fated."
Maybe it was, but Arsène Wenger did not anticipate Keane lining up in the opposition tomorrow. "It was one of the major surprises of the transfer window," the Arsenal manager said yesterday. "When he played for Liverpool against us he played very well [and scored]. It was quick, six months to say, 'No, he will not make it'."
Wenger added: "He's very similar to [Robin] Van Persie, to Eduardo [da Silva], to [Carlos] Vela so we never considered moving for him, he plays off the striker, and now we have [Andrei] Arshavin as well. We have plenty of players in that area."
Intriguingly, so do Spurs. Jermain Defoe, though a forward, plays off a twin striker rather than leads the line. Luka Modric is at his best between the lines, where Keane likes to play. Having left Liverpool because he was not playing regularly, has Keane been given any guarantees of selection? And how does Redknapp intend to incorporate Keane and Modric in the same team, especially for away games, given he recently suggested he would pair Wilson Palacios and Didier Zokora?
"It's up to me to get into the team," Keane said. "As long as I'm given an opportunity to show what I can do, and get the 90 minutes [which rarely occurred at Liverpool], then I know for a fact I can do a job. I've done that in the past and I don't have to prove that to anybody."
Redknapp said: "I don't think it is difficult to integrate Robbie and Modric together, even in training this morning you could see they were on the same wavelength. There's no doubting Robbie is a competitor, but the little guy is also a terrific competitor. He played central midfield last week against a strong physical team [Stoke] and he ran the game, so I think they'll enjoy playing together."
Keane, added Redknapp, had been made captain because of his enthusiasm and his willingness to speak up in what is a quiet dressing room. "He's a fantastic player, and a fantastic character. I've always loved the way he plays the game and I was surprised he was allowed to leave.
"Training has been brighter this morning. He scored a couple of fantastic goals and everyone looked around. He's given everyone a lift."
Meanwhile, back at Anfield, Benitez ponders who to play behind Torres while Gerrard is lame. "It's not my problem now, is it?" Keane said. "I'm not concerned about Liverpool. I'm fully focused on doing well with Tottenham."
Keane as mustard: Robbie's career statistics
Keane's transfer record
*Aug 1999 Wolves to Coventry City, £6m
*Aug 2000 Coventry City to Internazionale, £13m
*May 2001 Internazionale to Leeds United, £12m
*Aug 2002 Leeds United to Tottenham, £7m
*July 2008 Tottenham to Liverpool, £20.3m
*Feb 2009 Liverpool to Tottenham, £12m
*TOTAL SPENT £70.3m
Keane's Liverpool stats
*Days at Anfield 189
*Substitute appearances 5
*Played 90 min 4
*Left out of squad 8
Keane's Liverpool goals
*1 Oct 2008
1 v PSV (CL, h) Won 3-1
*22 Oct 2008
1 v A Madrid (CL, a) Drew 1-1
*8 Nov 2008
2 v W Brom (PL, h) Won 3-0
*21 Dec 2008
1 v Arsenal (PL, a) Drew 1-1
*26 Dec 2008
2 v Bolton (PL, h) Won 3-0Reuse content