Nomad: a person who does not stay long in the same place; a wanderer.
Clubs: Wolverhampton Wanderers, Coventry City, Inter Milan, Leeds United (loan & permanent), Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Celtic (loan), West Ham (loan), LA Galaxy, Aston Villa (loan), ATK
Countries played in: 5
Most professional footballers go through their whole career only having a handful of clubs. In fact, some manage to spend their whole career at one club. Being a one-club man is something than endears football players to a fan base and is generally seen as the ultimate display of loyalty. However, what about those players that don’t manage to settle. The players who don’t find a home in their short professional career and instead jump from club to club in a pursuit of challenges and success. This series looks at those players who are footballing nomads; wanderers.
For many kids growing up in Ireland, the dream is to one day play for one of Celtic, Liverpool or Manchester United. Well, at least up until recent years for the latter.
Luckily for Robbie Keane, he got to live out his dream not once but twice with spells at his so-called “boyhood clubs” Liverpool and Celtic forming part of a career that brought him from Dublin to Calcutta with multiple layovers en route.
Before his eventual move to Anfield, he turned down a move to the Reds as a 15-year old, instead moving to Wolverhampton Wanderers from Crumlin United. This decision was made based off the accurate assumption that first-team football would come more handily with the First Division outfit – his debut came little over a year later, with two goals against Norwich City signalling that a star was born.
His goal-scoring exploits in the ’97-98 and ’98-99 seasons, as well as the launch of his international career, inevitably caught the eye of Premier League clubs. In an at the time British record fee for a teenager, Coventry City parted with £6 million for the services of the Irishman. Like at Wolves, he got off to a flier with another two goals on his debut helping him land the Premier League player of the month for August ’99.
Coventry, then top-flight stalwarts under Gordon Strachan, played an attacking style that suited Keane to a tee. 12 league goals came in his maiden top-flight campaign – the pick a flicked winner past Arsenal’s David Seaman in a Boxing Day classic.
It was only a matter of time before the big boys came calling for such a prodigious talent, and so it proved – just not an English one as envisioned. Keane made a surprising but exciting move to Inter Milan for £12 million, joining Massimo Moratti’s band of superstars: Blanc. Zanetti. Seedorf. Vieiri. Ronaldo.
Sadly, things didn’t go to plan. Marcello Lippi was sacked after failing to progress past Swedish side Helsinborg in a Champions League play-off and an opening day league defeat. His replacement, Marco Tardelli, deemed Keane surplus to requirements, despite being without Ronaldo for the entirety of the 2000-2001 campaign. Ironically, Tardelli would later be Giovanni Trappatoni’s assistant with the Irish national team, one which Keane captained.
His Italian job lasted just six months, with three goals (none in Serie A) coming in 15 appearances. Moratti would later admit to viewing Keane as one that got away.
Refuge was sought at Leeds United in December 2000. Here, he joined multiple international team mates in England’s most exciting young side, managed by another Irishman in David O’Leary. Following an initial loan spell which yielded nine league goals, the move was made permanent for the cost of £12 million in June ’01.
His time at Elland Road lasted just one more season, as the signing of another Robbie, Fowler, and already-tough competition for places saw Keane struggle for game time. A hat-trick came in a 6-0 League Cup defeat of Leicester City at least.
Soon, the Yorkshire club found itself in financial ruin, as a result of chairman Peter Ridsdale’s reckless spending (on Keane, Fowler et al.) and a failure to offset this with Champions League qualification. A fire-sale ensued. Spurs benefited and Keane left at the start of the 2002-2003 season for £7 million. An absolute steal, given he’d just starred at the World Cup.
By the age of 22, Keane had secured a nomadic reputation, having already played for four clubs. At White Hart Lane, however, he found himself a home for six seasons. It would prove the most fruitful period of his career, and the club he is by far best remembered for.
Like anything at Spurs though, it didn’t come easy. Keane played under five different permanent managers, as well as David Pleat in a caretaker role for the bulk of the ’03-04 season, and often found his first-team spot under threat from new signings like Jermain Defoe, Frédéric Kanouté and Mido.
In possibly the most unlucky but most “Spursy” story ever, Keane was also one of ten players struck down by food-poisoning prior to a final-day game against West Ham with Champions League qualification in their hands. Unsurprisingly, Spurs lost and it’s up for debate whether Robbie’s eaten Lasagne since.
Regardless, Keane’s first stint at Spurs was a major success. 107 goals in 254 appearances. Top scorer four times. Player of the Year three times. Scorer of the most Premier League goals in 2007 (19). His sole medal in European club football, the League Cup in 2008.
That success, and the best two season of his Spurs career, came with the arrival of, and dovetail with, Dimitar Berbatov. Undeniably the best strike partnership in the Premier League from 2006-2008, their double act was best showcased and rewarded with a joint Player of the Month in April 2007. This was Keane’s third – with a third club, after Coventry and Leeds. A unique and fitting feat.
The duo would both move to the North-West in the summer of 2008, Berbatov to United and Keane to Liverpool, for a £20 million fee.
The second “big club” move of his career unfortunately went like his first, as he lasted just six months on Merseyside. Seemingly not signed by Rafa Benitez, Keane was a square peg in a round hole, never fitting into the Spaniard’s tactical plan. It didn’t help that his first goal didn’t come until October and intended strike-partner Fernando Torres had begun to rack up injuries. Nonetheless, it was bizarre to sell him back to Spurs, for £8 million less, in the middle of a title-challenging campaign, and just after the goals had started to come.
His second stint at Spurs came as part of Harry Redknapp’s prodigal son purchase plan – Defoe and Pascal Chimbonda also returned in January 2009 – but didn’t last long. Bar a four-goal haul versus Burnley, it never felt the same and he soon fell down the pecking order.
He departed for Celtic in January 2010 on a six-month loan. In an otherwise desperate season for The Hoops, Keane proved himself a cut above, finishing as the club’s top scorer and winning their Player of the Year award after playing just 19 games.
A second loan followed a year later, this time across London to West Ham. A return of two goals from nine games did nothing to stop the Irons’ impending relegation.
In a bit of a surprise, as he was just 31 and still Ireland’s best player and captain, Keane moved to the MLS in 2011, joining David Beckham at LA Galaxy. Like at Celtic, but at a much lower level, he was far too good for the league and bagged multiple individual awards as well as three MLS Cups in five years stateside. 104 goals came in just 165 appearances, and he even fitted in a brief loan spell with Aston Villa in 2012 in a bid to stay sharp ahead of Euro 2012.
His career finished off in one of the odder spots – the Indian Super League. Six more goals for the mighty ATK of Calcutta came, totalling his club tally at 325 in a career spanning 20 years.
At international level, Keane is in a different stratosphere to anyone else who has played for Ireland when it comes to goals. His record of 68 is over three times the number of Niall Quinn in second. He is the only Irish player in the Premier League “100 club”.
As well as this, he is the owner of the highest fee ever paid for an Irish footballer, and, more importantly, one of the most iconic celebrations of recent times.
His post-playing career has seen him move into coaching, following on from his brief stint as player-manager with ATK. He assisted Mick McCarthy with the national team, as well as old team-mate Jonathan Woodgate at Middlesbrough. In a topic of much discussion in Ireland, following McCarthy’s exit and Stephen Kenny’s appointment, Keane has been without a coaching position but remains on the Football Association of Ireland payroll.
In his current spare time, he can be found moonlighting as a pundit on Sky and commenting on near every single Instagram post from fellow footballers.
He’s sure to make another move soon – it’s what he does.