There are numerous phrases, sayings and a generally held notion that you shouldn’t ever get too comfortable anywhere as, for some reason, it’s bad for you. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say. A change is as good as a rest, another common one. But as I sat watching Roberto Soldado lead the line for Villareal against Liverpool in Thursday night’s Europa League Semi Final, I couldn’t help but feel that the widely-held notion about comfort being a negative is a bit of a misnomer.
As perfectly illustrated in Sid Lowe’s piece on the Spanish striker in The Guardian this week, Soldado is a great example of things going just fine for a player who feels comfortable in his own skin and in his surroundings. As Sid, and Roberto himself, point out, a lack of happiness in a two year spell at Tottenham Hotspur saw the former Valencia man unable to reproduce the form that got him signed for £30 million. It was only when he returned to his native Spain that he was somewhat able to recapture his form. And that got me thinking about a man who, under similar circumstances, has had peaks and troughs his form despite undeniable talent.
Hailing from Dublin and a product of the famous Crumlin United Schoolboys, Robbie Keane began his senior career at Wolverhampton Wonderers in 1997. Scoring two goals against Norwich City on his debut, Keane would go on to perform admirably in the next two years, scoring an impressive 24 goals in 73 appearances for the Midlands club. Colin Lee, then manager of Wolves, described the ball control and skill Keane possessed as ‘unbelievable’. Loved and valued at Molineux, Keane repaid that faith with hard work and as prolific a scoring rate as could be expected for a club not always challenging at the top of the table in the then Division One.
So valued was Keane by Wolves’ fans, that CEO John Richards incurred their wrath by selling Keane to Premier League outfit Coventry City in 1999, despite making the young Irish 19-year-old the most expensive teenager in British football history at the time. Receiving a £6 million fee didn’t appease the fans, much less what they saw as misuse of the funds in the aftermath.
In much the same manner as he had done at his previous club, Keane opened his account with two goals on his debut and would go on to score 12 goals in 34 appearances for the club. After only a single season, however, the Dubliner’s meteoric rise would continue, with him earning an unexpected move to Italian giants Inter Milan, where he would have the chance to team up with the best striker in world football at the time, Ronaldo. Nevertheless, then-Cov manager Gordon Strachan would underline the great affection the club had for Keane and what he had done in his time there in a manner only the Scot could;
“Robbie is very special to us. I’m just hoping Robbie doesn’t like the San Siro, doesn’t like the wages and wants to come back here.”
So far, so successful for Robbie Keane. Two clubs where he settled in nicely and showed exactly what he could do. Of course, at Wolves it wasn’t overnight success – he was signed at 13 and would be in the club’s youth system for four years before making his senior debut but once in the team, there was no doubt he was able to cement his place thanks to years of nurturing and carry that on at Coventry.
Unfortunately, here’s where it all goes a bit sour….
As is well documented, Keane’s time in Italy didn’t go to plan. He was described by manager Marcello Lippi as the best young player he could see in the transfer market that summer but when Lippi was sacked only 3 months into Keane’s time in Milan, it was clear the Irishman’s days there were numbered and he would leave the Nerazzuri having made only 6 first team appearances. As Keane himself said, he regrets his time there not working out better;
“I wanted it to work in Italy. I was working hard in training and it went well when Mr Lippi was there. But the new manager (Marco Tardelli) had his own ideas and I wasn’t in them.”
Compatriot David O’Leary attempted to save Keane from his misadventures in mainland Europe by bringing him to Leeds Utd on loan in October 2000, making the deal permanent in May 2001 after the striker netted an impressive 9 goals in 18 appearances. Despite this, however, Keane would struggle to maintain his place in a side featuring the up-and-coming talents of the likes of Alan Smith, Harry Kewell and Michael Bridges who were all, at the time, seen as the future of the club. Keane’s woes were compounded when the Elland Road outfit were forced to sell him amid the well-documented financial issues that would eventually lead to the club’s relegation under the watch of the much maligned Peter Risdale.
By the time the Keane swapped the Yorkshire dales for North London and Tottenham Hotspur, it had been two years since he had experience the settlement and affection of a club and it’s supporters that had brought out the best in him. Since leaving Coventry City, the struggle to maintain a place and a regular run in any first team had a negative impact on a player where form was everything. Then Republic of Ireland Mick McCarthy said as much on hearing of his star striker’s move to White Hart Lane;
“I’m happy for him if it works out because we see the best of Robbie when he’s playing regularly.”
But at Spurs, everything changed. Keane would go on to make over 200 appearances for the club in two spells, scoring over 90 goals and, despite never appearing in any of the club’s strongest sides, is remembered by Spurs fans for his loyalty and undeniable ability.
Keane finds himself in a similar situation on the west coast of America these days, in his current guise as captain of LA Galaxy. Armed with the trust and admiration of the fans and many MLS co-stars, Keane currently has an incredible 74 goals in 110 appearances and 3 MLS Cups to boot.
What’s clear about Robbie Keane is that where he is wanted, he rewards those who put faith in him with goals and performances that show what he’s truly capable of. When this hasn’t been the case, as in Italy and during an ill-fated and expensive flop period at Liverpool, it’s been clear Keane has craved what they couldn’t provide – comfort and and environment in which he could thrive. In LA, he has that in spades and it is what may soon see him appear for his country at Euro 2016. Given the right tools, the right preparation and the right environment, it might yet be proven that this old dog could still show us some new tricks on the greatest of European stages this summer.