Liverpool made Roibéard Daithí Ó Catháin their second most expensive signing – better known to most as Robbie Keane. The £19m forward (fee could rise to 20.3) joins the club he supported as a boy after 6 seasons at White Hart Lane with Tottenham Hotspur. The move comes 14 years after Keane rejected an offer to bring him to Anfield by former reds manager Roy Evans, aged just 15. He instead opted to move to Wolverhampton Wanderers in a decision that would ultimately prove successful as he has since gone on to make a tremendous and immediate impact on English and European football, which he may have been restricted had he accepted the offer with Liverpool.
Born in Tallaght in Dublin on 8th July 1980, he began his football career at local youth side Crumlin United and it wasn’t long before his performances began to get noticed. Approached by both Liverpool and Wolves in 1995, he moved to Molineux to gain some vital experience, spending his first two years in the youth side there before stepping up to the first team for the start of the 1997-98 season.
He was to make a perfect start to his senior career, making his debut on the opening day of the season and scoring both goals in a 2-0 win over Norwich City at Carrow Road. He quickly became a key player for Wolves, making 45 appearances and scoring 11 goals in his first year as a professional, all this aged just 17. Taking his ever growing talents into the following season, he made 39 appearances in all competitions and scored a superb total of 16 goals to end the season as Wolves’ top scorer as his side battled to 7th place in Division One, narrowly missing out on the play-offs.
During his first season with Wolves, Robbie Keane was included in Republic of Ireland squads at various age levels, winning his first full cap against the Czech Republic in March 1998 before heading to Cyprus in July to assist the Under 18’s triumph in the U18 European Championships. He scored his first senior international goal in October 1998 against Malta, aged 18. Wolves knew they had a starlet on their hands and were very reluctant to sell him at first as the enquiries for his services came flooding in. A controversial £6m valuation was placed upon him, which put off many clubs, including Aston Villa and Manchester United, and resulted in the young Keane starting the 1999-2000 season still in the gold shirt until a couple of weeks into the season when Coventry City made him the most expensive British teenager after securing his services for £6m.
Keane’s first year in top flight football can be classed as a success as he scored a quarter of Coventry’s Premiership goals, helping them to a steady 14th position well clear of relegation. He began his spell in the Sky blue shirt in the same fashion that he had done 2 years earlier, with a debut brace of goals in a 2-0 home win over Derby County. During the season, Keane had become a pivotal part of the Ireland squad and helped his country into the play-offs for the forthcoming Euro 2000 championships to be held in Holland and Belgium, but they ultimately lost out to Turkey on away goals after the two legs.
After just 12 months at Highfield Road, Inter Milan manager Marcello Lippi made a surprise £13m bid for Keane who left to join the likes of Ronaldo, Christian Vieri and Fabio Cannavaro at the San Siro. All did not go to plan as hoped in Italy and Keane was to spend just six months with the Nerrazzurri before returning to England. As always, he made a quick impression at a new club, opening the scoring against Lazio in the Italian Super Cup but was to be on the receiving end of a 4-3 defeat. He was to play just 13 times in Italy, scoring 2 goals at a time when the Milanese team went through many changes. Crashing out of the Champions League at the preliminary stage to Swedish side Helsingborgs IF before their first ever Seria A defeat to Reggina, Marcello Lippi was fired by chairman Massimo Moratti and Marco Tardelli replaced him. Tardelli was to play a different style to that of Lippi’s and deemed Keane surplus to requirements. Keane refused to stay and stagnate at Milan and promptly returned to England where David O’Leary’s Leeds were pushing for success.
Joining Harry Kewell, Alan Smith and Mark Viduka as an attacking force, Keane won the hearts of the Leeds support and O’Leary with his contribution of 9 goals in 20 games to earn himself a permanent switch to Elland Road in a deal that saw Inter recoup £12m of the £13m they had spent the previous summer. Unfortunately, in 2001-02 Keane’s goals began to dry up for both club and country as he struggled with consistency in his performance and the impending arrival of Robbie Fowler to Leeds saw Keane slip further down the pecking order. He managed just 9 goals in 33 appearances overall in his most disappointing season to date but despite his poor form, he went into the 2002 World Cup spearheading Ireland’s attack.
A 1-1 draw with Cameroon was followed by a second 1-1 draw, this time against an unfancied German side that would make the final. Keane scored a famous injury time equaliser before scoring the opener in a 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia that would see Ireland through to the last 16. Another last minute equaliser against Spain, this time from the penalty spot took Keane’s tally to 3 but Ireland were to progress no further as they succumbed to an eventual penalty shootout defeat, with Keane and Steve Finnan scoring the only 2 for their country in the 3-2 defeat. Returning to Leeds after the World Cup, Keane was unfortunately caught up in the crisis at Elland Road that led to an exodus of players which would eventually see the downfall of Leeds United from the top flight and beyond, with debts running into the millions and the club being put up for sale. Glen Hoddle came to Robbie’s rescue, offering Leeds a package worth £7m to take the forward to Tottenham Hotspur.