Watching post-2000 Coventry City has been an ordeal. It didn’t always used to be this way though. In 1999 an Irish magician joined the club, and the very best of memories were made.
The Beauty is a celebration of the sublime. I’m therefore acutely aware of the juxtaposition of this title and an unflattering close up of Robbie Keane grimacing. But copyright laws and the fact that Keane was playing for us before digital cameras mean that usable images from that era are somewhat limited.
Keano was a mesmerising player. We may have only had him for a year, but for that one year, it felt like the eyes of the country were on us as he embarked on a relentless movement of impressing everyone in his path. As it transpired it wasn’t just British eyes taking notice of him, but we’ll get onto that.
Looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint any physical attributes which set Keano apart and made him so special. He was obviously fairly nippy but not explosively quick beyond those initial few yards; he wasn’t too strong; had very little to offer aerially; and he had a fair standard shot on him. But he didn’t need any of those things – it was his ingenuity and craft which set him apart and ultimately made me fall in love with him. That unwavering confidence and vision to implement the unfathomable.
His ability to conjure up the spectacular was unrivaled, even in an Entertainers era boasting the Moroccan duo of Mustapha Hadji and Youssef Chippo. Having this style of player surrounding him certainly aided his creativity and allowed him freedom to express himself, but really, Keane was the true ring-leader and posterboy for the football on show that season.
His ability to conjure up the spectacular was unrivaled.
He scored eleven goals, of varying styles, but the ultimate moment of Keano wizardry came in the game against Arsenal. A goal that would’ve struck you as ridiculous if scored by the elastic-legged Hurricanes was somehow made reality in front of the Sky cameras, by a Coventry City player, and against England’s best goalkeeper of the time.
What sort of sorcery was this? Even now I watch the replay and can’t quite fathom how he managed it. Latching onto a Roussel knockdown and moving away from goal, Keane reverse-looped the ball with the outside of his right foot in the opposite direction to the one he was facing, generating inexplicable zip and making David Seaman look even more of a prat than he would usually manage on his own.
It was stunning. For me that single goal was the moment that certified Robbie Keane’s reputation as one of the best young talents in the game. Unfortunately for us, I’m fairly sure it was also the moment that ensured his future lay elsewhere. There was no taking that goal away; it was against Arsenal and everyone was going to see it, and the footballing world was going to come calling.
When recalling the impact Keane had in that one season, it’s important to remember his age and context of his move. His reputation was quickly building at Wolves – he was a full international with some impressive performances under his belt – but his transfer to Highfield Road also came with a new level of expectation and a hefty price tag. Back when we were flashing cash like it was going out of fashion, we paid £6 million to make him the most expensive teenage in British football history. It was a huge deal for us, but it was also huge deal for him.
I always find that particular transfer record interesting. It’s a conflicting label, because as much as you feel obliged to afford any young player the time to mature and offer up rhetoric to support that, Coventry City weren’t in a position to spent that sort of money and not see an instant return.
We needn’t have worried. Being the best teenager in the country was a title that he revelled in, and did so immediately.
It’s amazing to think he only played 31 games for us and still provided more memorable moments during that time than so many of our other players have managed in their far lengthier, drab, consolation-goal-off-the-arse, Coventry careers. His dream debut against Derby; the away goal vs Sunderland; the dummy against Newcastle; notching against Villa and Chelsea; the stunning volley against Watford, and of course – that fantasy-goal at home to Arsenal.
While I look back at the goals and will always place Robbie Keane at the top of my list of ultimate Cov signings, the one shame is that like so many of the quality players in my lifetime, his relationship with the club was such a fleeting one. In July 2001, with the new season just weeks away, news broke of a mega bid by Inter Milan – one that it was impossible for us to turn down. I remember it very well. It was a hot Sunday and I was helping my Dad chuck some stuff at the local tip, and much like the summer of 98 as news filtered through about Dublin’s omission from the World Cup squad, it was a tough blow to take for an irrational teenager with raging acne.
“Why don’t they just reject the bid? He’ll be worth twice as much next year. That’s what I’d do in Champ Man and it always works.” These were the desperate and naive arguments I presented to my Dad, blinded by my love of the guy and assertion that Highfield Road was going to become the next San Siro anyway.
“Don’t worry, we’ll use the money to get someone just as good. I’m sure of it.” was my Dad’s voice of reason.
Turns our we were both wrong.
But even when the move was confirmed and the photos of him with the Inter shirt started appearing on the news (and rudimentary football sites that 2000 offered), I never felt any betrayal or bad will towards him. I just loved him, and only ever wanted to watch him play football and do well. That’s a feeling that I’ve held throughout his career, no matter which of the 42 supposed boyhood clubs he’s been playing for.
Except Villa of course. Robbie Keane at Aston Villa could fuck right off.
If we couldn’t have him, I remember being desperate for him to make a success of Italy and prove what we felt we already knew – that he was a world class talent. Somewhat predictably (given his competition at the time), things didn’t really go his way, starting with a tame pre-season tournament appearance which culminated in him failing to score in an experimental hockey-inspired penalty shootout.
Ultimately this set the narrative for his career in Italy and he wasn’t able to justify the fee paid by Inter, struggling to assert himself as a viable option for their first team. Whether this was poor form or just a lack of opportunities it’s hard to be sure, because at that price 17 years ago, there’s quite a strong argument to suggest that you should be too good to allow either to be a permanent blocker.
His Italian dream lasted only a few months before Leeds came calling and he was able to reignite his career again, setting him on a path to becoming the greatest Irish footballer of all time. They’ve been incredibly fortunate to have enjoyed his talents for so long, but more importantly for me, and for Coventry, for one beautiful year he qualified himself as one the greatest ever for the Sky Blues too.
I’m certain many of you will feel the same, but I’m also sure many will have pre or post-Robbie Keane players who resonate in a stronger way. I think much of my own assessment stems from my age at the time. The most impressionable and formative years of my Cov-supporting life came as a teenager developing an understanding of what I valued most from football… and Keane remains one of the best examples of a player that represents my footballing tastes. I will always cherish the performances and magic he treated us to as the top flight glory days at Highfield Road came to an end.
Cheers for being fantastic, Robbie. Enjoy India.
Image: Michael Kranewitter, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 4.0