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Dublin: 5°C Thursday 4 March 2021

'I played for 20-odd years and then one morning it's gone. It was difficult to accept'

Robbie Keane says going into coaching with Ireland has helped him come to terms with his retirement.

THE NOTION OF idleness in retirement doesn’t cross Robbie Keane’s mind. His last month has been spent in camp with the Republic of Ireland squad and then, following Monday’s Euro 2020 qualifier victory over Gibraltar, an unexpected trip to Teesside.

A brief, but productive, meeting with Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson and former team-mate Jonathan Woodgate means he now has a big decision to make by the end of this week. The assistant manager job at the Riverside is his if he wants it. 

Robbie Keane Keane speaking in Dublin yesterday. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Back to Dublin on the first flight out of Durham Tees Valley Airport on Wednesday morning, Keane was home in time to drop his son to school in Malahide before returning home-home for a special visit to Crumlin Children’s Hospital in his role as Euro 2020 ambassador. 

And then, after all that, Keane was on a flight to London for last night’s Soccer Aid gala dinner, ahead of Sunday’s charity match at Stamford Bridge, in which he will be putting the boots back on for the Rest of the World XI. In between it all, Mr Gibson will be waiting for an answer.  

But it’s clear, from 48 minutes in Keane’s company, that he wouldn’t have it any other way. Retirement initially hit him hard. How would it not after the career he had? He wasn’t going to be able to walk away from professional football without experiencing a comedown. 

After his stint in India, the 38-year-old received ‘shit offers’ from clubs he had no intention of playing for just to extend his playing days by a year or two, while coaching was already firmly on his mind.

“I could have played on,” he said. “I got offers to play on for another year at different clubs but I needed to make that transition. I had to just forget about it and move on and start really focusing on the coaching side of things. Do I miss playing? Absolutely. I’m a lot better now with it than I was a year ago. I did find it tough, I’m not going to lie, it was tough for the first few months. It was difficult to accept it. 

“Of course it’s going to be tough, I played for 20-odd years. I woke up every morning, I had a structure. Nine o’clock, go into training every day. Came home, people told you what to do, and then one morning it’s gone. It was tough at the start but this [Ireland job] came along and it has been very, very helpful because I’m still around and still involved. It was tough at the start, I have to be honest.

“I just got shit offers from people and shit clubs I didn’t want to play for. I could have played on for another year if I wanted to and it was tough to do that [retire]. I was regretting retiring, genuinely. It was tough, it was really tough. But if I’m serious about what I want to do in the future, I had to make that decision.”

Keane made the first steps on the coaching ladder when coming on board for McCarthy’s second reign in charge of the Boys in Green and, following confirmation that he has been offered the number two role at Middlesbrough, the former striker’s stock appears to be rising.

Just as he was as a player, Keane is hungry and motivated to be the best coach he can be. He wants to be the best, and regularly visits Tottenham Hotspur’s training ground to watch Mauricio Pochettino and how he runs his sessions and deals with people. He goes on to namecheck Marcello Lippi and Jose Mourinho during the interview.

Robbie Keane Keane's first coaching job is with Ireland. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Keane is also learning off McCarthy and is using his time in the Ireland dressing room as an opportunity to soak up as much information he can, while developing his own coaching ideas and philosophies on the training ground.

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“I’m learning from Mick, learning from Pochettino,” he continues. “I’ve been at the Spurs training ground a good few times, just watching him and seeing how he interacts with people. I’m doing a lot of observing and I hope that will stand me in good stead going forward.

“I’m not in a rush at all to be a manager. I know it’s going to happen in the future but I’m not thinking for one second at this moment in time to be a head coach. I’m enjoying what I’m doing with the Irish team, I’m really enjoying working with Mick and just watching him and how he treats people. Because as a player I’ve seen it, but as a coach you look at it differently. As a player, you just want to train, get on with it and get out of there but now I’m watching things very, very closely. I’m learning a lot from him. 

It’s a great job for me in terms of my family being here. It was the right time for me to step into the situation but what happens next with the Middlesbrough situation, we’ll see. I’m in a great position, I’m in no rush. I’m not desperate for a job, and I don’t mean this in a horrible way, but I don’t need the money. It’s not for that, I’m doing it because I love being around people, I love being around football. I don’t know anything different.

Like Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard, Keane’s reputation and distinguished playing career would be enough for a lot of chairmen to offer him a managerial job without coaching experience in the bank, but he stresses he’s not ready to make that step yet.

“I’m genuinely not in any rush. If somebody came to me tomorrow and said to me ‘will you take over here?’ I’d probably say no because I want to take my time and not rush into something and regret it six months or a year later. What I’m doing now is perfect for me at this moment in time.

“I’m 38, I’m young. Who gets a job at 38? Realistically. I’m not desperate for a job, I’m enjoying what I’m doing now and want to learn as much as I can. I’ll know when it’s the right time for me to move on and be the head coach.”

EURO 2020 Ambassador Robbie Keane visits Children's Health Ireland at Crumlin Ireland's record goalscorer meets Peter Cullinan at Crumlin Children's Hospital. Source: Harry Murphy/SPORTSFILE

And then the inevitable question: what about the Ireland job? That must be in the long-term plan?

“It’s up to me, if I do well in what I do.”

Would you back yourself?

“100%, I did as a player and I will as a coach. Would I? Who wouldn’t but do I want it now? Absolutely 100% no. In future, possibly, but I need to prove myself as a coach. It’s a process for me.  

“I’m more motivated now than I was as a player. More because I’m in a different situation now. My playing career is done and I’ll be judged on what I do going forward as a coach. As a player I always wanted to be the best player on the training pitch, always wanted to be the best player on the pitch playing games. Now, going into coaching, I have the same desire and hunger.”

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Ryan Bailey

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