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When a 20-year-old kid from Tallaght joined 'one of the best teams in the world'

As part of our year 2000 week, we look back on Robbie Keane’s ill-fated move to Inter Milan.

2000

This article is a part of 2000: Revisited, a week-long series of features looking back on some of the headlines and the forgotten stories that filled the sports pages 20 years ago.

Next up, Paul Fennessy looks back on when Inter Milan made a young Robbie Keane the most expensive Irish player ever.

BY THE YEAR 2000, Robbie Keane represented arguably Ireland’s brightest prospect since his namesake Roy burst onto the scene at Nottingham Forest roughly 10 years prior.

His remarkable rise was best summed up by a memorable quote from Mark McGhee, his former boss at Wolves.

“We were going north on a tour to play some games so I took him with us and, by the time we came back, it was even more obvious he was our best player,” he remembered.

“So I had phoned ahead to tell the club to prepare a contract — not the usual ones you give to 16-year-olds but one that would take him through until he was 19.

“And then, by the end of pre-season, I was asking them to give him another one!

“By the start of the season I had decided he was going to play.

“He made his debut at Norwich and we won 2-0. He scored both goals. And at the end of the game, I phoned the club again and said: ‘Get another contract ready’.

“So Robbie signed three different contracts in the space of three months.”

Niall Quinn was similarly impressed with his young strike partner when they met up on Ireland duty during those early days.

“You could be playing a nondescript team in a friendly and other guys would be as nervous as hell, coming in so early in their career, but Robbie was different,” he told reporters.

He never sat still in training. I can remember Mick [McCarthy] having us sitting in a circle one time having a team talk and Robbie standing up, keeping the ball up, and Mick saying: ‘Robbie, I’m trying to talk’ and ‘okay, sorry’ and 30 seconds later, ‘Robbie, I’m trying to talk’ and he’s there fidgeting, and doing things with the ball.

“And this was a kid who had just come into the squad. He wasn’t sitting around in awe. He loved being there, but he was making sure it was on his terms. When I saw that, and he was so young, I just thought this kid was special.”

Keane’s meteoric rise didn’t slow down when he joined Coventry in 1999, if anything, it accelerated.

The £6 million fee Gordon Strachan paid for the Dubliner’s services made him the most expensive teenager in British football at the time.

He was joining a team with plenty of talent — the Sky Blues side featured the likes of Darren Huckerby,  Cédric Roussel, Gary McAllister, Mustapha Hadji and Youssef Chippo.

Despite missing part of the campaign through injury, Keane finished the season with 12 goals in 31 appearances, including a brace amid a dream Premier League debut against Derby.

Coventry finished 14th and it became clear that Keane was destined for even bigger things.

Consequently, in July 2000, Inter Milan almost doubled the money the Sky Blues had paid for Keane, with the 20-year-old striker joining the Italian giants for a £13 million fee. In making the move, Keane was following in the footsteps of another major Irish talent, Liam Brady, who spent two years at Inter between 1984 and 1986 following a successful spell at Juventus in which he won two Serie A titles and another two years at Sampdoria.

soccer-european-championship-qualifier-group-seven-ireland-v-holland Keane followed in the footsteps of Liam Brady. Source: EMPICS Sport

Nearly 20 years on, despite transfer fees becoming increasingly inflated, Keane’s Inter move remains in the top five biggest deals ever involving an Irish player.

“Sure, it’s a nice lifestyle in Milan, but I’m not going over there for the lifestyle,” Keane told the Irish Examiner at the time.

“I’m going over there to play football, so the lifestyle is not important, football is the most important thing.”

Inter were one of the biggest and best sides in the world, or at least, they had the potential to be. Up front, Keane had no shortage of competition – Christian Vieri, Ivan Zamorano, Ronaldo, Hakan Sukur and Alvaro Recoba were all part of the squad. A season before Keane’s arrival, they made Vieri the world’s most expensive player, signing him for £32 million from Lazio.

Yet they didn’t appear to always make the most of their ample talent. In the 1999-2000 campaign, they came fourth, behind Lazio, Juventus and Milan. It might seem disappointing considering the big money they were spending, but it still represented a significant improvement on the previous campaign, when they came eighth, before Marcelo Lippi — winner of three Serie A titles with Juventus in the 1990s — was hired to help turn the situation around.

Signing on a five-year deal, Keane was reported to be making around £2.4 million annually, while the club also set him up with an apartment and car.

The Dubliner was no stranger to silencing doubters — there were question marks over the big money Coventry had paid for him the previous year. It’s therefore perhaps no surprise that the effervescent youngster was confident he could eclipse several of Inter’s world-class strikers.

There was scepticism elsewhere, however. “One of the great gambles in Italian football history” was how the Examiner’s Milan correspondent Alec Marr described the move.

Alex Ferguson’s supposed suggestion that he would only pay £500,000 for Keane and that the youngster would be put in his reserve team was brought up repeatedly in Irish media, although the Scottish coach subsequently insisted that he was misquoted and simply meant that he would rather not pay the £6 million that Coventry had spent on a teenager who was unlikely to displace the likes of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke in his starting XI.

Meanwhile, Nicola Cecere, Gazzetta dello Sport’s Inter correspondent, predicted Keane would find it tough to get regular football at Inter.

[Inter president] Massimo Moratti has taken a major risk. Keane has probably got around one month to show the boss what he can do in training. Then Ronaldo and Vieri could be back and the competition will be fierce. If they get back to peak form rapidly, it is difficult to imagine Keane keeping either player out of the team.

“But the lad is young and Moratti must also have been thinking of future investments. Also, he loves the British game and spends at least one day a week in England. One thing is for sure, though, Moratti looks after his players. And Keane is already being treated like royalty here. And if he delivers the goods, he will be treated like a king.”

gordon-strachan Gordon Strachan tipped Keane to succeed at Inter. Source: PA

Keane’s old Coventry boss Strachan was more upbeat about his chances of making it abroad.

“I have always said Robbie can play anywhere and he has proved me right,” Strachan told BBC Radio 5 Live.

“There is a lot of competition at Inter. There are some big names at the club, but he should not worry about anyone with the level of ability he has.

“You cannot plan for your future. If the opportunity arises, you have to take it. If you don’t, it’s something you may regret for the rest of your life.”

Keane took daily hour-long Italian sessions with a private tutor. There were two other players in the squad who had a good grasp of English — Dutch international Clarence Seedorf, who the Irishman roomed with, and Italy star Vieri, who spent part of his upbringing in Australia.

While he had been a standout at Wolves and Coventry, the Tallaght native was now operating on an entirely different level — virtually everywhere he looked, there was a world-class star.

“This time last year I was preparing for a new season in the First Division with Wolves – now if all goes well I will hopefully be preparing for the qualifying rounds of the Champions League,” he told PA Sport, early into his Inter career.

The set-up there is brilliant, you’re playing for one of the best teams in the world, so you’d expect everything to be fantastic and it is.

“The first few weeks flew by and I was sort of speechless to be playing for one of the best teams in the world.”

The season began disastrously though, as Inter were dumped out of the Champions League qualifying round by Swedish outfit Helsingborgs. With Ronaldo and Vieri both unavailable, Keane completed 90 minutes in the 1-0 away loss, playing up front with Sukur.

He had been keeping Zamorano out of the team, and he replaced the Chile legend at half-time of the second leg — a disappointing 0-0 stalemate.

The Inter starting XI also included Sebastien Frey, Laurent Blanc, Ivan Cordoba, Dario Simic, Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo. Javier Zanetti, who would go on to make over 800 appearances for the club, didn’t feature but was part of the squad.

Along with Keane, Recoba and Luigi Di Biagio were introduced off the bench. In contrast to their multi-national big-spending counterparts, nine of Helsingborgs 11 starters were Swedish-born and they boasted nowhere near the star power of their rivals. For Inter to get knocked out in these circumstances was nothing short of an embarrassment.

With Vieri and Ronaldo nearing a return, Keane was already under pressure. The situation was made worse when Lippi — the man who brought him to Inter — was sacked. Despite having appeared to rejuvenate the flailing outfit the previous season, the early Champions League exit, coupled with a poor start in Serie A, resulted in Lippi being shown the door in October.

Source: Carlo Vani/YouTube

There were signs of promise, such as a delightful lobbed finish, just a few minutes into a Supercoppa Italiana match against Lazio, but overall Keane struggled and was sometimes played in more of a number 10 role rather than his favoured position as an out-and-out striker.

“I was probably too young when I went. If I’d gone later it would have suited me playing in that hole,” Keane told former Ireland team-mate Kevin Kilbane in a 2014 interview.

While Lippi would have felt obliged to field Keane having spent big money on him, his successor, Marco Tardelli — who would reunite with the striker again years later in the Ireland set-up — had no such concerns.

Suddenly, the Irish international found himself out of the first-team picture. In a matter of months, Keane’s dream move was quickly turning into a nightmare — he was away from his family in a strange new country and prevented from doing the thing he loved the most.

By December, Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea were understood to be “monitoring” Keane’s situation.

Seedorf, however, ultimately backed his young team-mate to emerge stronger from this rough spell, describing him as a “phenomenon”.

“[Keane] has some incredible moves in training, especially when it comes to dribbling,” the Dutch star explained.

A reported bid from Reggina to take Keane on loan was turned down

“For now we will keep Keane here,” Tardelli said. “There is no pressure, no rush, to send him on loan.” 

Despite a lack of game time, the Irishman was also rejecting talk of a move.

I have settled well in Italy. I am learning the language, have moved into an apartment and have made a number of new friends. Everything is going really well here.”

By the end of 2000, however, there seemed to be a mutual acceptance that Keane’s Italian adventure was not going to work out.

The Dubliner agreed to join Leeds in an initial loan deal, with the belief that it would be turned into a permanent move all going well.

David O’Leary’s side were one of the top teams in England. Keane joined the club the same season they reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, though the Irish international was ineligible to be part of this run, having previously lined out for Inter in the competition.

“I think we can win the European Cup,” Keane proclaimed upon joining Leeds.

 “I wanted it to work in Italy, but the new manager had his own ideas and I wasn’t in them

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“I wanted to stay over in Italy but last week the club called me and said they had accepted a bid from Chelsea

“I talked to them but I did not think Chelsea were the best club for me.

“[Inter] said which club would I like to go to and I said: ‘Leeds United.’ I have a lot of friends here.

“I want to lay down the foundations for years.”

soccer-fa-carling-premiership-leeds-united-sign-robbie-keane-on-loan Keane left Inter to link up with David O'Leary's Leeds. Source: EMPICS Sport

While it proved ill-fated ultimately, Keane insisted he had no regrets over the Inter move.

 “When I was at Wolves I always dreamed I would do well and play for the best clubs in the world, and three years on, I can say I’ve played for Inter Milan and I’m going to be playing for Leeds.”

“I wanted it to work there and things were going well under Mr Lippi, but we all know change and when the new manager came in he had his own ideas.

“I’ve nothing against Mr Tardelli. He is a great man and a great manager, but unfortunately, I just didn’t figure in his plans.

“It was very frustrating to be sitting on the bench, because as a player, you want to be playing in every game, although I knew before when I went over that wasn’t going to happen.

“When you’re sitting on the bench, you’re thinking about how much you want to play, but that’s football.

“But in coming back, I don’t think I’ve a point to prove. I went over to Italy to be a star and unfortunately it didn’t work out for me.

I’m grateful they gave me a chance. It was an experience for me and something I’ll never forget.”

Keane’s short-lived Inter career was restricted to just three goals and 14 appearances in all competitions.

A run of nine goals in 14 starts ensured his Leeds move was made permanent the following May, for a fee of £12 million.

To this day, he remains the most expensive Irish player ever — albeit, for his £19 million move from Tottenham to Liverpool, rather than the Inter switch.

Keane recovered from the Inter setback, becoming a legendary player for Ireland, LA Galaxy and in the Premier League in general, where he is currently 15th on the all-time scorers list.

Asked years later about Keane, Lippi was quoted as saying: ”At that time at Inter, they had a policy of going for young players and Robbie Keane was the best one that I saw.”

It was always going to be a tough task for the Irish star given Inter’s abundance of attacking riches. Nevertheless, as Keane’s career subsequently went from strength to strength, Moratti suggested the Italian club had been too hasty in selling the Dubliner.

“I admit Robbie Keane is a big regret,” Sky Sports quoted him as saying.

“The other day, I was watching him play for Tottenham on the television.

“He had a perfect game.

“He had a thousand touches and not one mistake.

“It drives me mad!

“It was my choice to bring him to Inter. I liked him as a player, but he didn’t shine with us.

“And now look at him!”

Keane added in an interview with The Daily Mail years later. “Do I regret it? I honestly don’t. It was an unbelievable experience people ask me about, living there, learning the language, playing in Italy. It was a good learning curve for me to understand the game for when I came back.

I wanted to come back. Every club if I am not playing, I leave because I want to play football. All I wanted to do since I was a kid is play football and if I wasn’t at a club I’d be playing with my mates on a Sunday. I still come home and play five-a-side with my mates.

“I get paid to play football, not to sit on the bench, I don’t enjoy that. Over the years loads of players have been very happy to do that and pick up their money. That used to really wind me up.

“It would get to a point where I’d say enough is enough. For me, preparing during the week for a weekend is what it is all about.”

Judging by what he went on to achieve, you suspect the failed Inter move was not necessarily a hindrance in the long run. When he returned to England, Keane was perhaps a little more savvy, mentally stronger and attuned to football’s politics, no longer the excitable, bright-eyed kid to whom Quinn had been so struck by.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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