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When Ireland's greatest goalscorer first lit up the Premier League

A look back at the time Robbie Keane became the most expensive teenager in British football history.

Robbie Keane pictured during his Coventry days.
Robbie Keane pictured during his Coventry days.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

ON 21 August 1999, a couple of weeks into the new Premier League season, Coventry City paid Wolves £6 million to make Robbie Keane the most expensive teenager in the history of British football at the time.

The Dubliner had impressed at Wolves — in two and a bit seasons in the First Division, he scored 24 goals in 73 appearances.

Keane had already won several Irish caps by this point, making his debut in March 1998 against Czech Republic.

The teenage striker signed for the Sky Blues despite Aston Villa and Middlesbrough also being interested.

It was a curious move with both those sides having finished in the top half the previous season, while Coventry narrowly avoided relegation, and they would similarly struggle at the wrong end of the table during Keane’s sole campaign here.

Ahead of a meeting between the teams in December, in quotes carried by the Evening Herald, Boro boss Bryan Robson would comment: “I was disappointed about that because I would have liked Robbie Keane to have been a Middlesbrough player. I think the lad’s got a good future ahead of him.

“I’m hoping that we can show him that he made a mistake, not only tonight but over the next few years.”

Wolves boss Colin Lee spoke publicly about how the club had turned down a £5 million offer from Aston Villa.

The teenager was even watched by Villa boss John Gregory as Keane scored the only goal in his side’s win over Man City.

“It doesn’t surprise me that he’s won the game for us because he’s got ability,” Lee said afterwards. “He’s built to score goals in that tight situation and I can’t think of another player in the First Division who can do that.”

Irish boss Mick McCarthy was among those to back the Coventry move, explaining to the Irish Independent: “Some people are saying that Robbie has gone to one of the smaller Premiership clubs and could have done better going elsewhere. I don’t agree. Robbie is a fantastic talent and if he lands running, Coventry’s struggling days could be over.

“Gordon Strachan is an ambitious manager who has a great track record in developing young players and Robbie’s future is in good hands. It’s a good move for him and Ireland should benefit as well as Robbie will be playing alongside a higher calibre of player.”

Keane had been identified by the Sky Blues as the man to replace Leeds United-bound Darren Huckerby and spoke excitedly upon making the move.

“The new stadium will be finished in two years and with a capacity of 40,000, it deserves a winning team.

“Coventry’s vision and belief have impressed me. They are a club that is building a strong future. I like what [Gordon Strachan] had to say and I am looking forward to playing for him.

“The fee doesn’t bother me at all. I just want to concentrate 100% on doing my best for Coventry City. If I do that, it will be good for the fans, the club and for me.”

Source: WESTEND126/YouTube

Newspapers around this time regularly made reference to disparaging remarks Man United boss Alex Ferguson had seemingly made about Keane.

He had supposedly said: “At £6million I would not go near him. If he was £500,000 and could spend some time in our second team, I might have a look.”

The Irish Examiner even framed news of Keane’s move to Coventry as the player having been “handed the chance to prove Alex Ferguson wrong”.

Ferguson would later clarify what he meant in a 2000 interview with The Irish Times.

“It was an absolute disgrace,” he said. “I did a dinner to help out a lad in Blackpool. At the end, they wanted to ask a few questions and one asked: ‘Why do you not sign Robbie Keane?’ I said: ‘Well, for a start I should have signed him when my son told me to when he was only 16.’ Darren (Ferguson’s son, then with Wolves) told me all about him.

“Now, by the time we came to watch him he was in the first team at 17. The way we operate is that if I am going to pay £6 million for a player I want to play him in my first team. Now there is no way Robbie Keane would get in my first team over Yorke, Cole, Sheringham or Solskjaer. So £6 million to me at the moment is a waste of money.

“If I was getting him for £100,000 and leaving him in the reserves for a couple of years — the way we do with a lot of young players like Jonathan Greening — yeah, that’s the way it works for us. But for us to pay £6 million for an 18-year-old lad and play him in the reserves is out of the question.

“That’s exactly the way I answered it. But there was a freelance reporter at the dinner and he sold it in a different context. I could have sued but there was no point.”

“I think he is a very good player,” Ferguson added. “We should have bought him when he was in the Wolves youth team or reserves, though I don’t think he really played reserve-team football.”

“He represents one of the greatest signings ever for Coventry City and will be a huge favourite with the fans,” Sky Blues chairman Bryan Richardson said after the move was made, as reported by The Irish Examiner.

Gordon Strachan, meanwhile, compared him to another bright young talent of the moment — Liverpool’s Michael Owen.

“He has the ability to score and create goals. I’ve said for the last year that along with Michael Owen he’s one of the brightest prospects in the game.”

The Scottish coach added: “I had long admired Robbie as a player and was envious of my best pal Mark McGhee that he was playing for him at Wolves and not for me, but I did not think we had that kind of money in the coffers.

“I had been thinking along different lines in terms of who to bring into the club, but only because I thought Robbie Keane was out of our reach financially.

“I told the chairman that if the deal was going to adversely affect the club then not to do it, but he assured me it would be okay.

“Coventry City FC is the most important thing. It will be here long after we have gone and it is essential that its future is protected.

“It was a courageous move by the chairman to secure Robbie.

“I had gone home from the training camp with a mild illness when the chairman rang me to say he was on his way to talk to Wolves and I am sure that it was his boldness in driving to their chief executive John Richards’ doorstep which won the day.”

Keane began life at Coventry City superbly, scoring a brace on his Premier League debut against Derby County.

By November, he had managed six goals in 10 appearances, prompting Strachan to suggest he would be “a star in any side in Europe”.

Source: covonthebox/YouTube

Coventry’s experienced defender David Burrows, who again repeated the Ferguson rumour, was among those to have been hugely impressed by Keane, saying: “I think you will probably have to go back to the George Best days to find somebody with comparable talent at 19.

“I watched him at least 15 times when he played for Wolves and he has lived up to the expectations I had of him back in those days.

“While other people were stalling about signing him, we put £6million on the table and it’s looking a snip. We could sell him tomorrow for £10million. It’s a very wise investment for the club.

“I think what Sir Alex Ferguson said about him being only worth £500,000 was a little bit naughty. I suppose you can say things like that when you are champions of Europe but Robbie is proving people wrong.”

Among those also singing Keane’s praises was former Wimbledon and Wales boss Bobby Gould.

While on analysis duty with Radio Five Live, he compared the Irishman to Gianfranco Zola among others after he starred in a 4-0 win over Watford.

“I treasure a video I have of Zola playing for Italy against England at Wembley,” he said. “Zola produced outstanding football, but I rate Keane as good and if Sky will help me out, I’d like a tape of him playing against Watford.

“This was the first Premiership match I had seen Keane play and he took my breath away. In my career, I have come across the best in the world, people like Ronaldo and Bebeto, and Keane has the ability to be up there with them.

“There are several talented young lads in British football like Craig Bellamy at Norwich, Mark Burchill with Celtic, Alan Smith at Leeds and Owen, but Keane is the best of them all.

“Mick McCarthy has a Euro 2000 play-off coming up with Turkey and if Keane can help them get through it, then he can reveal himself to be a big name in Europe.”

Gould continued: “When I was a centre-forward and went from Bristol City to West Brom for £60,000 I got the nickname ‘snip.’ Kearie is a snip at £6m. He is worth double that now.

“Keane’s movement is fantastic, the way he spins and the use of his footballing brain. He’s like Gianfranco Zola in that he is such a clever player, but scores far more goals.

“Manager Gordon Strachan has built the strong basis of a team and with Keane has got someone that will lift the performances of the other players.

“Graham Taylor backed what he saw in Keane by giving him a contract at Wolves as a trainee.

“Strachan has backed what he saw with £6m of Coventry’s money. And me? I have got shares in Coventry City FC and I’m a happy man.”

soccer-fa-carling-premiership-coventry-city-v-everton-gordon-strachan-coventry-city-manager Gordon Strachan was the manager who brought Robbie Keane to Coventry. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

By January of that season, Keane was already getting linked to Italian giants Inter Milan, whose roster of strikers already included Ronaldo, Christian Vieri and Ivan Zamorano.

Wages of £75,000 a week were reportedly being offered but in a column for the Evening Herald, former Ireland player and manager John Giles warned Keane against making the move to Italy.

He wrote: “Keane is just like the Dublin property market — his value can only go up. Coventry should hold onto him for another couple of seasons and the way Premiership prices are going, they will then be able to sell for anything between £15m and £20m.

“As for the player himself, it would be a great experience to play in Italy but I think he should wait a while.

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“He’s still only 19 and is learning his trade. I’m sure when his contract is up, he will be a much better player and more mature and would be ready for the hazards of Serie A.

“He seems to be a good lad and he has a very good mentor in Strachan. My advice to him would be to stick with Coventry and then make the move when he’s learned a bit more about the game.”

Yet the links with Inter only intensified. Keane’s season with Coventry would be cut short by injury, but he still managed 12 goals and helped secure his side’s safety from relegation amid a highly impressive debut top-flight campaign.

After moves for Bordeaux’s Sylvain Wiltord and Lazio’s Marcelo Salas fell through, Inter opted to bid £13 million for the Irish international — a fee that the Sky Blues accepted.

Strachan remained hopeful Keane would stay: “Obviously, we are doing all we can to keep hold of him. Robbie is very special to us.” 

He then joked: “I’m just hoping Robbie doesn’t like the San Siro, doesn’t like the wages — and wants to come back here.”

After the bid was accepted, chairman Bryan Richardson revealed two unnamed Premier League clubs had also expressed interest in Keane and said: “Gordon Strachan will have a very big chunk of [the fee]. We have targeted three players and most of the money will be reinvested, hopefully, in three very successful players for us.

“We are hugely disappointed that Robbie has gone. The other side is that we’re pleased because we’ve got a very good price for him.

“We knew Inter were interested. They had been to a number of games during the course of the season and it wasn’t a huge surprise when negotiations started.”

Strachan tipped Keane to be a success in Italy, saying: “I have always said Robbie can play anywhere and he has proved me right.

“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 just cannot plan 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.”

italian-soccer-serie-a-inter-milan-v-napoli-robbie-keane-inter-milan Robbie Keane had a difficult spell at Inter. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Brian Kerr, who had managed Keane with Ireland at underage level, had a slightly more cautious tone but was positive about the move overall.

“Each move Robbie has made he has adapted well. He moved from youth to senior very easily at international level but he does need first-team football. The problem with Italy is that if he isn’t in the first team, there is no reserve football out there, which could be a problem.

“Robbie shouldn’t be burdened with whatever transfer fee is involved because that is between the clubs and nothing to do with him. Also with the way transfer fees are going at the moment, £12m [sic] isn’t an awful lot.

“Robbie is a bright lad and is a very dedicated young fella and playing in a different country — and one where systems change week in, week out — his game will improve and he will learn to deal with close marking and everything else associated with playing on the continent.”

Nicola Cecere, Inter correspondent for Italy’s biggest sports paper, Gazzetta dello Sport, was far more sceptical and accurate in his prediction, saying: “[Inter owner] 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. Keane is already being treated like royalty here, with all the perks and if he delivers the goods he will be treated like a king.”

Indeed a report in the Irish Independent noted some of the luxuries the talented striker would enjoy, describing how: “Keane will now be under the spotlight wherever he goes, but Inter will do everything possible to protect him in a country where stars are considered public property.

“He will be offered a villa or apartment to his liking. Generally, foreign players choose a luxury home in the Brianza region where even Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s richest man, owns a home.

“To get to work, of course, the man needs wheels and Keane will be given a choice of any Chrysler car. On top of all that, he will be handed a whopping £2.4m a year for his troubles, whether he plays or not. Keane was so enthusiastic about the deal that he went to Inter’s training ground on Saturday afternoon to meet the players.”

The player himself sounded jubilant upon making the move, telling PA Sport: “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.

“I have signed my contract and will be having my medical on Monday morning and will be hopefully meeting the Italian press for the first time on Monday afternoon.

“The Inter president Mr Morara is a great fan of Premiership football and I am determined to show him by my efforts and ability on the pitch how grateful I am for the great faith he has shown in me.”

Unfortunately, the move did not work out for Keane ultimately, after a disappointing tally of three goals from 14 appearances.

By the second half of the 2000-01 season, he was already back in England with David O’Leary’s Leeds United. 

As the transfer neared, The Irish Times noted: “It will mean that seven months before his 21st birthday, the boy from Tallaght will have been bought and sold for £31 million in his career so far.”

Irish football had never seen anything quite like the Robbie Keane phenomenon at the time, and perhaps never will again.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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