With Robbie Keane weighing up an offer to come in as Jonathan Woodgate’s assistant at Middlesbrough — a move which, of crucial importance, he stresses, would allow him to continue in his role as a coach on Mick McCarthy’s Ireland staff — the 38-year-old Dubliner is on the brink of taking another step along the road he has long intended to follow, from playing to coaching and, ultimately, to management.
And being Robbie Keane, with all that he has achieved in the game, he has the luxury as he plots that course of being able to tap into the knowledge, experience, and wisdom of some of the best-known names in the business.
Closest to home, there’s the aforementioned Big Mick, of course, previously Keane’s manager at a World Cup and now the man he is assisting in the quest to lead Ireland to the finals of the European Championship.
“As a player, you just want to play, train, get on with it and get out of there,” Keane reflects.
“Now I’m watching things very closely and learning a lot from Mick. He’s been brilliant. He would tell you himself and he’s told us all that he’s mellowed a little bit. I think he has. But I still wouldn’t want to fucking mess with him! His values are still the same, his honesty. People like him and the players love him because he’s so up front with them. That’s all you want as a player.”
Then there’s Mauricio Pochettino, manager of Keane’s former club Spurs.
“At this moment in time, I’m learning from Mick and I’m learning from Pochettino, going to the Spurs’ training ground any time that I want to go. He’s brilliant with people, whether it’s the tea lady or Harry Kane. He has got a great manner about him. He’s got a presence. He’s great on the training pitch. He’ll do a session, he’ll do a keep ball, he’ll even do shooting with the goalkeepers himself. I’ve never seen a manager do that, banging the balls at the goalkeepers. Usually they’re left alone in the corner with the goalkeeping coach. But he’ll go over, take shots. That stood out to me more than anything, the way he includes everybody.”
Through a mutual friend, Keane has also gotten to know Jose Mourinho.
“I’ve spoken to him about coaching, naturally you would, because he’s one of the greatest managers of all time. When you’re one on one, he’s a smashing fella, very interesting. I could listen to him all day. He’s a nice person. Always asking how the family is, asking ‘how’s little Robert doing’? He’s met Robert twice. He genuinely means it. We played a legends game, Spurs and Inter Milan. At half-time I got injured so I had to come off. He says, ‘Where’s little Keano? Bring him down’. So Robert comes down and he gives him a hug and a kiss. He’s a good guy.
“As a manager? I’d say he is tough and hard. You can’t do what he did as a manager if you’re not. But take that away, as a person he’s great guy. I’ve nothing but good words to say about him.”
His one-time boss at Inter Milan is another gaffer to whom Keane pays attention as he looks to future horizons.
“I received great advice from Marcello Lippi,” he says, “He said: ‘Robbie, don’t rush, don’t rush, take your time, you’ve got hopefully 40 years of being a manager’.”
The man himself wholeheartedly agrees.
“I’m in a great position, I’m in no rush, I’m not desperate for a job. I don’t mean this in a horrible way, please forgive me, 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, it’s all I’ve known since I was 15.”
Which, of course, is precisely why Robbie Keane, the player, the record-breaking goal-scorer, could never mask the raw dread he used to feel at the prospect of one day having to hang up his boots. Ask him how he finally made peace with that inevitability and the answer hardly comes as a complete surprise.
“I haven’t,” he says. “I still love playing and joining in with the lads. I could have played on. I got offers to play on for another year with different clubs. But I needed to make that transition. I had to forget about it and move on and start really focusing on the coaching side of things.
“Do I miss playing? Absolutely. But 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, the first couple of months it was difficult to accept it.
”I’ve played for 20 odd years. I woke up every morning and I had a structure. Nine o’clock I went into train every day, people told you what to do, and then you wake up one morning and it’s gone. Every morning playing football, then, ‘jaysus, I’m not going to be doing that anymore’. I regretted retiring, genuinely. I have to say that it was really tough but if I was being serious about what I wanted to do in the future, I had to make that decision.”
And he was also acutely conscious, he says, of the importance of recognising and avoiding the pitfalls which can await retired footballers.
“I think we have seen that with ex-players, how they let themselves go. As soon as I retired I was one of those people who went to the gym every day to make sure that I was still the same, still fit, that in my head I am good, mentally strong. That I was still the same person that I was as a player. To make sure I had the focus that I previously had. I have seen ex-players go and fall by the wayside. And I will never be that and I will never let that happen to me, no chance. I made that very, very clear to myself and my family that that won’t happen.
“My playing career is done now and I’m judged on what I do going forward as a coach. As a player I always wanted to be the best in training and when we played games. Now, I have that same desire and hunger, no question.”
One thing he insists upon clarifying is that he didn’t sign on for McCarthy’s Ireland as a ‘forwards coach’.
“Absolutely. 100%. I know how to make strikers better, I’ve been there and done it, and I love helping them with sessions but I have a lot more to my bow than that. I know how centre-halves play because I played against them all my career. I know how they move and how they don’t move. Sometimes I could have more advice for the centre-halves than the strikers. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a striking coach.”
Asked what he finds rewarding about being on the coaching side of the white line, he replies: “The biggest buzz is winning games I suppose. We give them specific things to do in the training ground and when those things come off on the pitch it’s great and you get a buzz from that a little bit.”
But… “It still doesn’t beat scoring goals. I miss that.”
Arguably, not half as much as Ireland misses him scoring goals. So what does the (not so) old Robbie Keane make of a football nation’s seemingly endless fixation with unearthing a new Robbie Keane?
“You have to be careful with that one,” he cautions. “Can you get someone else in the next generation who can score 68 goals? I hope so but I don’t know. That’s the answer. Not many people do it. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve done it myself. Like, with Troy Parrott, be careful how you push him in terms of ‘the next Robbie Keane’. He’s Troy Parrott. Like people say at Tottenham, ‘the next Harry Kane’. Let him be him and he’ll progress naturally anyway. It’s only going to be beneficial for Irish football if we do get someone who can score a lot of goals. There’s Troy and other young lads but let them progress themselves, they’ll do it naturally.
Suddenly, Robbie Keane, pulls himself up short and executes an about-turn as nifty as any he ever did in the box.
“I was going to say I hope someone breaks my record but I don’t, let’s be honest.”
A broad smile.
“Unless it’s my son.”
Keane still chasing his goals