Robbie Keane does not want to share anecdotes from his 21-year playing career.
‘I’m not getting into c**p questions like this,’ he says. ‘Stupid question.’ This isn’t going well. This, he says, is about Robbie Keane the coach, who is now assistant manager to Jonathan Woodgate at Middlesbrough. OK, then.
Keane, it is widely known, loves to sing. Will Keane, the coach, be the type to take to the mic and provide some light entertainment around the Boro dressing room?
Ex-Spurs striker Robbie Keane is Jonathan Woodgate’s assistant manager at Middlesbrough
‘What the f***?’ he responds. ‘I’m not a clown. I’m not here to entertain people. What’s singing got to do with me being a coach?’ We decide against requesting an impromptu rendition of his favourite U2 number.
‘I like a laugh and joke,’ he says. ‘We don’t want people coming in here as miserable f***s. We want them to be happy, but for it to be done properly. It’s a serious job we’re doing.’
It certainly feels like Keane, the coach, won’t be afraid of confrontation?
‘Who, me? What do you think?’ says the 39-year-old. We guess not.
‘Well it’s a stupid question.’
He will coach alongside his former teammate Woodgate at the helm of Boro next season
Keane, it is said, once confronted Tottenham team-mate Edgar Davids on the training ground. Does taking on a player nicknamed ‘The Pitbull’ prove he will voice his opinion, regardless of reputation?
‘That’s got nothing to do with this conversation,’ Keane says. ‘That happens. I’ve seen hundreds of them. As long as you shake hands before you leave the pitch, I’ve got no problem with that.’
Keane, the former Republic of Ireland captain and scorer of a remarkable 393 career goals for club and country, has more to say.
‘You have to let people know when things aren’t right,’ he says.
Yes, we gathered that.
‘I’ve always done that as a player, as a captain. Be that with players or staff, it’s about standards. If things need to be said then they’ll be said, it’s a man’s game.’
Keane stressed he is looking to set a strict standard for Woodgate’s squad in this campaign
It feels like he’s warming to us, so let’s try this next one. Here goes.
Legend has it that, while Spurs captain, Keane hired a private jet and took the squad to his native Dublin for a Christmas knees-up without telling manager Harry Redknapp, who was furious when he found out.
With that in mind, will Keane be encouraging the Middlesbrough players to enjoy a Christmas party as a coach?
‘I’m not answering these stupid questions,’ he says. ‘If you want to talk about me being here, no problem. But I’m not getting into c**p questions like that.
‘I’m not interested. Why talk about that? This isn’t about that. It’s about me being at Middlesbrough. Anyway, do you know the full story?’
‘Well, if you don’t know the full story then don’t ask me the question.’
Why not set the record straight?
‘No. I’ve never spoken about it. We had a Christmas party. Done. It’s over. Simple.’
A superb servant for the Republic of Ireland, Keane scored 68 goals for his home nation
There is a chance this interview could soon be over, too. We are sitting near the balcony in the canteen of Boro’s Rockliffe Park training ground and you get the feeling Keane would rather chuck us off it than continue.
But this question feels safe – what will make you a good coach?
‘You’ll have to ask the players,’ he says. A bit of a prickly start, but Keane goes on.
‘I know the game. I can help strikers and defenders, because I’ve played against defenders for 21 years. I will demand the very best from the players, it’s all about high standards. You have to train as you’d play and earn the right to be in that team.’
Keane, who retired as a player last November, was renowned for his movement, an awareness honed on the streets of Tallaght in South Dublin, where wits were needed beyond the football pitch.
He says that even now, when he’s in a restaurant with his wife Claudine, he instinctively identifies his nearest exit points and where other diners are positioned. It all sounds a bit Jason Bourne, we observe. He laughs. A genuine laugh, it must be said.
OK, what colour is my watch? He doesn’t divert his gaze before answering.
‘It’s got a blue face and it’s a cheap one,’ he says, laughing. He is right on both counts.
‘I’ve always been like that. It’s about having a picture – when you receive the ball, who is behind you, beside you, in front of you.
‘You need awareness on a football pitch, I’ll be working on that a lot with the players.’
Somewhat belatedly, we find common ground and the conversation turns to the type of players academies are producing. Players so unlike Keane, a forward of skill, ingenuity and courage.
‘I agree, some players now are almost being coached to be coaches,’ he says.
‘I want players to express themselves, like I did. We want players to have no fear, don’t be frightened to try things. We don’t want them to be robots. Use your imagination, be clever and cheeky around the box. Those are the players who win games. We will encourage that freedom. Then, it’s up to them.’
Keane wants to make a wider point about the development of young footballers, a societal issue that sees children spending more time in front of a computer screen than they do the goalposts.
‘They don’t play in the street any more,’ says the dad of two boys.
Keane, pictured with Spurs captain Harry Kane, is a fan favourite at the North London side
‘And that’s all of them, with their PlayStations. I would certainly encourage young kids to get out, between 10 and 14 especially.
‘They should be getting 500 touches a week on the ball. They don’t need parents or friends to do that. Get out and play with the football, kick it against the wall, keeping it up, trying tricks.
‘I won’t have my boy on the PlayStation for hours and hours, no chance. I want him out on the road with his friends, even without playing football, just go out and have fun.
‘You need to be around your friends at that age, getting to know different characters, building your own personality.
‘But if you want to be a footballer it just doesn’t come, you have to practise. You have to be that kid on the road kicking it against the wall 300 times. They are the kids who will make it, not the ones sitting on the PlayStation.’
Keane is combining his new role at the Championship club with a place on Mick McCarthy’s coaching staff with Ireland.
The 39-year-old will balance his new role at Middlesbrough alongside coaching for his country
McCarthy gave Keane his international debut in 1998 and the striker then starred at the World Cup four years later as Ireland made it to the last 16.
Keane – who also played in Italy, the US and India – says he will take something from each of his experiences into coaching and management. So what about that 2002 World Cup, when Ireland star Roy Keane was sent home by McCarthy on the eve of the tournament after an infamous row in front of the squad?
‘Don’t even think about trying to get me sucked into talking about that, because I’m not,’ he says.
‘As I said before, every incident that I have seen over the past 25 years, I’ll take something from it and use it to my benefit.’
This feels a little risky, but what about his time at Liverpool, where Keane moved for £19million in 2008 only to return to Spurs six months later?
‘Good or bad, it will all help,’ he says. Rafa Benitez was his manager at Anfield and Keane is willing to recall one tale which, he believes, is an example of how not to handle a player.
The Irishman (left) represented both Spurs and Liverpool in the top flight from 2002-2011
‘I’d scored two goals (in a 3-0 win over Bolton) and was man of the match, I was on a high,’ he recalls.
‘On the Monday he (Benitez) pulls me in about my movement. Now my game was always about movement.
‘The analyst guy was trying to show me on the video, and he’s never played, so I wasn’t happy.
‘But that’s fine. You learn from that. By the way, I have nothing against Rafa, I thought he was a brilliant coach and it’s great that I’ve picked up something from every one of my managers.’
But who was the best?
‘That would be me,’ he jokes. ‘I took over as player-manager (of ATK) in India and I scored the only goal in my first game to stop us from finishing bottom.
But with just five goals to his name at Anfield, Keane soon returned to Spurs for a second spell
‘So that is the ambition, to manage again, but there is plenty of time. I’m enjoying this now.
‘Myself and Woody are winners, we demand the best, so let’s see where that takes us this season.’
My cheap watch tells us that Keane has given up more than half an hour of his time. One last chance to tell the Christmas party story?
For all of the earlier tension, Keane is engaging company. Players, you feel, will like him. So will Keane the coach be as big a success as Keane the player?
Perhaps that’s another stupid question.