Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: How Wolves failed starlet Robbie Keane as a professional
Robbie Keane paid a glowing tribute to the part Wolverhampton Wanderers played in his development, when announcing his retirement this week.
The club will always hold a special place in his heart for the crucial stepping stone it became during his journey from teenage prospect to a star of the world game.
But, from the perspective of supporters, his Molineux career will always be regarded as something of a waste.
A waste that, after so much nurturing in the youth ranks, Wolves could not handle his potential as a fully-fledged professional. And a waste that his best years would have to be spent elsewhere.
There were no shortage of suitors chasing the 15-year-old Keane back in 1996.
He had been missed by Leeds a year earlier, even when scoring for one of the Yorkshire club’s youth teams in a trial game, but on his return home to Dublin it became clear he was on the radar of some of England’s top clubs.
Wolves eventually pipped Liverpool and Nottingham Forest for his signature, and he was taken under the wing of academy boss Chris Evans. He thrived in the junior set-up, scoring 36 goals in his only full season as a youth-team player.
His professional debut the following season against Norwich City at Carrow Road has gone down in folklore.
There was a certain irony that the 17-year-old was thrown into a starting XI full of veterans on that August afternoon in 1997.
Keith Curle, Steve Sedgley, Mark Atkins, Steve Froggatt and Don Goodman had been signed for big money in previous years but had been unable to take Wolves into the Premier League.
They could only look on and marvel as Keane took Norwich City apart with two goals – first with a thumping shot from the edge of the box and then a dance through a crowded penalty area to poke home his second.
When strike partner Steve Bull ran over to celebrate with him, the pair could almost have been mistaken for father and son, such was this Irish kid’s fresh-faced appearance.
The sprinkling of stardust that Wolves had been unable to find during the lavish spending of the Graham Taylor and Mark McGhee tenures had arrived.
McGhee, to his credit, trusted Keane from the start.
He made 45 appearances during that 1997/98 season, but supporters never forgave the manager for leaving him and Bull out of the biggest game of the season – the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal at Villa Park. Instead, recent loan recruit Steve Claridge was inexplicably given the nod in attack alongside Goodman.
The following campaign started so brightly for Keane, with eight goals in the opening 12 matches. But the football under McGhee was regressing.
Instead of improving, the team was becoming one-dimensional and ponderous.
The aim was for a possession-based dominance, but there was so little creativity that supporters quickly became frustrated.
With McGhee removed from his post in the autumn, Colin Lee took over and Keane never recaptured his early-season form. He watched on in envy on the final day of the season as Bradford sealed promotion to the Premier League in a five-goal thriller at Molineux, with Wolves missing out on the play-offs.
The club had neglected a growing problem in attack.
Dougie Freedman was never allowed to show his finer attributes by McGhee and was shown the door far too early. An ageing Goodman also left in 1998. Bull was by now a spent force, with a knee injury ending his career in the summer of 1999. Keane’s strike partner for that Bradford game was Havard Flo.
There was nobody at the club who could offer Keane the support his talents merited.
Two full seasons had passed and supporters knew their Irish star could not be kept at the club for much longer.
It was as if both management and board were confused with the talent that had been placed in their laps.
Here was a star of such potential that the club needed a clear plan of how best to utilise his ability and prospects, but there was never a time when the team was set up to get the best from the player.
For all the memories of those dazzling runs, fleet of foot and silky skills, there would be times when he was literally a little boy lost.
Game after game would pass by with Keane unable to make any impact.
History tends to be viewed through a highlights reel, but the reality was that there was never a consistency of performance to convince anyone that Wolves were truly developing the player as they should have done.
When he left Molineux just weeks into the 1999/2000 season, could supporters honestly say he had made great strides since his debut more than two years earlier?
Keane’s next destination will forever irk fans.
Wolves had become a club that was forced to look for a profit from Coventry City on its star player. The ambition had gone, to be replaced by a stark economic reality. A perennial Premier League struggler had been able to prise away the club’s brightest asset for £6million.
The disappointment at what might have been did not end there.
Now, at Highfield Road, Keane’s potential could finally be realised.
Among players of a superior quality to the mediocre crop at Molineux, and a manager who seemed to work in his best interests, Keane lit up the Premier League during his early days as a Sky Blue. As if freed from the shackles, his career was quickly back on an upward trajectory.
The rest we know about. Milan, Spurs, Liverpool. Ireland’s all-time record scorer. A stunning strike against Germany in a World Cup too.
Keane lived out the stellar playing career he was always destined for. Wolves may have nurtured him as a junior, but they undoubtedly failed him as a professional.