By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — Oh the games people play — especially soccer players and their agents. Less than 48 hours after a tabloid newspaper had Robbie Keane pledging his future to Inter Milan, complete with a battery of positive quotes from the player himself, the Republic of Ireland international was the subject of a second major transfer story in the space of six months.
Keane was out of Italy, and packed off on loan to Leeds United in the north of England.
The deal — a £1 million downpayment to set up the loan, and a £12 million final payment in early summer — means that barring some unexpected glitch on or off the pitch, Keane will put his signature to a five-year contract with Leeds at the end of the season. So Inter recovers the £13 million they shelled out on the young Irish striker, and everyone’s happy.
Certainly, there is a logic to opting for Leeds after such a frustrating spell on the sidelines in Milan. First, the manager just happens to be David O’Leary, one of Ireland’s finest ever defenders and now a rising coach in the English Premiership, while Keane’s international teammates Gary Kelly, Ian Harte and Stephen McPhail are also on the books at Leeds.
In just two seasons, O’Leary has set out stall with a number of high-profile transfers in an effort to build a young team both to challenge Manchester United’s dominance of the English game, and to mount a challenge in the high profile, cash-rich European Champions League. Players like Mark Viduka, Dominic Matteo and Olivier Dacourt have spurned offers from other clubs to join O’Leary, while barely a month ago, Leeds signed a central defender, Rio Ferdinand, for a massive £18 million.
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So, Keane is hooking up with unbridled ambition in his bid to rescue a career that had gone temporarily sour in Italy. Those who questioned the wisdom of his moving at the tender age of 20 to a club that already had forwards of the quality of Brazil’s Ronaldo, Recoba of Uruguay, Christian Vieiri and the Turk Sukur on its roster have been proved right.
Following a promising start, which saw him score Inter’s first goal of the season in the Italian Super Cup against Lazio, and then score again in the UEFA Cup a week later, Keane’s progress soon came to a grinding halt. Mostly, it was out of his control. With Inter struggling, the club president, Massimo Moratti, lost patience and sacked his coach, Marcello Lippi. It soon became clear that Lippi’s replacement, Marco Tardelli, a World Cup winner with Italy in 1982, had little time for the Irish striker.
There was talk of a loan deal with another Serie A club, Reggina, and endless speculation about moves back to England, where Leeds, Liverpool, Chelsea, West Ham, Charlton and seemingly every club in the land were queuing up to make an offer.
Meanwhile, in 10 Serie A games with Tardelli in charge, Keane started in just three and figured as a late substitiute in two more. With Recoba signing a new deal, and with Ronaldo and Vieiri due back from injury, it was soon decision time.
Keane drew up a hit list of his preferred English clubs, with Leeds, Liverpool and Sunderland the leading three, in that order. He also consulted with the Republic of Ireland’s manager, Mick McCarthy, and chose to follow Viduka, Dacourt and the others towards O’Leary and his dreams of glory.
"I wanted it to work in Italy," Keane said. "It had gone well when Mr. Lippi was in charge. But the new manager had his own ideas and I wasn’t in them. There was an offer from Chelsea, but I preferred Leeds. I’ve a lot of friends there."
Last Saturday, Keane made his first-team debut in a disappointing 2-1 loss to Aston Villa at Elland Road. Coming on as a second-half substitute, Keane had one chance to score, but, understandably, struggled to gel with his new teammates.
"We’re buying potential, not the finished article," O’Leary said. "He’s going to be a great player and the aim is to sign good players, that’s what it’s all about. I have a very good player who has a hunger to do well. Neither I as a manager, nor he as a player have done anything in our careers — we both want to achieve things."
However, Keane will once again have to prove himself. O’Leary already has two quality strikers in Alan Smith and Viduka, while a third front player, Michael Bridges, in on the comeback trail following injury. The fact that Keane is not eligible for the remainder of the Champions League could mean that he will start in the Premiership, but there is bound to be some fierce competition for the two forward positions.
"I don’t care if they’re annoyed with my decision," O’Leary said. "They simply have to accept it. I’ve already used 25 different players this season, and that is the reality of the Premiership and European competition."
Keane understands that reality. Now all he has to do is start scoring goals again.