As he looked out of the window of his car this afternoon as it sped towards White Hart Lane, a successful medical and a return to Tottenham Hotspur, Robbie Keane must have taken a few moments to review the last six months of his life. Where did it go wrong? How did he go from a move to the club that he supported as a boy, the Champions League and the possibility of leading the Liverpool front line with Fernando Torres to their first league championship since 1990 to Spurs and a battle against relegation that may yet end unsuccessfully? The appeal of the move to Keane is obvious. What Liverpool hoped to get from it all is considerably less certain.
Only a hopeless optimist would attempt to claim that Keane played well for Liverpool. However, there are reasons for believing that he didn’t get the rub of the green at Anfield. Rafael Benitez occasionally seemed hell bent on not picking him (leaving him, for example, on the substitutes bench the week after he scored at The Emirates Stadium against Arsenal) and the rumours coming out of Liverpool seem to indicate that Keane was one part of a double transfer attempt by Benitez involving Gareth Barry that went wrong. It’s certainly not an implausible argument to suggest that, had he been given a bit of time to bed in at Liverpool, he could well have been more successful. It’s certainly true to say that he is playing no worse at the moment than, say, Dirk Kuyt, who never received the sort of vilification that Keane received in the press. It’s certainly fair to say that, if this whole episode doesn’t reflect particularly well upon Robbie Keane’s abilities as a footballer, then the reputation of Rafael Benitez for his man-management skills will be even more greatly damaged by Keane’s early departure.
On the first day of the February of a season which sees Liverpool just two points from the top of the Premier League, he has chosen to take an £8m (which may drop to £5m with performance related bonuses) hit just to get Keane out of the club. He hasn’t even signed a replacement for him. What does this say about the current well-being of Liverpool Football Club? Well, we know that Liverpool aren’t massively well off at the moment. Their decision to spend £20m on a player whose technical limitations were pretty well known to Tottenham supporters was a peculiar one, but their decision to cut their losses on him after just six months may have an element of desperation. Somehow, one starts to imagine a sense of panic in the Liverpool board room – Manchester United are starting to look very, very ominous, breaking Premier League records with their defence and grinding out 1-0 win after 1-0 win. It is starting to look as though they could (even accounting for their win at the weekend against a rapidly imploding Chelsea) be on the brink of blowing their best chance of winning the Premier League in almost two decades.
We know in what regard Benitez holds Keane. Keane started twenty-three matches for Liverpool out of the thirty-nine played since he joined. He completed just five. He only partnered Ferndando Torres up front for three matches. The idea that Robbie Keane is somehow a “terrible” footballer is simply not true. He is limited, but always scored goals at Spurs. Liverpool can’t have it both ways. Either they didn’t know of his when they signed him and realised their mistake afterwards, or they did know it and… well, it’s difficult to say how that sentence should finish. If they did know it, what was the rational reason for selling him? The argument that Keane was part of a wider plan that involved bringing Gareth Barry to Anfield makes more sense, but not that much more. How Gareth Barry might have made all the difference is anybody’s guess. The most obvious explanation for this is a political one. It’s Rick Parry & George Gillett on side, and Tom Hicks & Rafael Benitez on the other. Keane was Parry’s signing, and Benitez’s decision to ship him out is a power play.
For Robbie Keane, looking out of that car window, a large slice of humble pie is now required. “It was a difficult decision to make to leave Tottenham in the summer. It proved not to be the right move for me. I know some Spurs fans will feel I let them down, but I can assure them I’ll be giving my all. This club has terrific fans and I want to repay them for all their support. We’ve got to get on and fight our way up that league table”, he said, hoping that the fans live up to the fickle reputation of football fans worldwide and give him a reception fit for a king. As he prepares himself for a relegation battle, the possibility of a bizarre football landmark looms large on the horizon. Spurs play Liverpool on the last day of the season. Robbie Keane has played enough matches for Liverpool this season to win a championship medal for them should they somehow manage to overhaul Manchester United at the top of the table. There’s a small chance that he might become the first ever player to win a championship medal and get relegated on the same day, at the same match. Regardless of any of this, one thing remains likely. He’s unlikely to find Spurs fans being very forgiving if he doesn’t start scoring for them. Quickly and frequently.