In January 2007, David Beckham left Real Madrid, opting to give up the elite level of football for the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles. Beckham not only pocketed a ludicrous sum of money by doing this but also put the spotlight on the MLS. Interest was piqued in the UK, with Channel 5 picking up highlights for the league, and over the next few years, America became a stomping ground for players nearing the end of their playing career, looking for one final payday. While many players have moved across the Atlantic Ocean looking simply to line their pockets and put their feet up, one player, in particular, moved out west, not just to get paid, but to win. That player is Republic of Ireland’s all-time top scorer, Robbie Keane.
“I’m not here for a holiday. I’m here to win things.”
These were the words Keane stated during his first press conference in LA. If this was a last hurrah, if this was designed to be a big payday for the Irishman, few could begrudge him that. He worked tirelessly to get his break in English football, eventually making a name for himself at Tottenham, going on to become a club icon and eventually captain the side. After all this hard work, he was due an easy finish. Robbie doesn’t do easy, however.
His leadership qualities have shone through even from a young age. Maturity has been a key attribute throughout his career. He grew up just outside Dublin and impressed coaches and scouts alike as a youngster. Eventually, he had a choice to make. To sign for Liverpool, a top-flight club who he had supported and idolised as a child, or Wolverhampton Wanderers, who, by his own admission, he hadn’t really heard of. He opted for Wolves, in the lower divisions, citing the fact that they were of a lower stature as his reason for joining. Robbie wanted to play and felt that he would struggle to do so as a Red. He could have gone to his beloved team but had the sense to go where he would play.
This decision paid off for Keane. He broke into the first team after a year of banging in goals for the youths. He earned a transfer to Coventry, then Inter Milan before signing for Spurs. He was a loyal servant for Tottenham for years, but in 2008, he got a chance to rectify one of the hardest decisions of his life. Over a decade after turning down the chance to sign for his boyhood team, the opportunity came knocking once more. He joined up with Rafa Benitez at Liverpool and was determined to make this opportunity count.
Robbie Keane has a phenomenally strong winning mentality. He craves trophies, he desires success. He loved Tottenham and had built up quite the legacy at White Hart Lane, but aside from lifting the League Cup In 2008, Spurs had always been in the shadow of North-London rivals Arsenal. By moving to Liverpool he earned the chance to play in the Champions League, he joined a side who had aspirations of challenging for the title, not just pushing for Europe. The standard was higher, he went from teammates such as Jermaine Jenas and David Bentley to Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. The fact he was a Liverpool fan was merely an added bonus.
Keane lived out his dream, for a whole six months. It turned out the grass was not greener. Benitez left him on the bench more often than not and often played him out of position. In the January transfer window, Spurs made an audacious bid for their former player, which saw the Anfield side lose £7 million, but it was for the best. Keane got to play; Spurs earned a top player and Liverpool freed up some wages.
The whole experience was an eye-opener for Robbie. He stated afterwards that he never regretted the move, he loved Liverpool and felt that he had earned it, but at the end of the day, it focused him. It made him realise that playing was more important than earning a big wage on the bench.
Spurs were slowly building around the turn of the decade, and this spelt bad news for Keane. While he was their star in the early-mid 2000s, he was more of an option in his second spell.
A year after his resigning for Spurs, he was loaned to his other boyhood side, Scottish Premier League side Celtic. This was an immensely successful time for Robbie, who thrived at dropping down a level. After a slow start, including a loss to Kilmarnock, he ended the season with 16 goals in 19 goals across all competitions. He didn’t earn a trophy at Celtic, as Rangers won the League and League Cup, with Dundee United winning the Scottish Cup, but his goals were crucial. For Keane, there was a great deal of joy in being in a winning side, where the expectation was to win every game. It was the sort of team mentality that he was craving. Playing for the draw is not something that the Irishman is comfortable with.
This disdain for playing it safe is a great trait to have, though was problematic on the international stage. He was part of a very successful youth side in Ireland. He won the 1998 UEFA European Under-18 Championship in Cyprus, alongside teammates such as Richard Dunne. This was an exciting, fast-paced attacking team who thrived in this tournament. The contrast to the first team was troubling to Keane.
He never complained publicly, he was honoured to play for his country and led the line 146 times for the first team, scoring 68 times. He was a star for Ireland and was adored by the fans, but far too often was deployed in very negative systems focused more on surviving than winning.
Despite a string of Irish managers playing relatively negative tactics, there were occasions where they worked. A young Robbie Keane started for Mick McCarthy’s team in the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan. It took 10 years for the Boys In Green to make a return to a major tournament, but they qualified for the European Championships in 2012. The Irish fans were the stars in this campaign and were much more memorable in the tournament than Keane and his team, who were painfully dull to watch.
There was a bit of redemption in 2016, however. Under the guidance of Martin O’Neil, Ireland made it into the knockout round of the European Championships. They weren’t scintillating, but they went through after beating Italy in their final group game. They fell to hosts, France, but put up a hell of a fight. Keane was no longer a regular starter in this tournament but was certainly a valuable member of the squad and could count himself proud after his stellar international campaign, one which saw him as Ireland’s most capped player AND their all-time top goal scorer.
While Keane had spent the bulk of his career playing for teams who often were focused on not losing, he joined the LA Galaxy with the intention of winning everything. He was convinced to join by David Beckham, with whom he became friends with during Becks’ time with Tottenham. The call honed in on Keane’s desire to win, with Beckham wanting someone who had the drive and determination that Keane possessed.
Why did Keane move out to LA though? A winning mentality is great, but Keane was more than good enough to stay in England. He was only 31 and his game was never built around pace. He was very capable of playing in the Premier League, and if winning was important to him then a top Championship side would surely have snapped him up. The money in England was certainly better than what he was being paid in America, yet he still chose to leave.
Ultimately the reason that Robbie left the UK was that he wanted a new challenge. He loved his career in the top flight of English football, but he also enjoyed his short stints in Scotland and Italy. He saw the US as a new challenge and something of a passion project. He was identified by Beckham and the Galaxy hierarchy as a big game player and the ideal person to help push them to the next level.
The system in the MLS meant that each franchise was designated three Designated Players, players who are exempt from the salary cap rule. Generally speaking, this rule was created to draw star names to the league, boosting the profile of the MLS. LA Galaxy had maxed out their allocation in 2011, so had to move former Aston Villa striker Juan Pablo Angel to allow Robbie Keane to sign.
There is always a worry that when signing for a new team, and particularly in a new league, that there may be a period of acclimatising. For Keane, this period lasted 21 minutes before he put his side ahead against the San Jose Earthquakes. He finished the season as a league champion, assisting Landon Donovan in the final.
He enjoyed his first season in LA but felt he didn’t play enough. He opted to join Aston Villa on loan to keep his fitness levels up. Keane got four goals in 11 games, and more importantly, he was training hard and playing well. By the time the new MLS season began in March, Robbie hit the ground running.
The forward went on to play 37 times across all competitions, scoring 23 goals. The reason that Beckham was brought in to the Galaxy was on account of him being a big-game player. He scored in the playoff run in 2011, and bettered this in 2012, scoring braces against San Jose and Seattle in the conference playoffs, and notched a penalty in the final against Houston.
Once again, Keane was an MLS champion, only this time he had played the full season. He would win one more MLS Cup in his time in California, in 2014. He scored the winner, this time against the New England Revolution.
Keane left Los Angeles in 2016, seeing out his contract. In his five and a half seasons Robbie Keane lit up the league. He played 165 times across all competitions, scoring 104 goals. He scored in playoff games and cup finals. He was the MLS Cup three times. He earned the captaincy of the club and was voted club MVP in four seasons between 2012 and 2015. He was voted in the MLS Best XI three times, player of the month on numerous occasions and was awarded the league MVP in 2015.
Despite all these awards and accolades, he claims that his biggest achievement was changing the entire mentality of the LA Galaxy franchise. He was unhappy at how laid back the players were. He stated that him and Beckham would be livid upon the team losing, they would be fuming all week. He would then get back on the team bus after a loss to see the lads laughing and joking, Snapchatting and Instagramming. They were happy to put the loss behind them and move on. This infuriated the star players and Keane made a point of making sure the players’ attitudes changed.
He would hound them on the training field, he would scream at them in a match. His coach even spoke to Keane about this, letting him know that it wasn’t really the done thing to have a go at the players. Keane replied to this saying that yes, it wasn’t the done thing, but it was from now on.
He wasn’t being angry for the sake of it, he had no desire to be a bully. He just wanted to win, or at least put up a fight. He wanted to make the other players better, he wanted players to care about their game, their style, their professionalism. He could sense that some players were happy just to be living in LA, earning spending money. Keane didn’t think like this though. Keane was there to do a job.
Robbie Keane was brought in to give the LA Galaxy a push at winning the MLS Cup. He was brought in to be an experienced striker and give the team a boost on account of his status. He was brought in for all these reasons, but he left a bona fide hero in Los Angeles. He didn’t just compete for trophies, he brought home trophies. LA Galaxy actually won more trophies in Keane’s five and a half years at the franchise than they had won in all the years preceding his introduction to the American game.
Robbie Keane left the UK to join US franchise LA Galaxy with the task of challenging for trophies. He won so much and played to an outstanding calibre. He even tasked himself with changing the laissez-faire attitude amongst the players and did just that. In five and a half seasons he worked wonders with the franchise, balancing this with a busy international schedule for the Republic of Ireland. Robbie Keane will undoubtedly be remembered best for leading the line for the Republic of Ireland, and for his long career with Tottenham, but he spent a sizeable chunk of his career in the MLS. He played some of the best football of his long career here and totally changed the culture of a franchise. If ever Keane fancies stepping into management or coaching then he is surely destined for the top.