At 15, robbie Keane left Dublin for the bright lights of English football.
The cocky young striker showed movement and finishing well beyond his years, but hadn’t yet acquired the physical attributes needed to succeed in the old First Division with Wolves.
As a result of daily training in the academy and occasionally the first team, he developed significantly in less than two years. Handed the chance to make his debut away to Norwich City in 1997, Keane, then 17, repaid manager Mark McGhee with two stunning goals — and never looked back.
Today, Keane holds both the record for most caps (131) and most goals (62) and, considering he recently reiterated his intention to continue with international football for the next qualifying campaign at least, is sure to add to both tallies.
That said, there is an appetite to see fresh talent coming through the ranks at underage level and much recent debate has revolved around what can be done by the FAI at grassroots level to improve the currently fragmented domestic system.
Speaking in Dublin yesterday, Keane expressed his concern about the the lack of support in place for young players who may not be lucky enough to break through at their club the first time around at increasingly multi-national academies in Britain.
“The English (media) have been complaining about how only a certain amount of players are playing in the Premier League with all the foreign players,” said Keane. ”But they’re not just coming in at the highest level, the academies now are getting them in too.
“That limits opportunities for Irish, Scottish, Welsh players. We’re going to be the ones at the end of that barrel. When I went over first to the (Wolves) youth team, there were five Irish lads and the rest were English, Scottish or Welsh.
“There wasn’t one foreign player. I’m not having a go at foreign players at all but there needs to be a structure in place where they can give people opportunities because how are young lads going to develop if they don’t get them early on?
Hundreds of players come from Ireland and they are going to have to start lower down now. If that doesn’t change, I think it’s a bit worrying for us.
“If the English players can’t get through, what chance have the Irish players unless you’re exceptional — a Messi or a Ronaldo. It’s going to affect us in the long run.”
Dutchman Ruud Dokter was appointed as the FAI’s high performance director back in August and has been tasked with improving the current structures as well as implementing the Emerging Talent Programme.
The facts remain, however, that with schoolboy clubs generally looking after their own interests and many Airtricity League clubs facing ongoing struggles to keep their heads above water financially, it is the players who are losing out.
Keane admits that he doesn’t have the answers but would be open to the suggestion of setting up a centralised school of excellence in Ireland where young aspiring players could hone their talents.
“I don’t know the ins and outs of everything but if you got coaches that are going to give these kids the opportunity to become better players than why not,” Keane explains. “I’d be all for that but the only problem is that most of the teams in the League of Ireland are not professional so it’s very hard.
“They want players to stay here and try to learn the trade but when the teams are not professional they’re are not getting that support system straight away.
“From 15 I was training every day. Sometimes going over to the first team and playing with players who were 30 years of age and learning off them. It’s not a league that’s successful so it’s very hard.
“If they had something like that (a school of excellence) it would be great. I think anything that will help and develop younger players will benefit the Irish team in the long-run.”
Robbie Keane was at the launch of the most anticipated console of the year; Xbox One. Xbox One brings together the best games, the best multiplayer experiences through Xbox Live and the hottest entertainment offerings in a system built to deliver best-in-class experiences for the future, today and every day after.