UEFA’s recent Grassroots Conference in Madrid was privileged to welcome Republic of Ireland legend Robbie Keane for an in-depth question-and-answer session on the grassroots game and related topics.
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Keane, a versatile and prolific striker, is the most capped player in the Republic of Ireland’s history with 146 appearances between 1998 and 2016, and his country’s record scorer with 68 goals.
He enjoyed a distinguished 20-year club career with, among others, Tottenham Hotspur, Leeds United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Liverpool and Coventry City. On the coaching side, Keane has worked as an assistant coach for the Republic of Ireland national team.
Keane is working for UEFA in an advisory role, bringing his vast experience to play in the drive to further develop football across Europe, and is a technical observer for UEFA at matches in major European and national team competitions.
At the Madrid conference, he answered questions about his beginnings as a footballer, gave his views on the importance of grassroots football and explained how the game creates friendships and teaches key values.
When did you start playing football and pick up the ‘virus’ for the game?
Robbie Keane: I started in a place called Tallaght in Dublin. A really tough background – you had to look after yourself. But football was always there for anybody. I played football in the streets with my elder brother and our friends.
As soon as I came home from school, I put my school bag down and played football. I played for a local team called Fettercairn – believe it or not, I started off as a right-back! There was a trial for a new team, and the coach picked the bigger lads, I was small and skinny, and I was left on the side lines. As soon as the coach turned his back, my brother threw me in with the group of lads who’d been picked, and then the coach saw me play.
For some reason, the coach put me at right-back – and I was the top goalscorer for the season in that position. Then my uncle took over the team the next year, and he put me straight up front. A year later, I moved to another team called Crumlin United, half an hour away from my home. So that’s how it really started for me…
Why is the grassroots game so important as a stepping-stone into the elite game?
Every club academy, for example, always wants kids from their local area to play for their academy teams, and that’s where you start. You don't go straight into playing for [the] Barcelona academy. You have to start somewhere, you have to start at a local team in your area like I did, and hopefully climb the ladder. You also hopefully have coaches who can help players develop. It’s fair to say that if I hadn’t started at grassroots level, I wouldn’t be sitting here.
What kind of skill sets did you learn playing on the streets?
I think if you look at the best players in the world, players from the streets, players that understand the game, they have a toughness about them.
I learned my trade from the little tricks I tried to pull off when playing against the gate or playing against a wall. We had a wall outside my house, with little pebble stones. There were loads of different spaces [in the wall], so the ball would always move to different areas, and I would always have to move quickly because of the stones. As a player, I was known for my movement, and I got this movement from small things like this.
It's a fine example of perseverance and how you learn to play…
Everything is on the phone now; we speak to each other on the phone and play PlayStation on the phone.
The importance of just getting outside and kicking a football, if you can, it makes a huge difference. I always say to kids now: ‘It takes a few minutes, three to five minutes, to take 500 touches against the wall.’ It’s nothing really when you think about it. And if you do that every day for one week, you’ve got thousands of touches of a football, and that will make your touch a lot better.
You have two boys, do they both play football? How would you describe the perfect club environment for youngsters?
My 13-year-old son is at the academy at Shamrock Rovers, a big team in Ireland who are playing in Europe this season. The academy there is extremely good – they’re definitely paving the way for a better future for the young kids. We’ll see a lot of young, really talented players coming through. Meanwhile, my six-year-old son has just started playing football.
It’s actually very difficult when you’re a parent and you’ve played the game yourself, because of the expectations on your children. People expect [my son] to be Robbie Keane … and that’s just not the case.
Having said this, at the end of the day, if you’re good enough and you have the mentality, and you have the desire to make it in the game, it’s okay. You can have all the ability in the world, but if you don’t have the heart and the head, it doesn’t matter who you are, you won’t succeed.
How important is it, in addition to coaching young players like your son, to also allow time for youngsters to just enjoy playing?
It’s extremely important. For example, on Mondays, my son and the other academy players play in the hall for an hour and a half – no coaching, no nothing – in the hall, five-a-side, free play. I think it’s important that you have one day where you just let the kids be kids. Let them enjoy themselves.
You ask any kid what their favourite training session is. Almost every one of them would say [the sessions] when they’re just free, when they just go and play and express themselves. When I was a kid, it was the same thing.
What are the key skills that you would expect from a youth coach?
I think a lot of coaching is also about managing young people. Every kid is different. I’m different from the next person, he’s different from the next person. Maybe I’m the kind of guy you need to shout at, maybe you’re the kind of guy you need to put an arm around, making sure everything is okay. So, there are different personalities.
And as a youth coach, as I mentioned before, you must let the kids express themselves, understand their mentality and what they desire from you as a coach.
Did you play football at school?
Yes. I wasn’t a big fan of school, and football was my release. I got away with a lot of stuff that I probably shouldn’t have got away with because the teacher was always wanting to play football games. So, I got off many classes just to play football. I was lucky … the more you play football, inevitably you’re going to get better.
And, in school, you have interaction with schoolfriends that maybe you wouldn’t usually hang around with outside school, and you get this connection on the football pitch.
How would you sum up the values of grassroots football and sport in general?
Well, as I said before, it’s given me everything. I was fortunate enough to play for my national team 146 times, score 68 goals, play in England’s Premier League, play around the world in all different places.
I wouldn’t have had that opportunity without coaches and volunteers taking time out of their busy working schedules to help and educate young players from completely different backgrounds.
Football brings people together. That’s the great thing about sport, whether it’s football or anything else, football always brings people together. Whether you’re the richest guy in the world or the poorest guy in the world, it doesn’t matter.
Football is one language. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, or what language you speak. Everyone speaks the same language in football. The more we can get kids out there playing football, the better it will be for football going forward.
What are the biggest challenges facing grassroots football? You’ve already mentioned the influence of PlayStations and computers…
It depends where you’re from. [Some countries] have unbelievable facilities for young players, but you might not have the same situation in other countries. It’s important that we try and financially help those countries that don’t have the same resources as the bigger nations.
I’ve travelled with UEFA to a number of countries, and you see that the love of the game in these countries is incredible. Football is one language. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, or what language you speak. Everyone speaks the same language in football. The more we can get kids out there playing football, the better it will be for football going forward.
What advice would you give to a young boy or girl who wants to start playing football?
Practice as much as you can. I can only speak from my experience, which was practising every day. I was known in football for having a good first touch, and I promise you that this came from just [playing] against the wall every day; thousands of touches against the wall. Understand the game, and play as much as you can with your friends. Enjoy yourself. If you love it that much, just go for it.
And that basically transfers to normal life as well…
If you’re in the street with some kids that you don’t really know, but who love football, you can become friends with them, no matter what, because the two of you have this love for the game. Of course, it gives you great joy, and it gives you a great understanding of what friendship with people means.
Would you like to see more elite players get involved in the grassroots game?
If they want to do it, I believe ex-players and top players should be involved in the game a lot more; I know UEFA are trying to bring in as many ex-players as they can. It just takes one kid to see one player – a big player – and they want to do what that player can do. It just takes one kid to think: “Oh, I can be like that!” That’s why it’s so important to have ex-players and really top players involved in training sessions to try to help as many kids as possible. My advice is: Don’t be frightened to ask players to get involved … the vast majority that I’ve played with will always give back.
What’s your vision on the relation between school education and youngsters' passion for football, and the time spent on both?
The chances of a youngster making it are very slim. So what are you going to do afterwards? You can’t rely on making it as a football player for one second. You need something to fall back on. You need education. Education is extremely important. I was very lucky that I made it. I didn’t like school. I just had a vision of becoming a football player. But if I hadn’t become a football player, I genuinely couldn’t tell you what I’d have done. It’s vital that we drum into kids that education is very important. You don’t want to kill their dreams, but they need to know the reality.
Football is a lesson for life – would you agree with that?
Absolutely. Look where I am now from where I came from. It’s taught me so many lessons. It’s taken me off the streets. I could have gone down a different path than the one I went down.
It’s taught me values. It’s taught me respect for people, understanding different people, different cultures. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had a long career and met unbelievable people from different walks of life – and football did all that…