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04th Oct 2017

Rafa Benitez’s new position for Robbie Keane made no sense at all

20 minutes into his first game for Liverpool, and it was obvious it wouldn't work with Rafa

Robert Redmond

“He tried to turn me into something I’m not, and that was always going to be a recipe for disaster as someone used to scoring goals.”

In 2008, Robbie Keane was one of Tottenham Hotspur’s best players. The previous year, he had scored 31 goals, and registered 13 assists, in just 40 games and alongside Dimitar Berbatov, formed one of the best strike partnerships in the Premier League. Keane was settled at Spurs, spending six seasons with the London club after having a nomadic existence during the first half of his career.

The Irish striker moved from Wolverhampton Wanderers to Coventry City to Inter Milan to Leeds United and then to Spurs in 2002, where he looked like spending the rest of his career – until Liverpool came along.

Liverpool made an approach for Keane in the summer of 2008, and the Irish striker couldn’t turn the move down. He had supported Liverpool as a child, and rejected a chance to move to Anfield as a teenager in favour of Wolves, correctly recognising that he would have more opportunities to play at the then-First Division club.

In 2008 though, Keane was at the peak of his powers, an established Premier League striker, with over 100 goals in the division, and captain of his country. He was also joining a team competing for domestic and European honours, featuring top class players such as Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, with Rafa Benitez, one of Europe’s most tactically astute coaches, as manager.

However, Keane’s transfer didn’t go to plan. He was back at Spurs a few months later, after scoring just seven times in 28 appearances for Liverpool. It turns out, it was obvious just 20 minutes into his first game that his time at Liverpool would be brief.

During a very interesting interview with Graham Hunter, Keane revealed that Benitez tried to turn him into a left-winger, akin to the way he turned Dirk Kuyt into a wide player, after signing the Dutch player as a forward.

Jamie Carragher, Keane’s former teammate, suggested Hunter ask Keane about his first pre-season game, in which Rafa tried to change the 28-year-old striker into a shuffler on the wing.

“Yeah, he wanted to change me to a left winger,” Keane said.

“And, I mean I am clearly not a left winger, and that’s obviously clear for everyone to see. The first 20 minutes he wanted me to play left wing and I had never played it before, so it was kind of new to me.”

Keane played as either a number nine or a number 10 for club and country. The former LA Galaxy striker possessed brilliant movement, always capable of finding space, linking up play and was an excellent finisher. He was quick, but certainly no-one’s idea of a winger – except Rafa.

Keane’s football intelligence and skillset meant he had to play centrally, but Benitez had Torres at his peak leading the line and Gerrard playing off him. This meant that, unless Robbie was willing to be a winger, more often than not there was no room in the starting team for the Irishman. However, Keane holds no ill-feeling towards Benitez, saying he respects the current-Newcastle United manager, and considers him to be a brilliant tactical manager.

“I respect every manager I’ve worked with,” Keane said.

“They all have their ideas, different ideas, and whether I agree with them (or not) it doesn’t matter. I’m not a left-winger, as we’ve established from 20 years of playing football. But tactically he was probably one of the best I’ve worked with, he knows the game inside out, but he tried to turn me into something I’m not, and that was always going to be a recipe for disaster as someone used to scoring goals. When I did play up front I scored goals. But my problem was that when I did play, I wasn’t going to play the next day, which, for a striker, is very difficult. Strikers rely on confidence, and as soon as you get those goals, you know there’s more to come. So, that kills you a little bit, and that was the hardest bit to take.”

Keane wasn’t willing to just sit on the bench and collect his money, so his time on Merseyside ended in January 2009, half-way through his first season with the club, and he returned to Spurs.

“For me, I’m not waking up on a Saturday morning to sit on the bench and pick up my wages. I love football. I love football. When you have that adrenaline, that Saturday feeling, where you can’t wait to play and then you’re sitting on the bench is the biggest kick in the backside. I was sick to the stomach, and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to leave after six or seven months. I wanted to stay there, scoring loads of goals and winning stuff, but if you’re not playing and you know there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, there’s no point in hanging around. That’s not me.”

Liverpool lost out on the Premier League title that season to Manchester United, finishing four points behind Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. Keane left Spurs for good in 2011, joining La Galaxy where he played alongside David Beckham and won three MLS Cups.

Listen to a free extract of The Big Interview with Robbie Keane. To access the full 80-minute interview – and unlock hours of bonus content including weekly shows and exclusives Big Interviews with Ledley King and Rafael van der Vaart – become a Big Interview Socio