For an hour, it was like we were transported back to the late 1990s.
Robbie Keane – quick, sharp, entertaining the Wolves fans and nudging them to the edge of their seats.
Not this time on the pitch, where during an exhilarating two-year spell he notched 29 goals in 87 appearances, but instead, behind the microphone.
The 41-year-old Dubliner is by no means considering any sort of regular schedule on the after-dinner circuit.
A strong and unflinching desire to pursue a career in management when opportunity knocks is a far more powerful motivation.
But Keane flew in from Ireland to join former strike partner Steve Bull for an evening hosted by close pal Matt Murray and organised by Wolves fan Carl Falconer to raise funds for Pancreatic Cancer UK and Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
Keane and Bull quickly picked up the threads of a footballing partnership forged when both were at different ends of their hugely successful careers those many years ago.
That dressing room dynamic of Keane and Murray’s gentle ribbing of their more experienced former colleague, laced with their clear and long-lasting respect, made for a fantastic trip down Memory Lane tinged not only with laughter but a fair sprinkling of nostalgic emotion.
Particularly evident as well, was not only how comfortable Keane was on stage, but also how much he enjoyed returning to the place where it all began and such an illustrious career was launched those two decades ago.
Speaking in the bar area at the Mount Hotel prior to the start of the evening, the Republic of Ireland’s record goalscorer revealed how good it felt to be back.
“One of the big things I took away from Wolves was the family side of it all,” Keane explained.
“It was a real family club, which can be hard to find in football, and I think that is why I fell in love with the place from the start.
“Obviously Ireland has always been my home and England has been a second home but at Wolves I always felt really settled.
“Even coming back this time, driving around with Matty, it’s all very familiar and I still know where everything is from the training ground to here at the Mount, where we had Christmas parties, and the Newbridge pub where we popped in once or twice!
“Given it has been 20-odd years I think that shows you how strong the connection is, and I have loads of nice memories to think about.
“It’s really nice to be back.”
It was that family ethos which went a long way to giving Wolves the opportunity to land Keane in the first place.
That, and some strong representation from Wolves’ then youth development officer and later Academy director Chris Evans and youth team coach Robert Kelly.
Wolves had been alerted by Irish-based scout Eddie Corcoran to the extraordinary potential of this young lad from a council estate in the Dublin town of Tallaght, and Evans in particular was determined not to let the opportunity slip.
Keane had turned out for local club Fettercairn and then Crumlin United as a youngster, alongside spending every other waking moment kicking a ball with friends on the streets.
“For me growing up was all about football, we’d have matches where we’d just play against other streets,” he recalls.
“That is where the love started.”
What also then started was opportunity. An opportunity to move to England, and Wolves were by no means the only club showing interest.
Liverpool, Leeds, Nottingham Forest and West Ham were amongst others. But Evans’ pursuit was relentless. And he got his man.
“I probably had five or six trials in total, a fair few different clubs, but Wolves is the one where I instantly felt at home,” Keane recalls.
“They were in the Championship, and I didn’t know a great deal about them to be honest.
“For some reason I had just assumed the stadium wouldn’t be great, maybe because they weren’t in the Premier League, but as soon as I came over I was just blown away.
“The colours in the stadium, the training ground, how everyone made me feel like it was home, and they wanted me to come over and start as soon as I could.
“Chris was a massive part of it, him and Rob Kelly, they both came over to meet the family and that little attention to detail made such a difference.
“How good they were with my family, coming over to sit and talk to them – nobody else did that.”
And so, four days before his 16thbirthday, Keane was on a plane heading across the Irish Sea in the first chapter of the pursuit of his dream.
There was no turning back. Not that there would ever be any thought of turning back.
Little over a year later, after a goal-laden season at youth level, Keane made his senior debut, at the scene of the current Wolves’ next away game – Norwich’s Carrow Road.
It turned into one of those memorable days not just for Keane but also all those hordes of Wolves fans who had headed down the A14 with spirits high and new season anticipation bursting at the seams.
A 2-0 win on the opening day. Both goals scored by the only just 17-year-old debutant. A first sight of the cartwheel celebration honed on those street games in Tallaght. Few stories are better. Not so much Roy of the Rovers but Robbie of the Wolves. To be filed in the section marked ‘never to be forgotten Wolves awaydays’.
How well does Keane himself remember that day? He sits back. Very well, as it turns out.
“The number 8 jersey, wearing Adidas Copa boots, a sunny day, roasting actually, like it always should be on opening day.
“I kind of had a feeling I would score, genuinely.
“I had been on pre-season in Scotland with the first team and felt comfortable in that environment and had been progressing every day in training.
“I’d had a year in the youth team where every time I scored a goal – and I scored a lot – I was given £20 to spend at McDonald’s because I needed to build myself up.
“And then that summer after my first year, when I went home, for some reason I just grew.
“I got broader and I really filled out, and while I was still a kid, and still quite skinny, I was able to play at a level where people bigger than me couldn’t just push me over.
“So from the day I reported back, I wanted to be in that first team for the opening game.
“You hear young players sometimes say they are just happy to be involved or happy to be in the squad and yes, so was I, but I also wanted more, I wanted to be in the team.”
As if what transpired that day in East Anglia wasn’t magical enough, Evans had arranged for Keane’s parents Anne and Robert to be flown over to take in the game from the Directors Box.
What a day for them too. Robert sadly died at the age of 50 back in 2003, but he did so with so many wonderful memories, not least during that blistering afternoon at Carrow Road.
“If you look back at my celebrations, after the first goal I ran towards the crowd and then waved towards my parents when I got back to the halfway line,” says Keane.
“But after the second I went straight towards them.
“My Mum and Dad were buzzing, I think they enjoyed a few drinks, and were properly celebrating, in Norwich’s Directors Box!
“I don’t think they could help themselves, seeing their kid just turned 17 and playing and scoring for Wolves’ first team.
“Sadly my Dad’s not with us anymore but those memories have always stayed with us – that day was for all of us, not just me.
“It was the result of all the sacrifices that had been made, all the things my Mum and Dad had to do for me or buy me that they couldn’t really afford.
“It was for the time that they had to buy me Puma Kings that were size five-and-a-half when I was a size six because they were 35 quid instead of going up to 80 quid.
“It was for everything that they did to help me on my way.
“It all came good that day, and to go up and see their faces after that game, it was unbelievable, and that will never leave me.”
It was probably that upbringing for Keane, who has a brother and two sisters, that spurred him on.
Coming from modest but extremely tight-knit roots, he knew the value of hard graft. And on the sometimes tough streets of Tallaght, his character was formed.
“No matter who you are and where you are going, at that age, I think it is always going to be a bit difficult to move away from home,” Keane begins.
“I always say to young people in that situation now to give it a good three to six months before making a decision – try not to give up if you are homesick at the start.
“For me, I was excited.
“For a couple of years it had felt like it was leading up to me getting this chance, and I loved playing football so much that I couldn’t wait.
“Waking up and knowing I was going to be playing football every day? Amazing. I wanted to train in the afternoons as well.
“I was also really fortunate that I stayed such a great landlady in Josie Edwards, and was in digs with another young lad in Stephen Hackett.
“And I also spent a lot of time with Matty at his place as well with Jan and Pete, who sadly passed away recently.
“So I was lucky enough to have what felt like two families over here, as well as my family back home, and I was ready.
“Coming back after that first season, I still remember getting the call to move up to first team training, and running down the hill to join them.
“In my very first training session, I chipped the ball over Keith Curle’s head, and stuck it in the top corner.
“The rest of the lads were clapping and laughing and I think that annoyed Curley more than anything, and he spent the rest of the training session trying to smash me.
“But that was fine.
“Where I came from, quite a tough background, playing on the streets, I was able to cope, I actually quite enjoyed it.
“Yes I was still a kid, at 16 when I first joined in, and getting smashed by a senior pro was very different to getting smashed by another young player.
“It was all about learning, and the way I played was quite clever.
“With my movement and sharpness I tried to make sure I didn’t get involved in that side too much, and then the only way to get me was to come straight through me and not get anywhere near the ball.”
Once that spectacular introduction was out of the way, senior players like Curle, Bull, Don Goodman, Mike Stowell, Steve Sedgley and others were crucial to Keane’s development.
At the same time he forged friendships with contemporaries of similar age which have endured, particularly with the likes of Murray, Lee Naylor and Carl Robinson.
Keane was also close to Dean Richards, also a team-mate later on at Tottenham, and his premature loss to a brain tumour at the age of 36 just over a decade ago still hurts.
All the above were part of a vibrant Wolves dressing room at the time. It wasn’t a place for any shrinking violets.
“They were all cheeky buggers,” is Bull’s playful description of the new kids on the block who loved the craic with their experienced colleagues.
Robinson has previously told the story of he and Keane sat behind Bull in taxi journeys on night out on his final pre-season in Sweden, of singing their own adapted words to the ‘Stevie Bull’s a Tatter’ song, slapping the back of his head, and then running for safety as soon as they had to get out!
With the fun and camaraderie however, came a huge amount of respect.
“Where I come from that sort of humour, the Irish banter, I enjoyed it,” says Keane.
“But while maybe I was a little bit cheeky, I was always respectful.
“And in that there is a big difference.
“That is why I got away with things, because I got on well with the experienced lads and they knew we could have a laugh but that I knew where to draw the line.
“Then I would go off and make them a cup of tea, or clean their boots – as a young player I always had that level of respect.
“Within that environment though, it is important to have that attitude not so much of arrogance but of fearlessness, to feel that you belong and you deserve to be there.
“I felt I had the right balance, and that we had a really good mixture of the senior figures and the younger lads coming through.
“There was a good bond there, and it’s just unfortunate that we didn’t stay together for longer, but my destiny was somewhere else.”
It worked reasonably well over the two seasons which followed Keane’s debut, though ultimately not well enough, finishes of ninth – under Mark McGhee who first gave him his chance – and seventh under Colin Lee not sufficient for the club to progress at the same electric pace as their exciting young striker.
He was still among the goals for Wolves in the early stages of the 1999/2000 campaign, the only one of the game to secure three points at Manchester City and a left foot volley in a 1-1 draw against Portsmouth.
But the clock was ticking.
Wolves were keen to bring in funds – Keane and Steve Froggatt were two saleable assets – and after long-running speculation involving various clubs it was to Coventry that the striker departed.
The way Keane’s career would play out, and the time it then took Wolves to finally make it up to the top flight themselves, indicates it doesn’t need the benefit of hindsight to suggest it was the right call.
“There had been a lot of talk about my future and I did feel I was ready for the Premier League,” says Keane.
“Even though I knew it was a step up and they would be bigger and stronger than me I felt I would do o-k and be able to get around people.
“I think it was a good deal for everyone, and if I remember rightly some of the £6million fee was put towards the Academy and the training ground development.”
Keane also scored goals very quickly for Coventry, and laid one particular ghost to rest which continues to prompt discussion amongst Wolves fans to this day.
Why, for the FA Cup Semi Final against Arsenal in 1998, was he given only seven minutes as a substitute and Bull only 22?
“I was surprised I didn’t play in that one,” Keane admits.
“Arsenal had incredible experience at the back in terms of their organisation, but they were ageing a little bit.
“I felt that with my ability with the ball on the floor I could have made a difference, and Bully too with getting in behind.
“We could have made an impact.
“And that following season when I was at Coventry, we played that Arsenal team and we beat them 3-2, and I scored the winner, getting in front of Tony Adams to flick it past David Seaman.”
It is difficult to disagree, particularly when you think back to the goals Keane scored, such a broad and diverse selection, which ensured defences could never, ever feel comfortable.
Even going back to that debut, and Norwich, the two goals, both so clinical, were very different.
“I loved that half volley but anyone can score a half volley,” Keane reflects, with almost casual disdain.
“You hit it and sometimes they go in, and sometimes they don’t.
“For me the second goal that day was more ‘me’, chopping the guy and turning inside.
“All my game was about movement and getting in behind people, and it was my kind of goal.”
It was an afternoon which put Keane on the map, and his progress at Wolves and then afterwards was meteoric.
That’s not to say it didn’t include the influence of others who would themselves be connected with Molineux in the future.
Keane’s phenomenal international career – that Irish record of 68 goals in 146 appearances – began thanks to a debut from Mick McCarthy, and it was under McCarthy that he played – and scored three times including a memorable last-gasp equaliser against Germany – at the 2002 World Cup.
McCarthy and Terry Connor also later helped Keane with the early stages of his coaching career as he worked within the Ireland set-up as assistant manager for 18 months up until April of last year.
And it was another future Wolves manager Glenn Hoddle who signed Keane for Tottenham in 2002 where he enjoyed the longest spell of his career scoring over 100 goals in six seasons, returning for another year after a short spell with Liverpool.
“I have always said that I think Glenn was ahead of his years when it came to coaching and tactics,” says Keane.
“He would be a brilliant manager now, the way he set things up and his training sessions were always really good and beneficial.
“Glenn was always my kind of player to watch and I think he saw a bit of himself in me, even if he played a bit deeper than I did.
“And I learned so much from Mick, both when playing for Ireland and now during this next step of the journey with the coaching.
“As a player all you want is a manager who is honest and Mick was always that – we had a great few years capped off with that World Cup.
“Giving me that opportunity to work with the national team alongside being assistant with Middlesbrough was great and probably gave me about five years’ worth of experience in the space of just two!
“Mick’s presence around the place, how he speaks to people and how he is with people is very, very good, and I know he is always someone I can pick up the phone to and have a chat with whenever I need to.”
And that next step of the journey, what Keane is striving for now, is to become a manager.
When you reflect on all the experiences he enjoyed as a player, and already as a coach, there can surely be few so many raw materials in place and as extensive a contacts book.
This interview is focused almost entirely on Wolves, and that is where it all began. There would never be enough space to add in details of the rest of his career, the A-list of players he has lined up alongside, managers he has played for, friends he has made.
He also met former US President Barack Obama on several occasions, notably during the latter stages of his career when playing for LA Galaxy, the final main destination on an illustrious trip taking in Wolves, Coventry, Inter Milan, Leeds, Tottenham, Liverpool, Celtic, West Ham and Aston Villa.
Having spent nine years completing his coaching badges, Keane is also now a technical advisor with UEFA, adding to his wealth of experience.
“I have made no secret that down the road I would like to become a manager,” he confirms.
“I have done that assistant role for a few years, and picked up a lot of experience playing and working around the world which can only help me going forward.
“I have been offered a few different jobs but want to make sure it is right as you always need to be careful about not going into something that isn’t right and then falling by the wayside.
“Working as a technical adviser for UEFA and observing Champions League games has given me added insight on the tactical side, and I know where I want to be, given the opportunity.
“I think people know me well enough to know what sort of person I am and how hungry I am and I certainly wouldn’t be looking to get into becoming a manager if I didn’t feel I could be successful.”
Of course it all began at Wolves and, back at the Mount, Keane, Bull and Murray are in full flow.
Friendships and alliances are formed in dressing rooms which explain why Keane found a country pub in Newcastle with Stephen McPhail and Gary Kelly to take in the 2003 play-off final after all had attended Michael Bridges’ wedding.
“We were jumping for joy when Matty saved the penalty, people must have wondered what on earth was going on,” laughs Keane.
Evans is also in attendance at the Mount, and would later accompany Keane on a visit back to what is now a very different Compton training ground, and so too Naylor, former Academy and now first team kitman Ron Picken, and former Academy coach Des Davies.
Keane reveals that he learned much from Wolves’ 306-goal legend Bull, particularly getting shots away early and so often through the legs of the defender, and recalled fond memories of that special but all-too-brief time when the two linked up at Molineux.
“It was almost like passing the baton with Bully wasn’t it?” he says.
“The partnership worked well, because I liked to come short and play and be creative and he was the number 9, always on the shoulder looking to get in behind.
“Bully took all the knocks and smashed people and I got on the end of all the knockdowns – and it also worked well because neither of us could understand each other!”
What Keane could certainly understand was finding the net, unfortunately all too often against Wolves following his departure, notably with a hat trick for Spurs at White Hart Lane and then a brace at Molineux for Aston Villa when in between MLS seasons.
Yet it never soured that relationship with the Wolves fans, and the travelling contingent even gave him a standing ovation when substituted after his treble in North London.
“The other Spurs players genuinely couldn’t believe that,” says Keane.
“To this day the Wolves fans have been brilliant, and even after that Villa game when things were tricky, they were very respectful outside the ground afterwards.
“I think they see me as one of their own, coming through the ranks, and I think they understood it when I left with the bigger picture of the club’s finances and a player’s ambitions.
“The Wolves fans have always been spot-on with that, they have been brilliant to this day, and that’s why I always enjoy coming back so much.”
Keane nearly came back on a more prolonged basis as well, to play, twice, as he revealed later in the Q&A.
Once, ahead of a loan spell with Wolves’ weekend opponents West Ham, only for finances to step in, and then again, in the Championship, when contacted by Nuno Espirito Santo about a possible player/mentor role.
On that occasion it was just days after signing a contract with At Kolkata in the Indian League, where he would later serve as player manager bringing in Evans as his assistant.
A Wanderers return? It just wasn’t meant to be.
But maybe that’s just fine.
Maybe what was meant to be was for Keane and the Molineux fanbase to share only that short but magical time two decades ago and a sense of pride in being part of where it all began.
That was the abiding memory of a night at the Mount. The mutual respect on show from all sides. And the great memories.
Transported back to the late 1990s, for a story which will stand the test of time forever.