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While Ireland basked in the love-in of an almost year-long Brian O’Driscoll farewell, his counterpart on the national football team hasn’t always enjoyed 100% support. But when the history of the Irish game is written, Robbie Keane will rightly be spoken of in the same breath as our retired rugby icon. After 18 years, Keane has decided to hang up his international boots and it’s only when he’s gone will we realise what we’ve missed.
It beggars belief how some Irish fans could be so scathing in their criticism of Keane. For many years now a sizeable number continued to call for his days in an Irish shirt to be over. Keane was named senior player of the year as recently as 2013 for a campaign that saw him score eight goals and become Ireland’s most-capped player. His influence on the team has certainly waned. In the last two years, Keane, now 36, has started just six games for Ireland but many who called for a premature end to his playing days often made the suggestion he should step aside. The presumption being that there were others ready to take his place. Sadly for Ireland, there may never be another Robbie Keane.
So, as he prepares for the last time to pull on the green shirt he’s worn with pride for so long, let’s look at some of the myths that persisted around the Irish captain.
Many called time on his career immediately after Euro 2012. That would be the same tournament we never would have reached without his contribution of seven goals. Since the Euros in Poland and Ukraine, Keane has scored 13 goals for Ireland, admittedly five of those came against minnows Gibraltar. In the same period, Shane Long and Jon Walters have each scored 9. Some of those came in massive games like against Germany and Bosnia & Herzegovina giving fuel to the fire that their teammate Keane doesn’t score against the big sides, but more of that later.
Lower than what? The English Championship, where along with bottom-half Premier League clubs, our players operate, or sit on the bench? Thirteen players named in the squad for the upcoming Oman and Serbia games ply their trade below the English top flight. A recent review of the health of our squad ahead of a new World Cup campaign made for a depressing read. Despite the heroics of France in June, many of the current Irish players are either not playing for their clubs as the season kicks into gear, or are playing badly.
It doesn’t matter if people consider the American game a lower standard than the UK. At international level, for almost six years of the Trapattoni era, Keane watched international colleagues thump long ball after long ball at his head while opposition centre-halves towered around him. And really up until the Germany game, we saw rare glimpses of a more attacking style under Martin O’Neill. The reality was, as a striker, Keane received better service at LA Galaxy, so which was the higher level?
Spain, Holland, Germany, Italy, Sweden, France, Russia, Czech Republic, Croatia, Turkey, Colombia. Seven of those teams are in the current top 20 of the FIFA rankings. He’s also scored against eleven of the nations qualified for the last World Cup.
The transfer history of Tallaght’s finest has been well documented. Back in 2011, the then 30-year-old came under increased scrutiny due to the collapse of his move to Birmingham City (the second time in as many weeks). Contrasting statements on the wage demands of the Spurs outcast clouded many people’s judgement of Keane. Some accused him of seeking an increase in his wages of roughly €75,000 a week, and branded him greedy and unworthy as a result. The Irish Independent led with the headline ‘Sorry Robbie, You’re Just Not Worth It.’ But Keane himself came out saying Birmingham had never tabled an offer. Discussion on his wage demands only ever came in papers.
Wolves, Coventry City, Inter Milan, Leeds United, Spurs, Liverpool, Celtic, West Ham, Aston Villa, LA Galaxy. Throughout his career, he risked being labelled a journeyman with the amount of transfers he was involved in but Keane chose to move and keep playing rather than rot on the bench. Since moving to California, his goal-scoring exploits have been well and truly revived.
During TV interviews, Keane comes across as one of the most laid-back footballers around. Whether poking fun at himself on Sky Sports Goals on Sunday -“It’s always been my dream to be here” – or giving his time to meet fans like Three’s special phone-call or that brilliant Late Late Show appearance, the Irish captain never seems anything other than humble.
Keane notched an incredible 125 Premier League goals during his time in England and was voted club player of the year three times at Tottenham Hotspur, an award he also won at Celtic. He is the fifth highest scoring European in history. On 4th June 2011, Keane scored his 50th and 51st international goals in Skopje, Macedonia, in a Euro 2012 qualifier eclipsing Bobby Charlton to become the highest goalscorer from the UK and Ireland.
The striker is one of just ten footballers to have scored in three successive matches in the World Cup finals sharing the distinction with Pele, Jairzinho, Ronaldo, Eusebio, and Mario Kempes.
Prior to a World Cup qualifier with Germany, the veteran Miroslav Klose hailed the goalscoring record of his Irish counterpart. The former Lazio forward, of course, headed the opener in that memorable encounter in Ibaraki when Keane’s last gasp equaliser really announced his arrival on the world stage. Only Brazil’s Ronaldo managed to beat goalkeeper Oliver Kahn at the same tournament.
LA Galaxy team-mate Landon Donovan hailed the Dubliner as world class while coach Bruce Arena labelled Keane as the best player in MLS. ESPN also crowned him the greatest ever import to the American game while he recently began taking his coaching badges, having declared a desire to one day manage his country. In a previous interview Keane told former international colleague Kevin Kilbane:
“In Ireland they rely on me to score goals so I play higher up and play off say Shane Long, getting in behind off the long ball. In Galaxy I come into midfield, get on the ball, pass it, playing as a Number 10 like I did with Spurs which I have never really played with Ireland. We don’t get 80 per cent possession, we play a different game so chances are very limited and when you do get them you have to take them and I won’t get those playing in midfield.” In the same interview he concluded:
The reality is that there are few if any strikers knocking on the door to replace Keane in the Irish set-up. Shane Long is touted as his successor but it’s unlikely we’ll see a player any time soon who can replicate his stats at international and club level. Keane’s goalscoring in leading his country to a first major finals in ten years for Euro 2012 should not be overshadowed by his lesser impact on the road to another European Championships four years later. It speaks to the measure of the man that Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane hailed his influence around the Irish squad.
When a former captain in green Brian O’Driscoll hung up his boots he was rightly remembered as the greatest centre in Irish rugby history. When the football scribes turn to write the chapter on Irish strikers, one name will be top of the list.
“I am a proud Irishman. As a kid growing up it was always a dream to play for my country. I still have that same hunger and enthusiasm that I had when I first had the opportunity.That will never change for me.” – Robbie Keane
We should be grateful for the time that we had him.
Image: Billy Galligan/amanwithhiscamera.com