Robbie Keane: An Irish Fan’s Appreciation.

26 Aug

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145 caps, 67 goals. Attention grabbing stats  for any player, but then Robbie Keane has been grabbing attention since he burst onto the scene as a professional footballer.  His debut as a precocious teenager for Wolverhampton Wanderers saw him score twice and immediately his name was out there as one to watch, not only as an Irish talent, but a worldwide talent.  It is however his Irish career that I will recall in this tribute.

 

Having identified this kid as one to watch, Sky’s coverage of Wolves’ games enabled me to take a closer look at this 17 year old from Fettercairn. The fact that he hailed from Fettercairn, in the heart of Tallaght and only a stone’s throw from where I was living at the time made sure I watched his progress.  And how Robbie Keane progressed.

 

He was one of a sadly dying breed, the street footballer. I grew up in the 70s and there would be street football matches everywhere back then, using jumpers or bags or whatever for goalposts and being unable to maintain continuity in these games as the roar of “CAR” sent us scattering to the pavements to avoid an irate motorist’s right of way.  Robbie Keane would’ve played hundreds of street matches, honing his tricks, deftness, quick feet and learning to look after himself against the bigger lads who also would’ve clogged their way around street games.  He was doubtless the finest street player  in his locality as he grew up and progressed to organised schoolboy football with Crumlin United.

 

Mick McCarthy was rebuilding an exciting young Irish team around the time Keane was breaking through at Wolves and having given young players their chance in the Irish team already, McCarthy had no reservation in handing Keane his Irish debut as a still 17 year old pup, a friendly away 2-1 defeat to Czech Republic in Olomuc in March 1998. It was however his home debut in April of that year at Lansdowne Road against World Cup hopefuls Argentina that gave the Irish public the chance to see what this kid could become in the future.  Although Argentina won 2-0, Keane delighted the Dublin crowd with his fearlessness, talent and natural ability as he upstaged the then world-class Argentinian star Ariel Ortega.  Robbie Keane was here and here to stay.

 

Keane’s first goals in his beloved Irish shirt were in a home Euro 2000 qualifier against Malta in his fifth cap. His first was a goalscorer’s instinct, turning and scoring in the six yard box following a Mark Kinsella corner.  His second however gave us a real flavour of this former street footballer.  He pickpocketed a Maltese defender 30 yards out, hurdled another defender’s despairing lunge and with the remaining defence panic-stricken, Keane curled a beauty with the minimum of fuss to bring the Lansdowne Road crowd to their feet.

 

He scored two more goals in that Euro 2000 campaign, in the return game with Malta and another absolute nugget in a 2-1 victory over a strong Yugoslavia in Dublin, running onto a Niall Quinn flick on to effortlessly and instinctively drill a low shot into the corner from the edge of the box. It wouldn’t be the last time Quinn would set up Keane for a crucial goal.  Keane also netted the opener in the qualification play-off with Turkey at home, but a 1-1 draw in Dublin and a scoreless draw in a bad-tempered game in Bursa saw McCarthy’s team miss out on Euro 2000.

 

The World Cup qualifying campaign for Japan and Korea in 2002 saw Keane open the scoring in Amsterdam with a wonderful headed goal (2-2 draw) but curiously this was the last goal Keane would score in that campaign until he again got the crucial opening goal in the 2-0 play-off victory against Iran in Dublin with another finish from a Quinn assist. Iran won the return leg 1-0 meaning Robbie Keane was bound for the World Cup.

 

That World Cup was of course memorable for the Saipan Affair, so there would be only one Keane appearing in the Irish team that year. Keane was most unfortunate not to score in the opener against Cameroon (1-1 draw) striking a post in a second half Ireland dominated, but it was the second game against Germany that led to one of those never to be forgotten moments in Irish football.  With the Germans a goal up from early on and time ticking towards the 90th minute, a diagonal from Steve Finnan was won in the air by Niall Quinn. His knockdown was right into Keane’s path and this now polished diamond from Fettercairn never broke stride as he controlled the ball, held off the German defender as he had held off those street cloggers  years before and as the commanding German keeper Oliver Kahn came out to foil Ireland one last time, Keane steered the ball past Kahn and the ball nestled in the net via the post.  The pub I watched the game in shook, glasses were knocked off tables as I embraced everyone around me and the island of Ireland almost visibly levitated at Keane’s wonderful, heroic rescue of a priceless World Cup point.

 

His momentum carried him into the last group game as he yet again (how many times did he do this?) scored the nerve-settling opening goal against Saudi Arabia in a 3-0 win and incurring the wrath of British hack Rod Liddle in the process for his cartwheel/crossbow celebration, which was a joy to behold, both the celebration and Liddle’s ridiculous fury. Still Keane raised  his profile in the knockout phase, showing ice in his veins to convert the penalty to make it 1-1 against Spain at the death of 90 minutes and although Ireland were knocked out on penalties, Keane scored his penalty in the shoot out.  He now had 37 caps, but for a still very young man of not yet 22 years of age, this kid had maturity, composure and balls to add to his God-given talent.

 

Unfortunately it would be ten years before Keane got to show off his talents on the international world stage again, as Ireland failed to qualify for Euro 2004 and 2008 and the World Cup of 2006, under the managerships of Brian Kerr (Keane’s under-age international coach) and the hapless Steve Staunton.  Keane however continued to rattle in the goals in those campaigns and in his 56th appearance for Ireland, he broke Niall Quinn’s goalscoring record by scoring both goals against Faroe Islands in a World Cup Qualifier in 2004, bringing his tally to 23.

 

Bizarrely enough, despite his attaining the new record, some sections of the Irish public were continually scathing and dismissive of Keane’s achievement and contribution to the teams that hadn’t qualified for three successive tournaments. I believe these were armchair and bandwagon “supporters” who latched onto the team post-2002.  Knowledgeable supporters knew the importance and value Keane continued to bring to the Irish team and Keane himself retained that unshakeable belief in his own ability and always turned up to play for his country.  International football remained a must in Keane’s career, yet some chose to berate him at every available opportunity.   A peculiarly Irish trait that both angered and bemused me…………

 

Nevertheless, he continued to take responsibility for taking and missing chances as Giovanni Trapattoni took the reins. It had to be Keane to score that (again!) opening goal on that fateful night in Paris in November 2009, finishing off a wonderfully built goal from the back to level the aggregate scores in the qualification play off second leg.   Henry’s infamous cheating deprived Keane of captaining his country in South Africa that following Summer.

 

Keane would retain the armband as Trapattoni steered the team to Euro 2012 with the skipper netting twice in Estonia in a 4-0 rout in the first leg to ensure the Irish would party like never before in Poland. Sadly the party was all that was remembered as Trapattoni’s team (and fans) endured a miserable three games, scoring one (St Ledger) and conceding nine.   Unlike his great mates Damien Duff and Richie Dunne however, Keane wasn’t ready to pack in his Irish career.

 

The Martin O’Neill era and Keane’s ageing legs saw him play a lesser part in getting the team to France for Euro 2016 and although he scored five goals in the qualifiers, they were against whipping boys Gibraltar home and away. His influence, selflessness and support for the team however was notable and well-publicised as he didn’t throw his toys out of the pram when others were in the first eleven.  While no longer guaranteed a starting place, he was always going to be on the plane on that never to be forgotten couple of weeks in France.

 

Another Robbie, Brady, took the plaudits in 2016 with his emotional winner against Italy in Lille and his opening penalty against France in Lyon (what is with lads called Robbie scoring opening goals?) and Robbie Keane made only two late substitute appearances in the opening two games against Sweden and Belgium. His support however for the bigger picture, the squad and his gratitude to the fans remained 100%.  While Seamus Coleman had inherited the armband, Keane was still the General.

 

So to the opening line again. 145 caps, 67 goals.  His goalscoring record will surely never be beaten by another Irishman.  The street footballer from Tallaght will make his international farewell at Lansdowne Road against Oman next Wednesday.  Nobody deserves to bow out in front of his home fans more than Keane.  We have been blessed with great players down the years, from Jackie Carey, Liam Whelan, John Giles, Liam Brady, Paul McGrath and Roy Keane and more.  We will never see a greater striker than Robbie Keane.  We will see him as a supporter.  We have been most fortunate to be around to see his goals, his passion, his honesty and that street footballing wit and intelligence (his off the ball running and positioning was totally under-rated).  He will deserve every plaudit next Wednesday and hopefully he will bow out with an addition to his 67 international goals.

 

That’d be nice.

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