Respect where respect is due... there's only one Robbie Keane
Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30
Walking up to the always impressive Aviva on Wednesday was a strange experience.
For starters, we were playing Oman. Again.
For some unfathomable reason this is the third time in four years we've kitted out for a friendly against a team ranked 107 in the world who, frankly, are flattered by such an elevated standing.
Is Oman the new Poland? Will the hard-pressed Irish supporter now find themselves forking out on a semi-regular basis to watch a team of chumps who, goalie apart, wouldn't get their game in the Leinster Senior league, let alone the League of Ireland?
But that, like everything else, was a mere sideshow to the grand farewell everyone in the crowd had turned up to see.
Robbie Keane is gone and we're finally beginning to show him the respect that was never really forthcoming. Let's put it this way, a few years ago, his stock with punters was so low that people would have turned up for his final game just to make sure he was retiring.
That was never Keane's fault, but nor could it be said that he ever seemed too bothered one way or the other.
The lad from Fettercairn had more important things on his mind than the views of a media he seemed to despise. That thing was scoring. Like a designated kicker in American football, Keane stood or fell on the basis of whether he scored or not and, like all true goalscorers, you got the impression that even if we won, he wasn't happy if he didn't score.
Which is exactly as it should be.
There was an almost rueful mood in the crowd, as if some of those present felt that they hadn't afforded him the respect he deserved during those 18 years, 146 games and 68 goals.
It should never have gone the way it did. Keane, was one of the heroes of Brian Kerr's astonishing underage teams who had made winning look easy.
Then, the fresh-faced Keane made a shock move to Milan, where the Italian media called him 'Baby Irish' and one paper suggested that he had grown up as a shepherd in the Dublin mountains.
That all seems a long time ago now, of course. Yet he has been banging them in ever since. So why was he never embraced in quite the same way as Roy Keane or Brian O'Driscoll or Paul O'Connell?
Some analysts have suggested anti-Tallaght bias; a sort of prejudice against working class lads which sounds interesting but doesn't really make sense.
After all, the vast majority of Irish footballers have come from a working-class Dublin background, and didn't have to put up with the snarky barbs.
Perhaps, as is so often the case, it was a case of not trusting a show off. We prefer false modesty to blunt honesty in this country and he had that in spades - particularly when referring to his own talent.
That still seems a vaguely sore topic for the man, and in an excellent interview on Off The Ball earlier this week, you could sense his frustration as he spoke of the long hours of training - this, he was saying, doesn't come without hard work.
O'Driscoll had the personality to charm the media at a time when Irish rugby was in the ascendant and, incredibly, even began to challenge football as the pre-eminent sport in this country.
As the rugby boys were winning Grand Slams and being embraced by the nation, the football lads were enduring bad results, worse managers and a wall came up between them and the fans.
Keane, as captain and focal point of the attack, was rolled out on to the Late Late to plead the case for the players and then manager Steve Staunton and only succeeded in making matters worse.
Within days, the hapless Staunton was gone, but fans didn't forget his demeanour during that interview and an even greater chasm between the players and the people developed.
Of course, the fact that the rugby players lived and mingled in Ireland while the footballers plied their trade abroad also meant that they were more accessible - something which even Keane's biggest defenders could never accuse him of.
It's hard to escape the impression that people now feel guilty about the lack of basic respect he was given, let alone the fact that he neither asked for nor received anything approaching genuine affection.
But you know what?
None of that matters. It's all dust in the wind because the facts - the only things which matter in life, after all - speak for themselves.
He turned up when he didn't have to. He scored when he had no right to.
He infuriated the opposition and played like the kind of terrier who is now rare in world football and utterly unique in an Irish context.
He came, he played, he scored. It was the Robbie Keane way.
There is always someone who will play one more game, last one more tournament and pick up one more cap than the previous record holder.
But the goals? Frankly, it's hard to know how long it's going to take for Ireland as a team to score 69 goals, let alone an individual player.
In what has been a truly horrible week for this country, he is the reminder that the kid kicking the ball against a wall on his street can one day go on to become one of the greats.
And for that alone, he deserves our eternal gratitude.