Sunday 23 October 2016

Robbie, the boy who dreamt big - and won

The footballer's retirement is a heartbreaker, says Sarah Caden, as he evoked the kid who wished for it all

Sarah Caden

Published 28/08/2016 | 02:30

GRATEFUL FOR REALISED DREAMS: Ireland striker Robbie Keane and his wife Claudine. Robbie announced his retirement from international football last week. Picture:Brian McEvoy
GRATEFUL FOR REALISED DREAMS: Ireland striker Robbie Keane and his wife Claudine. Robbie announced his retirement from international football last week. Picture:Brian McEvoy

The image of Robbie Keane the boy, kicking a football around the street, was the lump-in-the-throat moment in his statement last Thursday. It was the heartbreaker in the middle of an emotional statement, announcing Robbie's retirement from international soccer, just a week short of his last match for Ireland.

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"As a young boy growing up in Dublin playing football on the street I could never have imagined the path my life would take," Robbie wrote, "it has exceeded my wildest expectations.

"I have been extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to play for and captain my country - it was my ultimate goal all those years ago and it has been, by far, my greatest achievement.

"I would never have believed all those years ago that I would get the opportunity to play for my country 145 times and to score 67 goals and through it all, I have never stopped chasing the next one!"

The image starts with a boy running around after a ball in Robbie's native Tallaght and it ends up, as he has, in LA. It starts out dead ordinary and it ends up utterly extraordinary. And, yet, playing for Ireland, far from a big-trophy nation in football terms, was the ultimate dream.

Laughs have been had at his expense down the years, as with almost every team transfer, Robbie claimed it had always been his dream to play for it. The joke got old, though, as the true fans never had any doubt that this was a fella speaking from his heart.

Nor did the fans ever doubt that Robbie had a huge heart. That's what he conveyed again last week as he retired from wearing the green jersey.

His heart was in it when he kicked a ball about in Tallaght, and it's still in it, even if he's out in LA, even if he has a wife to give Posh a run for her money, even if he's, in fact, hanging out with Posh and Becks these days.

Read more: 'I would have been happy to have him as a son' - Mick McCarthy pays tribute to Robbie Keane

Of course, he's of the generation of footballers that have made a fortune and found a life far beyond the dreams of the footballers that went before them, but no one begrudges Robbie Keane that.

He's the kind of guy who is grateful for the big stuff and the small stuff too - the uncle who encouraged him to focus on becoming a striker and "Larry Fox & Jem Loughran who looked after me so well at Crumlin United". Crumlin United. Yep, it's a long way from Crumlin United now. But he hasn't forgotten, and that's what does it for us, whether you're a football fan or not. In a world of tweets, text-speak and emojis, Robbie's statement was long, but in terms of tugging the heartstrings, it scored repeatedly, a bit like the man himself. Of course, there have always been those who have held Robbie's background against him.

An upstart from Tallaght; a Dub dragged up by his bootstraps. Which makes Robbie's unapologetic conjuring up of his Tallaght beginnings all the more important. This is where he came from, this is how big he dreamed, and this is where he got to.

He went far, but he never forgot home and always rated playing for Ireland as his greatest achievement and his most prized realised dream. He played for Inter Milan, for God's sake.

And yet he flew off to play for Ireland only hours after his father's funeral, because that's what matters, as he made clear in last week's statement: family and football. When his father Robbie Snr died, he said, the game and the Ireland fans got him through.

It should be said that most of the begrudgery has come from journalists down the years, as Robbie was never one for the chat. He might have proved himself a man of many heartfelt words as he announced his retirement, but he hasn't ever been known to let it flow with the media.

The striker almost always had the manner of a man who felt under attack in press conference situations, though his Late Late Show appearances down through the years revealed his warmth.

Robbie had surgery on his Achilles' one week, but he turned up on the show to surprise a young fan called Domhnall, who waxed lyrical about his hero and then was struck dumb. Claudine was with Robbie that night, as she was on other Late Late Show nights, in particular very soon after the birth of their elder son, Robert, now seven.

Read more: David Beckham pays heartfelt tribute to Robbie Keane following international retirement

She looked staggeringly slim for a new mother, but there has always been something so down home about their bearing as a couple that stops people from begrudging them their good fortune.

She looks like a girl from LA, but when she comes to Dublin she's mostly snapped out and about with her mam. Robbie says in his retirement statement of Claudine, Robert and baby Hudson (almost one): "They play every game and kick every ball alongside me."

We enjoy that image. Not because we imagine Claudine on the pitch in her heels, but because it's warm and backed up by the fact that almost her every tweet is to do with her man and her family. The warmth is for real.

Claudine Keane tweeted after last Thursday's statement there had been a lot of tears in her house. And they'll cry again on Wednesday, when he plays his last game for Ireland in the Aviva.

We all will. But happy tears, for the kick-about kid who dared to dream big.

Sunday Independent

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