Kevin Palmer: A fond farewell to an Irish legend who has never gotten the respect he deserves
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill was more than a little bemused when I informed him during an interview last year that his captain Robbie Keane was less than popular with a sizeable chunk of soccer lovers in his homeland.
“I would like to think he is well thought of here, but now I’m informed that isn’t always the case. Can that be true? It would surprise me greatly,” said the baffled O’Neill.
“I always thought Robbie was always considered to be a great goal scorer by the supporters here, nothing more than that. The number of goals he has scored, the number of games he has played… just look at his record, it’s incredible.”
The comments from O’Neill will be echoed by football lovers in all corners of the world, yet ask a chatty Irish cab driver or an opinionated Dublin publican for their views on a striker who fired 67 goals in a truly remarkable international career and the response coming back tends to be resoundingly negative.
Keane’s critics accuse him of being arrogant, a diver on the field, garish with his wealth and an over-rated striker, with those knockers unable to shake-off their long-standing perceptions of a player whose record breaking exploits with Ireland appears to have ended with something of a whimper at Euro 2016.
In truth, Keane was little more than a cheerleader in his third major tournament with Ireland this summer, with the 23 minutes of action the 35-year-old contributed over the course of four Euro 2016 games in France little more than a footnote on what had gone before.
He probably should have retired from international football a couple of years ago and should certainly call time on his Ireland career now before he is tempted to drag it out any longer.
Yet while this was not the glorious conclusion to Keane’s Ireland story that he would have envisaged as he battled back to fitness to make his way into O’Neill’s 23-man squad, the events of the final year of his international journey should not cast a shadow over the brilliance that went before.
“If he is not Ireland’s greatest player, then he is right up there in the top three,” declares former striker John Aldridge, who is lauded as a hero to this day despite scoring 48 times fewer in a green shirt than the nation’s record breaker.
“Robbie has been a magnificent servant for Ireland and it is only after he has come out of the team that we have appreciated how much he meant to us. To score 67 goals at international level is an incredible achievement and anyone in Ireland who knocks him is a first class fool.”
Aldridge’s comments carry plenty of weight, yet there will be many who will not lament the retirement of an Ireland player who has never earned a place at the top table of our sporting giants, despite his status as our most recognisable soccer player for the last 16 years.
Liam Brady, Johnny Giles, Paul McGrath and Roy Keane tend to be placed ahead of Keane in the pantheon of Irish soccer heroes, with Brian O'Driscoll, Rory McIlroy, Barry McGuigan and for a deluded few, even Conor McGregor is placed on a different level of greatness than Keane.
What a cruel demotion for a player who has been the figurehead of our national soccer team for almost two decades and a symbol of success for the next generation to look up to.
“There has always been criticism for Robbie in Ireland and I really don’t know what Robbie needed to do to get the credit he deserved,” states Keane’s former Ireland strike partner Kevin Doyle.
“Robbie was great to me when I first came into the Ireland squad and all the lads who have been part of the set-up in the last few years will say the same.
“The effort and commitment he puts into every game and every training session shows you what is expected of a top player and we would all be delighted if I have a career half as good as his by the time I’m finished.”
Those who may be jealous of Keane’s success try to suggest that his scoring record has been built on strikes against the game’s lesser nations, yet his glorious goal against Germany in the 2002 World Cup and strikes in crucial qualifying games against Holland, Italy, France and Sweden dilute that argument. So even though the goals of real significance have dried up in recent years, what has gone before should never be forgotten.
Keane could probably care less about those who love to hate him, yet maybe this is the moment for those begrudgers to lay down their verbal arms and acclaim a player who has arguably achieved more than any other in an Ireland jersey.
The critics who were calling for Keane to be removed from the Ireland side long ago did so without any credible replacement in mind and so now the time has come to bid a fond farewell to a striker whose scoring record will forever serve as his fitting legacy.
ROBBIE KEANE'S VITAL STATISTICS
* Keane made his full Ireland debut against the Czech Republic in March 1998
* He plays for Brian Kerr’s Ireland under-18 side as they win the 1998 European championships.
* The Dubliner scores his first two Ireland goals against Malta in a Euro 2000 qualifier in October 1998
* Keane turned in a sparkling performance and scores as Ireland so nearly beat Holland in a World Cup qualifier in Amsterdam in September 2000 that finished 2-2.
* Ireland’s No.10 scored a last minute equaliser to claim a point in the 2002 World Cup finals game against Germany in Ibaraki.
* Keane finished the World Cup finals campaign with three goals, holding his nerve to score two penalties against Spain as Ireland go out in the 2nd round.
* He became Ireland’s all-time record scorer with a brace of goals against the Faroe Islands in 2004.
* Keane scored his first Ireland hat-trick as he bags the match ball against San Marino in Lansdowne Road’s last match before its redevelopment back in November 2006.
* He finished as Ireland’s top scorer in the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, scoring against Italy and France along the way.
* His seven Euro 2012 qualifying goals were crucial in guiding Ireland into the finals.
IRELAND’S LEADING GOAL SCORERS
Robbie Keane 67
Niall Quinn 21
Frank Stapleton 20
John Aldridge 19
Tony Cascarino 19
Don Givens 19
Shane Long 16
Noel Cantwell 14
Kevin Doyle 14