‘Fantastic’ Keane still a key figure in new role – O’Neill
No need for Ireland captain to be worried about place on plane to France - even if he won't start
Published 24/03/2016 | 02:30
It was no surprise to anybody involved in the Ireland set-up when Robbie Keane landed in Dublin on Sunday evening just 14 hours after playing - and scoring - on club duty in Los Angeles.
When Martin O'Neill named his squad for the double header with Switzerland and Slovakia, he acknowledged it was a long way to travel for the skipper considering that LA Galaxy's season is only in its opening furlong. That was interpreted as leaving the door open for the Tallaght man to skip the exercise.
Galaxy have not always appreciated the need for Keane to participate in friendly games, but the 34-year-old was never going to pass up the opportunity to take part in this week's gathering, even if the fact he has sat out training this week means that his involvement is likely to be curtailed.
Keane will pick up his 145th cap if he is involved against Switzerland tomorrow and will be searching for a 68th international goal of a remarkable career. The end is possibly nigh, with several hints dropped that France could be the end of his Irish service.
Since O'Neill went with Shane Long and Jonathan Walters for the qualifier with Scotland in Glasgow 17 months ago, Ireland's record scorer has had to accept a role as a squad member after a 16-year run where he was effectively the main man.
In the aftermath of the Bosnia play-off, questions were even asked about whether there would be room for the 35-year-old in the final 23 for France. That debate has pretty much run out of steam already.
O'Neill is now accustomed to fielding queries about his goalkeepers and looks to be gearing up for an emotive decision when it comes to considering the claims of Shay Given and David Forde. At this juncture, it appears that one of that duo will miss out unless Rob Elliot fails to impress this week - Darren Randolph is the certain traveller and the likely No 1 from the tone of the Derryman's musings about his calmness under fire.
At the other end of the pitch, the situation is much clearer. Walters and Long are absolute bankers to be on board when the plane sets off for France and Daryl Murphy should also expect to be packing his bags after an unselfish contribution to the latter half of the qualification mission.
Long's goal is the outstanding memory, yet he was overlooked in favour of the Ipswich attacker for that momentous encounter with Germany. The Waterford man's physical presence and workrate have endeared him to the current regime.
Keane is the fourth member of a quartet and has different attributes to the others. His prowess as a poacher marks him out, although he found it hard to get into the right positions when he was sparingly used in the autumn.
"You still have to say that he's our best goalscorer," said O'Neill yesterday. "But time catches up with you. A 27-year-old Robbie Keane would be in our starting line-up, it's really as simple as that, no matter how he was performing at club level. I haven't had that luxury and when I came here he was getting on a bit."
The other part of the equation is what Keane brings to the camp. He was a vocal presence on the sideline in Zilina, shouting instructions in the fog of the play-off first leg, and O'Neill feels he has embraced an unofficial role as mentor to younger members of the group. That impressed the senior figures in the dug-out, as dropping him wasn't an easy call.
"I actually used to enjoy leaving players out at club level," said O'Neill. "Almost perversely when they were players I didn't like.
"After I left Aston Villa, there was a player who said in one of those wind-down-the-window interviews as you're leaving the training ground that 'he (O'Neill) always had his favourites' -yes, they were usually the best players.
"But I think at international level, with people who have had really great careers here, leaving them out is a different ball game. Robbie knows he's been part of this and he's taken any decision I've made brilliantly.
"He's the first one up to congratulate the players if he's sitting on the bench and has been fantastic. I think it's helped that he's done it, he's experienced a lot of these great things and I don't think he minds sharing these experiences with these young players - his experience and influence around the place, it shouldn't be underestimated. Does that answer it?"
Put simply, he'll be in Versailles on June 8.
Perhaps O'Neill would be facing into a dilemma if there was a young fox in the box knocking in goals for fun, but he doesn't have that option when he surveys the top two divisions in England.
Indeed, his dilemma in the attacking department is whether he decides to bring a fifth option to supplement the aforementioned quartet.
With David McGoldrick and Adam Rooney injured, Kevin Doyle is in pole position should that come to pass. He also raced away from MLS duty over the weekend to make the trans-Atlantic journey and he is certain to get a run-out at the Aviva to further his claims.
Anthony Stokes and Simon Cox know where they stand, having been cut from this panel, and O'Neill's ruminations could easily boil down to the merits of Doyle versus an extra midfielder.
Wes Hoolahan has essentially rivalled Keane for the 'No 10' berth during the past two years so it's possible he might qualify as a fifth attacker when O'Neill seeks to apply balance to his travelling party.
The creative Alan Judge can play wide and through the centre and has hit the target 14 times for Brentford in the Championship this term. He will start either the Switzerland or Slovakia encounter. He's in the lengthy list of performers with a point to prove across the 180 minutes and there is a danger they will be feeling the pressure.
Keane can be relaxed about his standing, yet his determination to make an impact tells its own story. When it comes to setting an example, he is still this team's leader.
The hero of the qualifying campaign is booked for France.
Not always a starter but should expect to feature in every game.
Might have to settle for impact sub role yet he remains key squad member.
Still waiting for first Irish goal but has played his way into the panel barring a disaster.
Praised by management this week but hopes could rest on whether O'Neill brings four or five strikers.
Ominous that he was cut from final panel this week despite securing loan move to Hibs.
A bad time for the Aberdeen attacker to be injured. This was probably his chance to stake claim.
Always cut from provisional squad so hardly a factor.
The wild card who is rated by O'Neill but out of Ipswich action since December due to injury.