Friday 30 September 2016

Richard Sadlier: Robbie's quality too valuable to be left behind next summer

Published 22/11/2015 | 17:00

Martin O'Neill and Robbie Keane celebrate in the dressingroom after the game. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Play-off, 2nd Leg, Republic of Ireland v Bosnia and Herzegovina. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Martin O'Neill and Robbie Keane celebrate in the dressingroom after the game. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Play-off, 2nd Leg, Republic of Ireland v Bosnia and Herzegovina. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

What has Robbie Keane ever done for the Republic of Ireland? Fair enough, he is Ireland's most capped player, but that's mainly because he has avoided serious injury. And yes, there is the all-time scoring record of 67 goals, but have a look at the quality of the teams he usually scores against.

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Granted, he was Ireland's top scorer in the recent Euro 2016 qualifying group, but those goals all came against Gibraltar and they were awful. And yes, he did leave America within a couple of hours of his son being born to join up with the squad for the October double-header against Germany and Poland, but it's not like he could have been any use to his wife if he had stayed.

So once again, what has Robbie Keane ever really done for the Republic of Ireland?

Following the play-off victory over Bosnia on Monday night, footage and images of Ireland's players celebrating qualification for the Euros appeared everywhere. The scenes of joy were captured on the pitch at the Aviva Stadium, in the team's dressing room afterwards and even in a pub in Temple Bar.

Robbie Keane playing for Ireland in their match against Germany at the World Cup on 5 June, 2002 at Ibaraki, Japan
Robbie Keane playing for Ireland in their match against Germany at the World Cup on 5 June, 2002 at Ibaraki, Japan

It was a time for letting go and basking in the glory of it all, but there was one image which stood out for me. And no, it was none of the ones that showed Superman had gatecrashed the party.

It was a momentary embrace between Martin O'Neill and Keane as they sat in the team's dressing room after the game. One has a beer, the other has a cup of tea, and both are still wearing their football boots. O'Neill has his hand on Keane's head, but it's hard to read their facial expressions. What words were exchanged, if any, is impossible to say, but there's a range of possibilities given the recent trajectory of Keane's international career.

Maybe they referenced that Keane didn't make it off the bench for either leg of the tie with Bosnia. Did that warrant a quick explanation, a word of encouragement or a consolatory tone?

O'Neill could have been congratulating him on his overall contribution to the qualification campaign, even though there's been a significant reduction in his status as an Ireland player. He began the group as the first-choice striker, but he's either third or fourth in the ranking to start a game now. Maybe O'Neill was reassuring him of his continued importance.

It's possible they didn't even mention Keane's future, but others have in the days since Monday's win. It doesn't take long in any conversation about Ireland's prospects in France for someone to question Keane's value to Ireland. Is there room for him on the plane?

The case against him goes like this: He hasn't started in any of the last four games and he turns 36 during the finals. He can't play up front on his own, a system O'Neill seems to favour. And if he hasn't the legs to start these days, he'll be even less equipped to do so in seven months' time. There's surely no room in the squad for a player like that. We need to put sentimentality to one side and to say goodbye. This is, of course, garbage.

Keane started six of the ten games in the group and came on in three others. It's not like he was a bored spectator. He may not be in contention to start as he used to be, but that doesn't mean he is worth leaving behind.

Whoever Ireland face in their group, it's hard to imagine a scenario where you wouldn't want Keane as an option coming off the bench. He has already been to two major finals with Ireland, the only outfield player available to O'Neill with that kind of experience. And when you add in the influence he has on others just by being in the dressing room, the case to go to France without him crumbles.

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Perhaps the most obvious way to resolve the question is to ask who should be selected in his place. Which player should be picked instead? Because barring a late charge from the likes of Jack Byrne or Richie Towell, O'Neill will be picking from the group he's been working with. There will always be room for Keane among 20 outfield players. Fitness permitting, his place in the squad should be guaranteed.

Despite everything he has achieved with Ireland, it never quite feels like he's appreciated as much as he should be. Perhaps the goal celebrations are a little too indulgent for some. Maybe his obvious wealth is a source of resentment for others. Whatever it is, there will come a day very soon when he is unavailable for selection. Only then will people be unanimous in praising Robbie Keane.

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