Martin O'Neill will shun calls to leave Robbie Keane out of Euro 2016 squad
Published 14/12/2015 | 02:30
There was a moment in a press conference before the Germany game in October where it appeared that Martin O'Neill had taken the lead on deciding Robbie Keane's international future.
"Robbie will want to be part of a situation here where he can qualify for a competition that might be a swansong for him," said the Ireland boss - a comment that might have come as a surprise to the man sitting next him.
Keane didn't flinch. He has spent a good portion of the second half of his international career fielding questions about when he might call it quits, and his relocation to the periphery for the tail end of the Euro 2016 campaign means it's natural to conclude that next summer will be the end of the road.
At the start of this year, the 35-year-old did hint at that outcome if Ireland succeeded in booking their ticket. "To finish off on that would be fantastic," he admitted. In other interviews, he has been non-committal, leaving open the slim possibility that he might continue given that he retains an enthusiasm for the cause.
However, his slide down the pecking order to the point where he didn't feature in the Bosnia play-off has opened up another debate about whether the skipper will even make it to France.
In his press duties around the Euro 2016 draw, that scenario was put to O'Neill in a manner to which he took exception; he was asked if the Tallaght man had a role to play in the finals or if he would be brought along for sentiment's sake.
"Would I bring Robbie Keane for sentiment sake?" he replied with his disdain apparent. "That would be just about as black a mark against Robbie Keane as you're likely to give him.
"Robbie Keane has been terrific in this group of players. And I'll tell you why he has. Not just because he's had a really, really brilliant career but when he's been left out of the side, his encouragement to the other players, not only in the dressing room, but around the hotels, has been absolutely terrific."
Indeed, a vignette which really illustrated that point and the general spirit in the Irish camp came in the seconds after the final whistle in that remarkable defeat of Germany.
As the cameras trained in on a jubilant Shane Long, the first person onto the pitch to embrace him was a beaming Keane. Kevin Doyle, who is further down the list, was next on to congratulate a player that was once his understudy.
There were times when doubts were expressed about how Ireland's record scorer would cope with exclusion from starting plans.
That response said a lot. So too did his role in Zenica where, in the fog, when it became apparent that he wouldn't be featuring in the first leg with Bosnia, he joined the voices shouting instructions from the sideline. Long term, he has ambitions to one day follow in O'Neill's footsteps.
For now, he might still have some part to play in shaping Ireland's Euros fortunes. The absence of alternatives has strengthened his position with a dearth of striking options coming through the ranks a long standing concern.
Shane Long, Jonathan Walters and Daryl Murphy should all expect to be on the plane. Keane would be the fourth attacker.
There's no certainty that O'Neill will bring a fifth. David McGoldrick is highly rated, but has spent more time on the treatment table than on the pitch since making his Irish debut last November and a huge question mark hangs over his durability which is a shame given his talent.
Doyle is arguably next in line seeing as management have watched Adam Rooney on the training ground and opted against giving him a senior debut.
Anthony Stokes, meanwhile, has pressed the self destruct button at the wrong moment. Simon Cox's time has passed. Wes Hoolahan can operate high up the park, but he will ultimately be selected as a creative midfield option
O'Neill continues to stress that a 27-year-old version of Keane would start every match. And he wondered aloud the other day if the style of tournament play might vary from the high tempo and pressing approach that was necessary in the final stretch of qualifying.
"I have to look at that and see what he can do," he explained. "If these tournaments are slow slow, quick slow type of football rather than qualification at home, and having to try and press teams, then the game might suit Robbie. He might be able to take a breather or two during the games."
"I don't know about that. I might be totally wrong, but I will have to take a look at it as time goes on. He is our best goalscorer at the end of the day."
Saturday's tough outcome means that, in all likelihood, the Belgian and Italy encounters will require a fair bit of chasing and a system which will not lend itself to Keane's strengths.
The opener with Sweden might just be his window for a meaningful contribution, though. His last competitive goal in the green shirt against worthy opposition was his Aviva Stadium strike against the Swedes in September 2013 and Erik Hamren's defence do not inspire fear. It's the kind of encounter that might have scope for a Keane cameo.
If that opportunity doesn't arise, O'Neill is confident that the popular figure's attitude around training can benefit his rivals.
"Shane Long has done great and he can still learn from Robbie," he asserted, "You talk about the little training sessions we have and, seriously, you can see why Robbie Keane has been a terrific player. If I'm going to pick some players for sentiment's sake then I shouldn't really be managing."
With three long trips in the autumn that will kick off another World Cup campaign, the ace poacher may finally arrive at the stage where he the percentage call is to say goodbye.
Ireland have to move on eventually, but there is no point in O'Neill speeding up that process before it's necessary. The end of the French adventure is the perfect point for the passing of the baton.