Steven Reid: 15 years on, I still remember how Robbie Keane welcomed me into Ireland squad
Published 13/11/2015 | 02:30
I am walking through the lobby of an airport hotel with my head down. Things have been like this all week. I'm a young man, not yet 20, and conscious of my place.
Earlier this week, Don Givens introduced me to other men just like me; young, hungry, players who want to play for their country. Except there is one difference. Most of those guys have Irish accents. Mine is English. And I'm worried. How will they react to me? Will they consider me a chancer, a mercenary? What they don't know is my story or my mother's and grandmother's stories and how, through these people that I love, I have come to play for a country I love. And I'm too shy to tell them.
Now, nearly 15 years on, putting clarity on the slightly complicated nature of my nationality is a lot easier. The pride I have in my country is best explained when I sit my two children on my knee and say: "See that on our wall," I say, showing them a framed Ireland shirt. "That means everything to me."
Back then, it meant everything too. But I didn't have the same levels of self-confidence as now. I wouldn't say I was painfully quiet but I knew my place.
I was a player at Millwall and Robbie Keane was a millionaire from the Premier League. So as I walked from the dining room to my bedroom and heard Robbie tell some joke about some player from some training session, I stared at the floor. Of course I knew who he was. He was on Match of the Day every Saturday. Who was I? Nobody yet.
Or so I thought. "How're ye Stevo?" he asked.
Fifteen years on, I think about that greeting and the easy way he introduced himself. Three players; Ian Harte, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne, were sitting with him. Yet he moved across and gestured for me to join him. That's his way. As a man, you've no idea how high my opinion is of him. And you have no idea how highly he is thought of in that Ireland dressing room.
Why? Because they've all been that shy teenager. They've all made that lonely, self-conscious walk through a hotel lobby - and while I can't say for certain - I have little doubt they have all heard Robbie's Dublin accent shout 'how're ye?' at them across the lobby. Soon, that lobby will be quieter because soon - as Martin O'Neill hinted earlier this week - he will have to make a tough decision and bring an end to some careers. So there will be no more shouts of 'how are ye?' to young, awkward, shy footballers and there will be no more goals.
And you'll wonder then if the Irish public will appreciate him for what he is, a genuine, passionate Irishman who has played through injury for his country, who has left the labour ward shortly after his child was born so he could sit on a bench for a qualifier, and sit in a hotel lobby and have a quiet word with the shy fella who doesn't know if his face fits.
He should be a national treasure because the Robbie Keane I know hasn't forgotten his roots and when he referenced this week how Ireland will "fight for every second on the pitch" and will go back "to their games on the street", I thought about the leader he has become. He can deliver brilliant, rousing speeches in dressing rooms. And he can be quiet and subtle, superb at building a team spirit.
And that is the spirit Ireland need tonight because we have every reason to worry. You never qualify from the first-leg of a play-off but you can get dumped out. And to avoid this, Ireland have to go for a safety-first strategy, to refrain from going gung-ho.
Pressure will have to be absorbed. A 'low block', coaching parlance for getting your players positioned on the edge of your penalty area, is needed.
But so is the ability for a player to get the ball and run 50 yards with it. So is the importance of Daryl Murphy winning primary possession and recycling it. Missing Shane Long is a hammer blow and yet I feel we can leave Zenica tonight with a draw, or, whisper it, a win.
What matters is that the tie remains alive. And for that to happen, Ireland need leaders. In Robbie Keane, they have a brilliant one.
A 2-1 defeat is the best of the worst results. We could manage because we would just need a 1-0 second-leg win to qualify, just as we would if we left Zenica tonight with a scoreless draw. People might take 0-0 now. I wouldn't because it isn't as good a scoreline as people think. I'd love a goal and love Robbie to be the one who gets it.