Wednesday 28 September 2016

Robbie Keane's exit may only be end of the beginning

There's another chapter to come from Ireland's record goalscorer who is sure to be part of the road ahead

Published 25/08/2016 | 02:30

5 June 2002; Robbie Keane celebrates after scoring his equalising goal against Germany in 2002 Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
5 June 2002; Robbie Keane celebrates after scoring his equalising goal against Germany in 2002 Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

It was February 2008 when the possibility of international retirement was floated to Robbie Keane.

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The protracted hunt for a new boss after the departure of Steve Staunton was testing patience levels. For their own reasons, Steve Finnan, Stephen Carr and Andy O'Brien had opted to call it quits.

Keane was just 27, but his Irish career was already a decade old. The young captain had played 78 times, scoring 32 goals.

"If people are going to retire they've got their own reasons," he said. "I can only comment on what would be my situation. There's no way in this moment at time that I'm going to retire."

Knowing everything we do now, it's ludicrous that a query about his future was even a discussion point.

Early retirements from national service might have been relatively fresh in the memory - England's Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes had both called it quits before their 30th birthday - but the Tallaght man never viewed Irish duty as a potential hindrance to his club ambitions.

Stunning

In truth, it probably meant more to him than anything else. He said as much in yesterday's statement.

Some of his best days in the Irish jersey were still to come. He has announced his retirement with a record of 145 caps and 67 goals, a stunning haul that leaves him 15th in the recognised all-time charts and he will seek to add to it in his farewell meeting with Oman.

One more goal would place him level with Gerd Muller. Currently, he's five clear of the Brazilian Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Generations from now, it's safe to assume that he will be listed as Ireland's all-time record goalscorer. His legacy will live on.

The final years and the complete absence of a comparative figure coming through the ranks have allowed the public to fully appreciate his greatness. Keane carried the burden of responsibility for so long that his disappointments were magnified.

His natural swagger didn't always endear him to the public; he was often guarded in front of the cameras and around media folk whereas his counterparts in other codes were always available to speak in more dulcet tones without ever really saying anything of interest.

He became Ireland's captain during Steve Staunton's nightmare tenure and received plenty of flak in that tragi-comic period where nobody escaped unscathed. A defensive front was the default setting. But when Keane had a point to make, he was always worth listening to. Players with a seemingly casual approach to the international game were a frequent target for his ire. You always knew what was coming when Stephen Ireland's name was raised.

Overall, though, Keane respected the code of the dressing room and despite being shunted from club to club during his career, he seldom aired dirty laundry in public when he unquestionably had the ammunition to unleash.

He was clearly frustrated by how Rafa Benitez treated him at Liverpool, but he stopped short of a tell-all account. Behind the scenes, he would show more emotion.

The transition from young buck to senior pro was completed seamlessly, even if he retained the cheeky sense of humour. Martin Jol had to deal with the odd tantrum when Keane was out of favour, but he has said that the Dubliner was one of the best dressing-room characters he'd ever worked with.

It could be argued that he was Ireland's first authentic Premier League star. He grew up in the big time. By the end of his teens, he was already in elite company with two seasons at Wolves opening doors.

The likes of Roy Keane and Denis Irwin had coped with rejection and remembered plying their trade in the old world before Sky Sports. Keane was at the forefront of a new generation; his version of a knockback was an unsuccessful dalliance with Inter Milan.

When he walked into the senior Irish dressing room, he wasn't intimidated. He felt that he belonged and quickly showed that to be the case, gaining respect and authority. "He wanted to show everyone what a good player he was," said Shay Given last night. "He didn't mind taking them on."

Keane was superb in the 2002 World Cup and his colleagues from that adventure always speak of him in glowing terms. Indeed, it was notable just how awkward it was for those who retired and moved into media work when they had to analyse the final furlongs of the veteran's Irish journey.

There was a reluctance to come out and say that dropping him to the bench might be the best course of action; loyalty was a factor in that.

In 2011, he made the bold move to America which - from the glass-half-empty perspective - seemed to be the easy option compared to prolonging his Premier League existence. Keane's judgement was proved correct.

The drop in standard allowed him to dominate, but players with a higher profile have toiled in the MLS because they really did view it as a retirement package.

Ambivalence

Watch Keane in action and you will see the same enthusiasm that was evident in his baby steps. Other marquee purchases stroll around the park with the ambivalence of a tourist reading a menu outside a restaurant.

LA Galaxy are still trying to establish themselves as a brand in a competitive market and Keane has become an ambassadorial presence with both club and country. The armband fits him comfortably; it is unusual to give that brief to a striker but he was the leading voice in the Irish camp.

He was able to handle a peripheral role under Martin O'Neill and was first on the pitch to congratulate Shane Long after the famous win over Germany.

A month later in the fog in Bosnia, he was audibly barking instructions from the sideline. O'Neill was always going to bring that presence to France.

Behind the scenes, he is influential and his savvy in this regard will stand to him for the road ahead.

When he chided the FAI for failing to do enough to keep ex-internationals involved, a new combined UEFA licence course to fast-track the coaching progression of current and former players suddenly came to fruition. Maybe it was a coincidence.

Keane will surely be pleased that Ruud Dokter has drafted Damien Duff, Kenny Cunningham, Keith Andrews, Stephen McPhail and Mark Kinsella into the fold.

He will unquestionably have a role to play in the long term. Friends of Keane are convinced that he is only bringing down the curtain on phase one of his national service.

Robbie Keane, Ireland manager? That day will come.

Irish Independent

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