No one in green capable of filling Robbie's boots
Numbers have always defined Robbie Keane, never his personality. The limitlessness of the genius in his dancing feet has always had to jostle with the limitations inhabiting his often harassed head.
We love Keane, but sometimes only for the asterisk in the history books that marks his goalscoring record. We have little time for the mere mathematical equation that still makes Keane's record so astonishing in international terms, instead thumbing our noses at the lack of colourful narrative to complement the black and white of the numbers.
Trouble is, it has long been entirely impossible to even breach such boundaries. They have long since proven themselves to be off limits. Personality goes a long way, but, as the volatile Irish public's relationship with their team's captain has demonstrated, even a blizzard of statistics cannot always be relied upon to offset negative perceptions.
As he flew into Dublin this week, only his closest colleagues and family will be allowed to glimpse behind a demeanour that, for all his record-breaking feats, still strangely refuses to penetrate the souls of so many of his country men. His latest goal-scoring stats accompanied him via the wire feeds across the Atlantic from his current home in Los Angeles.
"Ireland captain Robbie Keane," rat-tat-tatted the ticker, "continued his purple patch in club colours as he scored a brace and grabbed an assist in LA Galaxy's 3-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes in the California Clasico."
It wouldn't be surprising if his latest scoring feats had been recorded via old-fashioned methods; his pursuit of club football Stateside prompts feelings of fuzzy nostalgia rather than being in touch with the modern game.
This week, the "skinny little fella" from a working class estate in Tallaght, now a well-fed, multi-millionaire enjoying semi-retirement in a City of Angels mansion, will answer his country's call for the 128th time.
And if questions as to the worth of his involvement are not immediately answered by the simple response of a figure of 59 goals, then it should be quite easy to embellish the argument with an equally unavoidable premise.
There is nobody else capable of taking his place. Marco Tardelli, whose own contribution to Keane's chequered and contradictory club career included ditching the player at Inter Milan a decade and more ago, spoke enough battered English yesterday to reiterate the point.
"It is important for us to have Robbie Keane, for his experience and for in front of the goal," he said. "He puts the ball in the net."
Keane's fellow strikers have not done so regularly enough to justify any theory to the contrary. Consider the evidence. His one-time closest rival Kevin Doyle, with whom he never developed a seriously effective partnership such was Keane's own dominance, has fallen off the cliff of professional football.
As for Shane Long, seemingly so disdained by his present employers that he was hijacked from Ireland training this week in order to become an ultimately unused lightweight in a transfer deal that never took place, he remains unconvincing.
For all his admittedly enthusiastic endeavour, a strike rate of one in four on international duty – and only one competitively – falls well short of a persuasive argument that would install him as a natural successor to Keane.
"I think Shane Long is very young," said Tardelli. In fact, Long is 26, by which time Keane had already scored an international goal for every year of his life. "I think he can improve his finishing. It is first thing he can improve, a priority. Against Wales, he had chances, but the important thing is that he was there in the position to score."
The fact remains that with Keane in his side, Ireland will be in a better position to convert those chances than with any other striker in the side. Remove Keane's goals and Ireland's international history since Ibaraki would be very, very bleak indeed.
And yet seldom has someone so prolific remained singularly unappreciated by so many. The more it seems that his career, stuttering at club level since that disastrous foray into the political minefield that was Liverpool under Rafa Benitez some five years ago, is in wind-down mode, the more he remains virtually indispensable for his country.
Despite some €90m in transfer fees – he should long since have had a deadline day devised for himself alone – and a consistently delivered one-in-two strike rate in club football, his career remains one of perceived under-achievement. And yet he is singularly the most important reason to have faith that an Irish team of limited abilities and dubious talent can still harbour an ambition to make it to the World Cup in Brazil next summer.
At 33, and with over 700 matches in his rear-view mirror, it would have been just as easy to consign his international career to the same closet as his club career. But he has not done so. Why? Because as long as he feels he can deliver and as long as there is nobody capable of threatening his pre-eminence – and there isn't – he can see no reason why he should not do so.
In a team without a Xavi or an Iniesta to provide the ammunition, having Yugoslavia, Turkey, Czech Republic, Holland, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Croatia, Sweden, Italy and France on one's hit-list is no mean achievement.
The ignominy of his Euro 2012 showing was not a singular failure by any means. There have been dry spells for sure, particularly the barren years when he failed to score against a top three seed in qualification games or in any away qualifier.
He can be a flat-track bully, of course. But even then he has also had nobody to meaningfully rival him for this role either.
More often than not, he has risen above the collective mediocrity that surrounds him in a green shirt, particularly in the latter years of his career when Ireland's quality has decreased exponentially.
Ireland's failure to develop a coherent, expressive form of football may have been compromised by Keane, but there is little or no evidence to suggest that any alternative would prove more productive.
For all his faults and his often literal flights of fancy, for all the frustrating mix of the genius and the gauche, could an Irish supporter realistically contemplate a starting Irish team without him?