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Republic of Ireland captain Robbie Keane, alongside James McClean make their way out for the start of squad training ahead of their International Friendly against England on Wednesday.  Picture: David Maher/Sportsfile.

Republic of Ireland captain Robbie Keane, alongside James McClean make their way out for the start of squad training ahead of their International Friendly against England on Wednesday. Picture: David Maher/Sportsfile.

Republic of Ireland captain Robbie Keane, alongside James McClean make their way out for the start of squad training ahead of their International Friendly against England on Wednesday. Picture: David Maher/Sportsfile.

ROY KEANE will have a sideline view of tonight's game in Wembley as a TV pundit.

It's just a pity that Keane wasn't there to spend time on the fringes of the England camp yesterday as they prepared for the first game against Ireland in almost two decades.

Keane hates a lot of things, but one facet of the English football scene he despises is the fuss and nonsense that surrounds the enigma of the man who wears the armband for their national team. In one of the greatest Keane rants in the post-Saipan era, he railed against England's fixation with the armband

"To me it looks like the captaincy is an obsession in England. John Terry had a press conference when he was made captain, David Beckham had a press conference to announce he was standing down as captain and cried! The cricket captain Michael Vaughan cried when he was stepping down. Give me a break," Keane said in a newspaper column.

Spending an afternoon yesterday with the English camp at their base in St Albans, just outside London, you'd hardly know there was a game on at Wembley tonight. Only one issue was on the minds of the local media here – whether Ashley Cole was indeed England's skipper for their first home game against Ireland in 20 years.

After he spoke to the general section of the media, England boss Roy Hodgson and the team's vice-captain Frank Lampard spent more than 30 minutes dealing with the written press – predominantly English, with a few interlopers from old Ireland, with scarcely a mention of Ireland.

Even though the game was being billed in Ireland as "More than a friendly", for the locals there was only one issue.

Not the matter of Seán St Ledger's club future, how Jon Walters would deal with another bout of being used as a wide player, or what the team selection says about Keiren Westwood – but who would captain for England against the Irish?

 

Bizarre

The 30-minute conversation was taken up largely with questions, some just bizarre and others plainly obsessive, about who exactly was the captain of England and why the man entrusted with the armband, Cole, did not come down to face the English soccer hacks.

Poor old Ashley feels hard done by by the media in England – boo hoo – so he refuses to play ball and meet the press, lest they drag up any of his (many) misdeeds off the field.

So Cole sulks in his hotel room while being measured up for his armband, while Lampard slums it by meeting the FA's media commitments, but the captaincy issue is the only show in town. They're not that bothered by the fact that Wes Hoolahan starts on the bench again.

"It always amazes me that such an event can cause such consternation," said Hodgson. "The symbolism here is that a player, who has been a fantastic servant not only for two clubs but for England, is playing his 102nd game, and by tradition the person who gets his 100th cap captains the team."

The travelling Irish fans, and the Irish community who live in Britain, are taking this game very seriously, not quite do-or-die, but up there on a par with the Champions League in terms of what it would mean to the Irish players.

England? Well it's like the Charity Shield to them. Nice to win it, not the end of the world if you lose it, and in a few months' time no one will remember anything about it – if you're English.

The casual football fan at Wembley tonight will scan the Irish teamsheet, see names like St Ledger, Richard Keogh, Paul McShane and Darren Randolph and ask who they are.

It's been a while since Stoke City, Millwall and Motherwell provided players to the English side. English interest in the second-last game at Wembley, the all-German Champions League final, was minimal and they have very little interest in the Irish side tomorrow. Asked about the fact that the Irish squad is so top-heavy with Championship players, Lampard was disarmingly diplomatic.

 

Desire

"I have watched the Republic of Ireland since I was a kid, watching them go to World Cups and the Euros, every game they played," said Lampard.

"They amaze you with their work ethic, their organisation and their desire to win for their country.

"I don't think it matters if their players play in the Premier League or the Championship, we are all very aware of them. As I have known it, they have festered that sort of spirit since the Jack Charlton days and that hasn't quite left, whatever manager has come in, so it will certainly be a tough game for us tonight."

We have to take Lampard at face value, but given the complete lack of interest in the Irish side, it's clear that the English players fancy this game as a nice little warm-up for their trip to Brazil for another friendly.

And Ireland? They will be greeted with a great shrug of indifference. Now it's a matter of whether the Irish players tonight can turn that back on the home side.


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