IT'S BEEN 15 years and 126 games of international football since a skinny lad from Tallaght made his Ireland debut but Robbie Keane insists that his hunger and desire to play for his country is stronger than ever.
Keane joked that the jersey he wore for his debut back in 1998 was "10 times too big for me" and there's no doubt that the Dubliner who lines out at Lansdowne Road tonight – veteran, national team captain, family man – is different from the chubby-faced teenager of '98. The Keane of '98 was still a boy himself, barely able to drive while tonight his four-year-old son will be the mascot for the game.
But for Keane, who is one of the top goalscorers in the international game (only two currently-active players, Didier Drogba and Miroslav Klose, have scored more for their countries), the desire to answer Ireland's call has never dimmed.
"I want to keep playing, as long as I keep that hunger and desire, to win and score goals," Keane said, preparing to win his 126th cap tonight.
"What people forget is that I am only 32, I'm not 34 or 36. People are talking about David Forde being in the squad now as a newcomer but he is 33 years of age.
"I'm only a year older than Wes Hoolahan and he is a newcomer, John O'Shea is the same age as me. People talk about it as I have been around for so long.
"I have no intentions at all of leaving as long as I have that hunger and desire. I will retire when I stop scoring goals," added Keane.
His former Ireland team-mate, and current member of the coaching staff, Alan Kelly, said this week that there was no reason why Keane could not reach the magical 150-cap mark but Keane says he has no targets in mind, apart from World Cup qualification for the second time in his career.
"I will keep going as long as I can, I can't look ahead and say 'I really want to get to this'. I have never done that in my career," he says.
"I was happy to get 100 caps, I was delighted with that so to get as many as I can would be great, it's not about me coming to get caps. I don't need that, I have played for my country, scored the most goals for the country, so for me I still have that hunger and desire, same appetite as I had when I was 18 years of age," added Keane.
"I'd never have thought for one second that I'd have the most caps for the country. Maybe in 10 years' time I will look back on it and be proud of it but when you're still part of the squad and training you are so focused on training and on the game, you don't think about it too much.
"It's a big occasion for me but more so for the family. They are the ones who are most excited about it whereas for me, the most important thing is playing tonight and getting a result for the team."
It's odd that his old team-mate and friend Damien Duff is in Dublin today to attend a charity event in his role as an ex-international, the same status enjoyed by Shay Given, but Keane plays on, the Tallaght lad insisting that quitting was not in his mind while others agonised in the aftermath of the Euro 2012 debacle.
"I never thought about it," Keane explained.
"Myself, Richie (Dunne), Shay and Duffer sort of came through and some people said maybe we should leave together, but that's not the case, Shay was older, Damien made his decision to retire but I never contemplated retiring. If I felt I had nothing to offer maybe I would have considered it but I still feel like I have a lot to offer for the national team."
Keane took his tally of international goals to 56 with his double strike against Georgia last Sunday, and he maintains that a drought of goals from play with Ireland did not weigh on his mind.
"Like any striker, I'd be lying if I said I didn't worry about it but as you get older it's not something that you'd kill yourself over. When I was younger it used to eat you up inside and it did affect you but as you get older it's not as bad as it was. Like any striker you are judged on scoring goals, but it's also what you do in the game," he says. "The Sweden game was a completely different role for me, I had to sit back and press, stop them from playing so I didn't have the opportunity to score goals and that's something you have to do for the team."
Apart from a dismal spell during the Steve Staunton era, when Keane made an ill-advised and badly-received appearance on a TV chat show to defend his then manager, one of the hardest episodes in his career was the time of the Faroe Islands game earlier in this campaign, when a team battered 6-1 by Germany appeared to be on the verge of losing their manager, only for things to turn around.
"The results speak for themselves, the performance of the players has been very, very good, we haven't lost too many games since then," he says of the nervous trip to the Faroes.
"When you are losing the most important thing is to bounce back as quickly as possible and get results, and the evidence of this week is that it has been a very good 10 days, it's all about results, a 1-1 draw with England which everyone in the country was delighted with and a 4-0 result a few days later.
"It's a positive attitude around the country, the players, the staff and everyone associated with the team. But if we don't win tonight, all that means nothing. You have to accept criticism sometimes, it's how you deal with criticism. You can either crumble, hide and cry in the corner or be a man and stand up and do the best you can, and that has been the case from every player."