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Robbie's transfer a sign of flagging interest

IT'S AUGUST 1981. Robbie Keane is one year old, Garret Fitzgerald heads a Fine Gael government, and The Specials top the charts with 'Ghost Town'.

And in England, Manchester United and Liverpool are bidding to sign Frank Stapleton, who has just scored 14 goals for Arsenal in an injury-scarred season.

It's not just nostalgic but relevant as that, sadly, was the last time that football saw what could be considered a major scramble by a number of big clubs for a Republic of Ireland striker.

Oh, we've had bids and moves since then for our lads up front, even success outside of these islands when you recall how well John Aldridge (Spain) and Tony Cascarino (France) did after leaving Britain.

But the moves in the transfer window just concluded saw three underwhelming moves for Irish strikers: Robbie Keane going on loan to Celtic, Leon Best moving up a few places in the Championship table by signing for Newcastle United, and Daryl Murphy ending his five-year stay at Sunderland by rejoining Roy Keane at Ipswich.

Others didn't even get to move: Caleb Folan failed to escape to QPR from his misery at Hull, while Barnsley's attempt to sign international forward Stephen Elliott from Preston fell through (though Elliott, last capped in 2006, may yet get a move away from Preston where he has started just three games this season).

Seems as if no one wants any of our forwards any more. A decade after he caused ripples by joining Inter Milan, Robbie Keane's only real outlet for his talents in January 2010 is a move to Celtic, a club who are out of Europe and 10 points off the pace in the league title race. Keane hogged the headlines on Sky Sports News late into Monday night and Tuesday morning not because of some new-found respect for the SPL in London, but because nothing else of note was happening.

Keane is indeed only on loan to Celtic and he could get a chance to prove himself at Tottenham for next season, but many thought that if Keane did get to fulfil that "boyhood dream" of playing for Celtic, he'd be more likely to do it at the age of 34 or 35, not when he was still only 29.


Leon Best's move from Coventry City to Newcastle was greeted with mixed reactions: the 23-year-old was booed by Coventry fans as he came off the pitch on Saturday, appearing to them to look disinterested in doing well for the Sky Blues and more concerned with bagging a move away, while on Tyneside, reaction to the signing was more a case of what Lisa Simpson would describe as 'meh'.

Best was viewed as a decent player but not necessarily someone who would, first off, lead Newcastle back into the Premier League at the end of this season and then scare defences in the top flight next season.

Unfair criticism of the player, perhaps, as Best has looked the part in his six appearances for Ireland so far -- but then so did David Connolly.

Maybe the clubs have been scared away by whispers from people like Feyenoord, who took David Connolly to Holland in 1998, made him the best-paid player in Dutch football -- and were rewarded with a tiny handful of goals.

Or they look at the stats and ask if a big Irish signing will deliver goals, as it's 22 years (John Aldridge, Liverpool) since a Republic of Ireland player finished the season as top scorer in England's top flight. When Robbie Keane scored for Liverpool in a 3-1 win over PSV Eindhoven last season, he became the first Irishman ever to score a goal in the group stages of the Champions League (Keane has scored 15 European goals, a fine return, but only two came in the Champions League).

Whatever the reason, centre-forwards from Ireland are just not in vogue. Go back to last summer when it was made clear that Kevin Doyle was leaving Reading. There were reports of bigger English clubs sniffing around, whispers of bids from top German teams and other continental suitors offering European football, but when it came to the business end of things, the best offer on the table for Doyle and Reading was from Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, who last won a major trophy in 1960 and haven't played in Europe in 30 years.


Doyle and Keane still offer hope that an Irish forward can follow in the footsteps of Stapleton, Aldridge, Cascarino (all played for former European Cup winners) and make a splash on the big stage. Keane still has time on his side (30 next summer) but also has a lot of mileage on the clock already.

Doyle's just 26 years old, has performed superbly in a Wolves side this season where service to the front men has been erratic, and Liverpool fans gazed in admiration at Doyle's selfless display as the lone striker in the 0-0 draw at Anfield last week and wondered why the Reds' own expensive signings never showed the same level of effort or commitment as the Wexford man.

So it's not all bleak. Anthony Stokes, after some tough times in England, is really finding his feet again in Scotland with a Hibs side who were snapping away at the heels of Celtic before Keane's arrival, while also in Scotland, Cillian Sheridan still looks rough around the edges but has a chance. As Keane may soon find out, however, doing the business in Scotland may count for little in the grand scheme of things.

Stokes is proving that you can get a second chance, heartening news for former Ireland men Stephen Elliott and Daryl Murphy.

Murphy has got a move this week, leaving behind his bit-part role at Sunderland for Ipswich under Keane. The Waterford man was a loyal servant to Sunderland and Keane truly appreciated Murphy's work-ethic as well as talent, and Murphy could bloom once again at Ipswich.

Elliott, who was Ireland's saviour against Cyprus back in the day, is also due to move, away from Preston who no longer see him with a future there, Barnsley still keen to get former Manchester City man, who is still only 26.

Shane Long has ended a long goal famine and could win back his place in the Irish squad at least, while Andy Keogh is due back from injury sometime soon.

Barnsley, Reading, Wolves and Ipswich. They don't roll off the tongue like Ajax, Inter Milan, Chelsea and Bayern Munich, but it will have to make do. For now.