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Stapleton: Robbie had a knack you can't teach

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Robbie Keane in action against Argentina’s Roberto Ayala during his home international debut at Lansdowne Road in 1997. Photo: Sportsfile

Robbie Keane in action against Argentina’s Roberto Ayala during his home international debut at Lansdowne Road in 1997. Photo: Sportsfile

Robbie Keane in action against Argentina’s Roberto Ayala during his home international debut at Lansdowne Road in 1997. Photo: Sportsfile

It's an honour which you can't touch or take home. There's no trophy or medal, just the honour of being the leading goalscorer for the Republic of Ireland national team.

Frank Stapleton held that intangible piece of fame for a spell, before handing it on. When he scored his 20th goal for Ireland, against Malta in 1990, the former Manchester United man beat a record which had stood, by Don Givens' name, since 1980.

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Ireland haven't qualified for a World Cup since 2002

Ireland haven't qualified for a World Cup since 2002

Ireland haven't qualified for a World Cup since 2002

Stapleton would hold the record for another decade, when Niall Quinn found the net against Cyprus in 2001 to establish a new record of 21 goals for Ireland.

Robbie Keane edged ahead with his 22nd goal, against the Faroe Islands, in 2004. And then went on to score the level of goals which puts him on a stage which will never be reached again.

Slogged

Stapleton slogged long and hard to get to that 20-goal mark, so he never envisioned that a player - indeed a lad from Dublin like himself - would one day score 67 goals for the national team.

"I never thought an Irish striker would get to 60 goals, due to the size of our population," says Stapleton, now 60.

"You look at Gerd Muller, the goals he scored and the size of Germany's population, you see it makes sense and you'd expect the top scorers in international football to come from the major nations, the countries who are competing for things, but Robbie has changed that, and for a lad from Dublin to get to 40 would have been incredible, but to get to 60 and beyond is fantastic.

"People are now realising how good Robbie was. I found at a lot of Ireland games there was criticism, if he hadn't scored or not played well. It's hard as a striker when the goals are not going in, you have to bite the bullet sometimes. It might not have been your fault, you might not be getting the service but you still get stick for not scoring.

"To me, it was crazy that he was getting stick, I could never understand that and I feel you only get appreciated when you finish playing, so maybe it's starting to happen for Robbie now."

Stapleton says he had no sadness about losing his record to Quinn and then Keane. "It's nice to have the record but all you are doing is to try and push it along to another level, so that someone else has to strive to get past that, that was my feeling," he told The Herald this week.

"I had always hoped that someone would better the record but if Robbie scores tonight he would equal Gerd Muller, which I think would be in Robbie's mind, I know if this was my last game and I knew I could equal Gerd Muller by scoring, I would do all I could to get one, maybe two. In terms of the size of our country, no one will ever get near this again."

Stapleton (inset below) had an early inkling of how good Keane could be. "I became aware of Robbie when he came through at Wolves, I was doing a Wolves game for radio and I saw Robbie, he was sensational even then," he says.

"What I liked about him was that he had that knack of being in the right place at the right time and you can't give someone that, it's a natural thing you either have or don't. I thought Robbie would have a good chance in the game, I just hoped that he would play in a team that would create chances for him and it worked out well for him."

They came from different eras but Stapleton and Keane have a lot in common: both had an unhappy spell on the continent (Keane at Inter Milan, Stapleton at Ajax) and both captained the national team.

"It didn't work out for Robbie in Italy but he still went on to play for so many big clubs," he reflects.

"Robbie also played as captain and that wasn't always easy. The hardest part of being captain is on the pitch, as a forward you're not at the heart of things, the ideal captain is a midfielder, but Robbie didn't have a problem, you just take it on. Some people found it a burden, being captain, but I didn't and I don't think Robbie did."

They also had a determination to play for their country, with Stapleton insisting in a clause in his contract with Manchester United, after his move from Arsenal, that he had to be released for all Ireland matches.

He says: "At United they weren't initially bothered that I had it in my contract where I had to be released for Ireland games, it was only when I exercised it that there was a problem. It was important to me and it was important to Robbie as well."

He was part of a unbroken cycle of Irish strikers, from Givens to Stapleton to Quinn and Aldridge, then Keane, but beyond Shane Long, there's no obvious candidate to pass on the baton. It will be hard for Ireland to replace him but you hope that someone comes along and you can't get too gloomy about it.

"Someone might come from nowhere and you can't worry too much about it, but it's getting harder and harder to find forwards, even the big nations struggle. Look at how Germany struggled for goals at the Euros," he concludes.

"It's only right that he gets a send-off and once he is gone, he will be talked about for a long time, maybe down the road people will regret not appreciating Robbie when we had him in the team."


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