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50: Goal machine Keane has sights firmly set on reaching another milestone for Ireland

WITH so much turbulence in his colourful club career, it is easy to forget just how impressive Robbie Keane's goalscoring record for his country actually is. History will judge him kindly.

Another target is in his sights. Keane stands on 48 goals, one short of Bobby Charlton who currently stands as the most prolific international player from these islands.

It's hardly surprising that Keane stropped when he was replaced with plenty of minutes remaining to inflict further misery on a dreadful Northern Ireland side on Tuesday. Charlton scored 49 times from 106 caps.

The 5-0 destruction of the North was Keane's 106th appearance. Grabbing a hat-trick to match Charlton's record would have been a nice touch. Minus a World Cup winner's medal, of course, but you get the point.

But, it's only a matter of time before the Tallaght man reaches the half-century. With three games -- tomorrow's Carling Nations decider with Scotland, next Saturday's Euro 2012 qualifier in Macedonia, and a friendly with Italy in Liege -- before the summer holidays, the opportunity is there.

It matters. By now, we are all used to the 30-year-old's media-trained press conference routine of stressing that the result is everything, rather than his own goalscoring contribution.


However, at this juncture, few could accuse Keane of selfishness when it comes to the green shirt. In a week dominated by player absences, with Tony Pulis confirming yesterday that he would be investigating the whereabouts of Marc Wilson, Keane was getting emotional about having his time on the pitch cut short.

Sure, his on-pitch demeanour has never proven to be universally popular, but the Dubliner has put in the hours to reach the threshold.

He stands in illustrious company, the calibre of characters who only need a surname as introduction. Level with Gary Lineker, one behind Charlton, three behind Thierry Henry, seven behind Romario, eight behind Gabriel Batistiuta. All can be overcome if he decides to extend his Irish days beyond this European Championship campaign.

Critics will say that he racked up a lot of goals against inferior opposition, but the list of greats mentioned above lined out for their respective nations at a time where they entered the majority of games as hot favourites. Keane's feats with a small country compare favourably.

Members of the strikers union appreciate that. Take Kenny Miller, Scotland's leading striker, who converted his 14th international goal in their win over Wales on Wednesday.

"I know first hand how hard it is to get goals at this level and for someone to be approaching 50 is incredible," said the 31-year-old. "He's a year younger than me and has 106 caps with almost 50 goals. It's a phenomenal record.

"You go on about people calling off from squads, but Robbie is one of those who loves going away and playing for his country. You can see that in his play, and he wouldn't dream of calling off. Robbie is a fantastic player, and he has done it at the top level all his career."

Irish assistant Marco Tardelli was equally complimentary yesterday, mentioning Keane in the same breath as Paolo Rossi, another hero of Italy's 1982 World Cup win.

"Rossi, it's possible to compare with him because they are the same type of players. I don't know if Robbie will do it against Scotland, but I hope for him that he does. He deserves it for having such a fantastic record," said Tardelli.

The top Italian international scorer of all time, Giga Riva, scored just 35 goals although there is a quite important caveat -- he actually only won 42 caps.

That's a truly remarkable record, yet longevity is another of Keane's strengths. He has carried the burden for Ireland since 1998 and, in his only major tournament experience four years later, responded in style.

Admittedly, he suffered a mini-slump under his old mentor, Brian Kerr, hitting a barren streak in meaningful matches which didn't help the attempts to make the 2006 World Cup in Germany. It carried over into Steve Staunton's chaotic spell in the hot-seat.

Keane only scored eight goals for Ireland between 2005 and 2007, and three of those came in a drubbing of San Marino.

Since the arrival of Trapattoni early in 2008, he has added 16 more, and they have largely had a positive impact on the points total.

For all that, he has suffered misery at Spurs and West Ham this term and although that carried over into the October qualifier in Slovakia, he responded to deliver a crucial goal against Macedonia in March.

Next Saturday, with Messrs Dunne, Duff, and Doyle all sidelined, Ireland's fate could hinge on his well-being. It would be an appropriate time to reach yet another landmark.

Irish Independent