Sport Soccer

Friday 23 March 2018

Comment: No matter how much you loved Robbie, he loved himself a little bit more

Robbie Keane
Robbie Keane

Tommy Conlon

It became a theme of his leave-taking last week: Robbie Keane wasn't fully appreciated when he was there, and would only truly be valued when he was gone.

There was probably a fair grain of truth in it too. But it might also be argued that the public undervalued him because he tended to overvalue himself. That they withheld their affection because he supplied more than enough of his own.

Robbie, from day one, had a great welcome for himself. And when the time finally came for him to depart, he had a great wake for himself too. The match against Oman was all about one man. As he started, so he finished.

The public doesn't always get it right when it comes to choosing its favourites. But they pick up enough information during a sportsman's career to form an impression, for better or worse. They build a relationship with that person, remote but real.

Paul McGrath was in the crowd at Lansdowne Road last Wednesday. When his face flashed up on the big screen they showed him the love, as they always do. Among Keane's contemporaries, Damien Duff enjoys unconditional popular affection. Richard Dunne and Shay Given will also be held in high regard. People admired their talent as professionals, and sensed in them a degree of personal modesty off the pitch too.

Republic of Ireland skipper Robbie Keane has retired from international football with 146 caps and 68 goals

With Keane it was a bit more complicated. He had a star quality that they didn't have, a charisma and natural magnetism. The personality was inextricably interwoven with his work. He was very good at scoring goals. And scoring goals gave him permission to puff his ego. He was well entitled to do it too. It is a ritual, part of the game's tradition: the goal machine taking the plaudits after finding the net again. Like a top showman, Keane would give the crowds what they wanted, and then milk it for all he was worth. It was harmless and enjoyable; Robbie's goals and subsequent celebrations often added to the gaiety of the nation. But it also left the general impression of a cocky so-and-so.

Mental health campaigners would argue that the absence of self-love is a major contributor to depression and sundry other problems connected with personal wellbeing. So, we wouldn't want to be too down on anyone who possesses a robust self-esteem. But still, and still, we were frequently left with the notion that Keane loved himself not wisely but too well.

His was a team game, after all, but when he scored he too often couldn't get away from his team-mates quickly enough to glory alone in the moment. He had a cartwheel, a somersault and two colt revolvers to fire, before his comrades could deign to join in the celebrations.

When he and Duff both scored against Saudi Arabia at the 2002 World Cup, the contrasting reactions were telling. Keane gave it the works, this time substituting a virtual bow and arrow for the revolvers. Duff's Japanese bow, in Japan, was a classy cameo that showcased humour and humility in one delightful moment. And therein, as the man says, lay the difference.

Keane would also exhibit other traits that were less than endearing. Sometimes painfully inarticulate in front of a microphone, he didn't project a particularly charming persona to the public in this milieu. But in fairness he was probably more intimidated by the media than any opponent.

On the field, if a colleague played a bad ball into him, he would occasionally make public his displeasure, windmilling his arms and gesticulating his frustration for everybody to see. Sometimes one wondered what they thought of him, when he'd make a hash of a ball with one of his poor touches or daft decisions. Not to mention the amount of good chances he would fail to put away.

Keane was not an elite finisher. He scored 126 goals in 349 Premier League games, close to a one-in-three ratio. He scored 68 in 146 internationals, more or less one in two, adding substance to the argument that he did most of his plundering against weaker defences.

This contributed to a general perception that he thought he was better than he actually was.

But maybe he needed the big ego. He spent his career in a position that demanded bulletproof self-belief. His irrepressible self-confidence was maybe a vital psychological tool. He had to keep believing in himself, no matter how many chances he missed, no matter how often he was moved on by various managers.

Keane kept going. He kept turning up. He kept showing up for chances in the box. The man had unquestionable bottle and willpower. And it turned out that the giddy boy of the late 1990s would have tremendous staying power too. His sheer longevity in the game is itself an enormous achievement. He has had a great career.

And we never really appreciated that he had to do his growing up in front of us. "I was just 17," he said in an interview with this newspaper back in November 2002. He wasn't ready, he needed guidance. "All of a sudden I was in the papers and everything. I had to cope with things (alone)."

Aged 36, he's a different person now, obviously. He leaves his Ireland career behind him as a statesman of the game. The public warmth that may have been withheld in the past will only grow from here on in.

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