Saturday 24 February 2018

Each time our hopes fizzled out, there was always Robbie Keane

Robbie Keane celebrates his goal against Celtic, during the Jackie McNamara testimonial match at Celtic Park in May 29, 2005, with his trademark cartwheel. Pic: Steve Welsh/PA.
Robbie Keane celebrates his goal against Celtic, during the Jackie McNamara testimonial match at Celtic Park in May 29, 2005, with his trademark cartwheel. Pic: Steve Welsh/PA.

Dermot Bolger

Soccer B Internationals have gone the way of the Dodo, the DeLorean motorcar and Zhivago's Nite Club in Baggot Street, Dublin, having petered out of existence. Indeed, the Republic only played a dozen such trial internationals. Only two are worth remembering.

Ireland's first ever B International, against Romania in 1957, is remembered only for the fact that - behind the scenes - Dublin's nefarious Archbishop, John Charles McQuaid, tried to stop it, determined to ban communist teams.

But - as with the more famous international against Yugoslavia in 1955 - McQuaid failed and 21,500 of his flock watched a dire game whose sole highlight was the referee being knocked unconscious by a wayward shot.

Only 10,000 fans filled Tolka Park in February 1998, for another B international against Northern Ireland.

But this was all the creaking ground could hold. Luckily, I got my infant sons through the turnstiles, for their first ever Ireland game, before it sold out and fans were turned away.

It sounds like a big crowd for a meaningless match but an air of anticipation pulsated around Drumcondra that night, with people sensing a new generation about to emerge.

Football is littered with talented teenagers whose careers petered out.

But the uncapped players who donned green jerseys that night ended up earning almost 500 caps between them.

The 18-year-old Richard Dunne was in defence, with Steve Finnan on the bench.

Mark Kinsella and Graham Kavanagh deputised for an injured Garry Breen in midfield, but it was Ireland's new strikers we'd come to see.

The 19-year-old Damien Duff was such a will-o'-the-wisp presence that night that folk compared him to Matt Le Tissier.

But the most composed figure - on the pitch and at the press conference - was a 17-year-old Tallaght kid, named Robbie Keane.

He had just broke into the Wolves first team, scoring twice on his debut and celebrating with the cartwheel that became his trademark.

He seemed blessed with infectious good humour and high energy commitment.

At 17 - just like at 35 - there was no disguising his passion to pull on an Irish jersey.

Mick McCarthy quickly handed him his first full cap and launched an international career we will only truly appreciate when it ends.

My sons and I travelled to the Stade de France last week so that - having seen his career start in Tolka Park - we could be among the Irish fans who gave him a huge ovation when he came on for what was essentially his swansong.

A striker feeds on chances and Keane could do little in Paris and even less in Bordeaux.

If he comes off the bench tonight in Lille, for probably his last appearance, the odds are stacked against him being able to summon the energy to latch onto one final pass and score a brilliantly courageous goal - like his last minute one against the Germans in Ibaraki in the 2002 World Cup.

Yet nobody can doubt his commitment to strain every ageing muscle to do so, despite having run himself into the ground for 18 years playing for Ireland.

Robbie is suddenly old - and making us realise that we're older too - but his passion for Ireland hasn't wavered since that night in Tolka Park.

It is easy to disparage any footballer in the twilight of his career when we long to see young world class strikers buzz about in his place.

But although I've hopes for the new generation of Callum O'Dowda and Jack Byrne, I've had hopes for many new players whom I thought would replace Keane.

Each time those hopes fizzled out. Keane is not in France out of vanity, but out of commitment.

If there was a better young striker ready he'd happily hand over his shirt and resume his new life in America, with his job done.

Commitment is a rare quality in international soccer.

Players retire early to prolong lucrative club careers.

Francesco Totti walked away from Italy at 30. Paul Scholes and Alan Shearer both deserted England at 29.

Stephen Ireland invoked the Two Grannies rule to walk out on us at just 21 and Irish footballers have often found reasons to cry off awkward away fixtures.

In contrast, Keane has been ever ready to travel, even when knowing he would not be ever present on the pitch.

He has worn fame lightly and - equally importantly - handled disappointment with dignity.

His dream move to Liverpool backfired, but he never sulked or bad mouthed the manager who wished him gone.

I remember him sitting in a Liverpool scarf at Anfield, smiling and talking to fans, even after effectively being frozen out.

Keane has played with the cards he was dealt, coping with the rough and the smooth, whether in a stunning partnership with Berbatov at Spurs or on unglamorous loan spells with Celtic or West Ham.

He netted for Ireland from Bari and Amsterdam to Tallinn and Nicosia.

Maybe he never quite fulfilled the promise that saw Inter Milan buy him at 20, but over 18 years he came to personify our national team on good days and bad, welcoming new arrivals and creating an esprit de corps in difficult times.

His behaviour has never let us or himself down.

I'd love to see him retire in a blaze of glory tonight. Maybe he will defy time and do so.

But no matter how he makes his exit, I'm grateful to have witnessed one of Irish soccer's great journeys and to know that in 144 appearances, he never lost the passion that set Tolka Park alight.

Thanks for the memories, Robbie, and for the commitment.

Irish Independent

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