'I was almost in tears after missing out on Euro 2012 and then was asked for my suit back - I was raging'
I didn’t go around saying goodbyes before packing my bags to leave the hotel.
That wouldn’t be me. I was devastated and nearly in tears as I came to terms with the news that I’d be missing out on Euro 2012. For me, representing your country at a major tournament is the pinnacle of anyone’s career, so to be so close and have that taken away from me was upsetting. I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.
Mick, a neighbour of mine, came to pick me up from Portmarnock. I was at the Tallaght bypass and almost home when my phone lit up with a number I recognised from the team hotel.
My first thought was that word had spread about my bad luck and the call was to offer commiserations. Instead, it quickly became apparent that its purpose was to ask if I would be able to hand my official suit back.
I’d been selected for the 23-man squad so I was fitted for a suit that was eventually presented to me with my name on it. We’d received loads of gear for the month away so when I was leaving the room I’d just grabbed all of it in a rush so I could escape as quickly as possible. The suit was the last thing I was thinking of. I wasn’t robbing it.
“Are you joking me?” I said, before abruptly ending the short conversation. I tell people now with an intro that makes it sound like a funny story — ‘can you believe they asked me for the suit back?’ — but I wasn’t laughing at the time. I was raging.
For some reason, that’s one thing that sticks with me. Even that surprised me. Missing out on the tournament itself wasn’t that big a shock after the year I’d had.
Once I hit 28, my body just seemed to collapse. My groin, my hip and then the knee which finished me off. From the start of that season, in the summer of 2011, I was in bother. I’d been feeling it my groin in a couple of friendlies and underwent double hernia surgery. I came back, felt great and then got to around January and February before I started feeling the groin beginning to act up again. It was really bad, the worst injury I’d ever suffered.
I was struggling to sleep at night; it was like someone was scratching away with a little knife around your groin. One movement in the wrong direction would be enough to give me this awful sharp burst of pain. It would happen in the gym in the training ground at Birmingham and I’d roar with pain. The physios were looking at me funny thinking ‘What’s going on here?’
There were other days when there’d be no pain, where you could get through it and play. But the bad days outnumbered the good ones. I’d torn my groin a couple of times and always had the summer in the back of my head. We got to the play-offs but I pulled myself out of them to take extra time to concentrate on my rehab and build myself up because if I’d tried to struggle through it and put pressure on it then it was only going to get worse, not better.
Giovanni Trapattoni named his squad early. I’d been involved throughout the campaign after scoring the winner in our opening game in Armenia. He’d bring me on in games where we needed to keep the ball. Much as he was loyal to his regulars, and always included me when I was fit, I never took it for granted that I’d make his 23. To be honest, I was never sure that I’d make any squad. I was out in the shops when I got the call to say I was in and I was thrilled.
But from the moment I came in, I was trying to play catch up. I was in Liam Heavin’s place in Walkinstown with a couple of lads that were carrying knocks. Kevin Foley, who would get dumped at the last minute, was one of them. I got the feeling that Trap was a little bit impatient with us; he was panicking a little bit.
When I got the all clear to come back training and join the group, I should have taken it easy and coasted through my first day. But I started belting around the place and, stretching for a ball that I shouldn’t have, I felt that old stab of pain again.
The next day we played Bosnia in the Aviva and I was out on the pitch at half-time with the subs knowing I was in real trouble. When you pull your groin, sidefooting the ball is absolute agony. You really can’t do it. I was out there jogging around trying to stay away from the ball as much as possible.
I went to our doctor, Alan Byrne, and told him that something was up. We stopped by the Mater on the way back and I got the scan on the spot. When the results came through, Alan came to me and I could tell what was coming. “It’s not good news,” he said. I’d torn the muscle again. I was hoping for a miracle but even if the scan had come through ok, I think I’d have broken down eventually so it was probably just as well it happened early.
Trap handled the news in his own, unique way. He came over to me in the hotel to say goodbye, but he was more agitated than sympathetic.
“Why you not say?” he said, as though I’d been holding something back from him the whole time.
“I didn’t know, I didn’t know,” I said.
He wasn’t being mean about it; I couldn’t say a bad word against Trap because he gave me my chance. That was just him; I think he was just paranoid about injuries. Kev Foley was grand fitness-wise but I think my setback might have played a part in what happened to him.
The hardest part was ringing my brother who had booked his trip in January. He’d paid for it so decided to go ahead and travel. I had mates with flags made up who still went as well. But I didn’t want to be anywhere near it and I wanted to be out of Ireland too because I’d only have people coming up and hassling me. A few mates of mine were off to Thailand so I went travelling with them when the tournament was on.
We did the islands, the whole circuit: Ko Samui, Phuket, Phi Phi. The games were on and I watched them, but I didn’t really watch them, if that makes sense. I wasn’t tuned into it.
Subconsciously, I think I carried the disappointment of missing out around with me for a good while afterwards. My last game for Ireland was against Germany that October. People still talk to me about it now. “It’s a shame you missed out Keith,” they say. Looking back now, I probably dodged a bullet. The lads went away and got slaughtered. The main comfort I take it from it now is that I did get named in the squad, I did get picked. I made it.
When you’re in the game, you never allow yourself to dwell on those things. It’s only when you step out of it that your achievements really hit you. When I reflect on my career, I think now that I should have tried to enjoy it a bit more. I did an interview with Setanta last Christmas — with my old St Pat’s team-mate Damian Lynch — and it was only afterwards that I actually started believing that I’d done pretty well. I played Premier League, I played for my country. The highest level.
When I went to England first, football became a job. The enjoyment went out of it. I came back to Pat’s and started liking it again and I enjoyed it a bit more the second time around. But I probably should have loosened up a bit. In my childhood, football was always a getaway for me, a release, but my relationship with it changed when it became work.
I’m trying to get that old feeling back now. I’ve tried the punditry, but I don’t think I’m going to do that again. I don’t like watching it and having to analyse it; if I have to think about what I’m going to say then I won’t enjoy it; I find it hard to differentiate between the two.
I’ll watch the Ireland games this summer, but travelling over there is the last thing I’d ever want to do. As a kid, I never went to Ireland games as a fan. I’ll be happier just sitting at home and casually taking it in.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m honoured that I pulled on the green shirt. Coming into it late, you definitely appreciate it that bit more.
That goal in Yerevan will always live with me. I didn’t realise just how much it meant to people around home in Tallaght, for my family and friends and all those who supported me along the way. My Ireland journey ended badly, but I don’t consider the overall experience to be a sad story because of Poland. It’s true, you know, that old saying that nobody can take your caps away from you. They can’t. I’m proud of my 16.
Now and again, if I’m sitting around and doing nothing, I’ll turn on the clip of that strike in Armenia again. If any footballer tells you that they don’t look at their old goals on YouTube, they’re lying. I’d say we’re all similar in that sense. It’s nice to bring back some good memories; I’m glad I was able to help Ireland get to the Euros.
I still have the suit to prove it.