Monday 18 December 2017

Robbie under no illusions as Father Time prepares to stalk path to goal

Captain vows to bow out if 'legs go' after new boss laments not having a 23-year-old version of star

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Martin O'Neill's words are sleeved in regret as a glance to his left confirms the absence from this story of anybody answering to the name of Benjamin Button.

Robbie Keane grins ruefully as the new Ireland manager alludes to this seemingly insurmountable problem. The Tallaght man (at 33) is old in football terms. If the process of reverse ageing was available for a single human on this planet now, O'Neill might well consider pushing Keane to the top of the queue before himself.

Because Ireland's dependence upon Robbie for goals has grown into a silent torment.

A return of 61 strikes in 130 international appearances defines him as a spellbinding talent, a goals-factory more prolific than European gods like Bobby Charlton or Thierry Henry and closing remorselessly in even on that barrelled German genius, Gerd Muller.

"Robbie's record is remarkable, really remarkable," sighs O'Neill, peering out over the rim of his spectacles like a wistful parent. "Naturally, I would have liked to have had in my time here a 23-year-old Robbie Keane instead of a 64-year-old Robbie Keane.

"That's a problem!"

The Ireland captain chuckles. He has a way of slipping through these engagements with the quiet equanimity of someone programmed to their own, private frequency. Keane has played for Ireland since he was 18 and knows the location of all those buried shards of conflict – from Saipan right through the troubled reigns of Steve Staunton and Brian Kerr – that media cheerily subject to regular digs.

Yet the only subversive thing about Robbie Keane (right) is the perpetual scoring of goals.

Cynics suggest it might take a mechanical digger to remove him from this Ireland story, yet realists understand that, for this, we ought to be thankful. Keane is the model professional, who, for all the distractions of a celebrity life in Los Angeles (he is about to sign a new three-year extension with Galaxy), remains disarmingly rooted to home.

So he seems genuinely excited by the arrivals of O'Neill and Roy Keane this week, albeit remaining savvy enough to request that such excitement doesn't get painted as some kind of retrospective jibe at Giovanni Trapattoni.

After the recent defeat of Kazakhstan, Robbie articulated a wish that the new Irish manager might simply come armed with sizeable cojones.

The reputed shortlist at the time included O'Neill, Keane and Mick McCarthy. "I didn't think we would get two of them here to be honest with you," he smiles now.

His relationship with the other Keane has escaped the tumult that pock-marked the experiences of others.

"No problem, no problem at all," he stresses. "When I came into the squad first, Roy was a player that everybody looked up to and respected. For me, coming in, he was always great. People tend to see the negative side, but when I came in – certainly me and Damien Duff – he would always speak to us.

"People forget, Roy is actually a very funny guy. And very charming. You can have a good chat with him. I have never had any problems with him. You judge people on how they treat you and he was always good to me.

"And I think you have seen the response in the last few weeks, from the whole nation, to these appointments. It has been incredible and that's the lift that everybody wanted. You don't get two bigger characters than Martin and Roy."

His new contract with Galaxy hasn't quite been inked yet, but he sees its imminence as an affirmation of the "faith" the club continues to show in him. And the necessity to service a lingering Achilles injury will ensure he does not return for a winter sojourn to the Premier League this season.

O'Neill has indicated that Robbie remains captain for the games tonight and Tuesday, but there can be no guarantees beyond. For Keane himself, that seems sensible.

"Listen I want to play as long as I can, but I'm not daft," he says. "I'm 33 years old and ultimately it's the manager's choice.

"All I can do is keep playing well and keep scoring goals and if he sees that I can continue doing that, then there's no problem.

"If there's a situation coming around to the Euros where for some reason my legs are gone, then I'll pack it in.

"There's no question. I'm not stupid, you know? If I feel, or if the manager feels, I can help the country, then great. It's what I've done since I was 18."

Keane says he is intent upon taking some coaching courses and will speak to the FAI "about something" in January, but, for now, he remains adamant that playing is the priority.

Tonight against Latvia will bring his 131st cap and few jaws are likely to drop should it decant another goal. For Keane is reliable in that old-fashioned way, devoid of conceit or artifice, always focused. The greatest goalscorer we've had, just pushing relentlessly for more.

Enjoy him while the years allow it.

Irish Independent

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