'Fantastic captain' Keane leads by example
Garry Doyle charts how Ireland's all-time record goalscorer grew into role of real skipper
IT IS ironic that, for a patriot like Robbie Keane, international football should once again prove to be his Achilles heel.
Earlier in his career, injuries collected on Irish duty interrupted the momentum he was building at Wolves and Leeds, long before the mental baggage he brought home from the 2009 World Cup play-off defeat to France effectively ended his time as Tottenham's first-choice striker.
And here he is again, nursing an injury, this time to an Achilles, refusing to take an operation to answer his country's call.
In many respects, it is no big deal. His season with LA Galaxy has ended. The recovery time ahead is plentiful. So the sacrifice he has made is hardly the sort that merits the erection of a statue.
And yet, at 33 and with 62 goals from 131 internationals, he could be forgiven for slipping quietly away. After all, Martin O'Neill had already told him he wouldn't be starting tonight. Would he be missed?
"Well, absolutely he would," said O'Neill. "Around the camp, he has been tremendous, a hugely influential figure. And look, he has this Achilles problem. He might have been able to get surgery on it this week. In top-level sport, a week can be a very long time. I told him to give it consideration.
"Immediately, though, he told me he was coming with us. And that spoke volumes. For me, it is terrific to hear. He is a fantastic captain."
There was a time when few would have shared O'Neill's sentiments, a time when Keane's cartwheeling celebrations seemed an extension of his immaturity, when the captaincy job seemed too much for him. So how has the striker evolved into O'Neill's "fantastic" leader?
Here are the four matches that shaped his captaincy:
Cyprus 5 Ireland 2
Part of Steve Staunton's job spec was to develop a vision for the future, or at the very least to inject new blood into a team that had lost Roy Keane, Matt Holland and Kenny Cunningham to retirement.
'De Gaffer' read the fine print of his portfolio and interpreted the appointment of a young captain as a necessary call.
Instead, handing Keane the armband proved to be one of Staunton's many bad ones. At 26, the striker didn't yet possess the necessary wisdom for the role and his shortcomings were exposed on a terrible night when Cyprus outfought, out-thought and outscored Ireland.
Guilty by association, the junior member of the coalition had to fight to save his reputation. But he struggled to do so, his only competitive goals under Staunton coming against San Marino at Lansdowne Road.
With morale abysmally low throughout the Staunton reign and a crisis always around the corner, tales were told out of school.
"It became a bit of a bore to be around that squad," said one player. "I got fed up hearing the same jokes from the same group of lads."
No one was more fed up than Andy O'Brien. Along with Paddy Kenny and Clinton Morrison, he was made a scapegoat for the nightmare in Nicosia, and quickly announced his retirement from international football.
"Are you coming back?" Keane asked the defender a year later after Tottenham had played Portsmouth.
O'Brien's reply was short. "Why haven't I been given a phone call before now?"
If any incident serves as the perfect microcosm for the early days of Keane's captaincy, then this was it.
Beyond his friends and peers, he wasn't connecting with the fringe members of the panel. He wore the armband – but was no leader.
France 1 Ireland 1
This was not the type of revolution for which Paris is famous. No one died, although a World Cup dream did. Thierry Henry grabbed the match ball and subsequent headlines, and the best Irish performance of a generation was overshadowed by a blatant handball that set up France's winning goal.
Yet, the significance of this game cannot be underestimated because this was the night when Ireland's senior players rebelled against their manager, ignoring his defensive tactical wishes and deciding – after a brief meeting on the team bus – to play with risk and adventure.
Keane was at the heart of the revised plan but Kevin Kilbane, who wrote about the episode in his recently published book, provided him with company, along with Richard Dunne and Shay Given.
It was a dangerous game to play. Had the tactic backfired then Trapattoni would have been fully entitled to banish the gang of four. But, after losing the first leg 1-0 at Croke Park, they didn't feel they had a choice.
"Players were sick of losing," said Dunne shortly afterwards. "All we wanted was to walk into Dublin airport after a big win and let the people be proud of us."
After Paris they were. They didn't win the tie but they reconnected with the public – a remarkable progression from the dark days of Nicosia and San Marino.
By now, Keane had got to grips with the role, a point Don Givens made to Trapattoni after working closely with the Dubliner during his reign as caretaker boss.
So how do you explain the dramatic turnaround? Part of it stems from the vacuum Trapattoni's long silences left in the dressing-room before games and at half-time.
Keane, Given and, surprisingly, Stephen Hunt filled the void. The Italian's trust in Keane was rewarded with goals, too. The best period of his international career came during Trap's tenure.
Macedonia 0 Ireland 2
Under the Staunton era, Keane's body language in press conferences was appalling. He had a habit of talking a lot but saying little.
This all changed in Paris. After losing the first leg 1-0, he delivered a primal rallying cry at the eve-of-match press conference and the tone for the following night's performance was set.
A year later, he used the press for his own needs again. Angry with Jon Walters, James McCarthy and Anthony Stokes – who for one reason or another, failed to appear for a crucial qualifier away to Macedonia, he cut loose.
A questionable strategy was rewarded.
McCarthy and Walters' commitment has improved dramatically since. More to the point, Keane backed up his outspoken comments with two priceless goals in a 2-0 win.
Ireland 3 Latvia 0
Last Friday, Martin O'Neill became the third manager of Keane's captaincy. "What I have noticed here is the superb atmosphere around the camp," said O'Neill last night.
For this, Keane has to be credited. He learned his lesson from the Staunton era and worked on making newcomers feel more at home.
The ritual that a newly appointed player has to sing a song of his choice in their first week in camp has become popular.
"I was mortified when it was my turn," said Keith Treacy. "I offered to buy everyone drink on a night out. But the offer was turned down. I had to do it and hated the thought of it. But it broke the ice.
"I sang the first verse of 'You've Lost That Loving Feelin' and by the chorus the others had all joined in.
"Did it make a difference to how I felt around the squad? Absolutely. I felt a hell of a lot more comfortable around the lads from there on in."
Aside from acting as a makeshift X-Factor judge, Keane has also learned how to play the political game.
He and John Delaney speak regularly. He let Delaney know the type of manager – "one with balls" – this squad needed.
He then got two for the price of one – O'Neill and his old team-mate Roy.