Tuesday 21 November 2017

Farewell to a big lump of Irishness

Robbie Keane: 'He loves being Irish, he loves everything about Ireland,' says his former Coventry City and Irish underage team-mate Barry Ferguson. Photo: David Maher
Robbie Keane: 'He loves being Irish, he loves everything about Ireland,' says his former Coventry City and Irish underage team-mate Barry Ferguson. Photo: David Maher

Miguel Delaney

By the time the Lansdowne Road pitch has been cleared on Wednesday, and Robbie Keane has said his final words as an Irish international, there will be a touch more poignancy to a comment repeated by almost everyone you speak to about him. "You always knew when he walked into the room."

That was for a number of reasons, from the way younger players sat up for him in later years, to the "infectious personality" that caused such a buzz in dressing rooms throughout his career. Then there were the songs sang with such enthusiasm he'd close his eyes as he performed.

"You'd wind him up, and he'd be off, on the go," Matt Holland says. "I wondered when he slept. You'd see him in the canteen, darting around, in the corridor of the hotel where he had the ball at his feet keeping it up. He never sat still."

You could always hear him. You always heard about him too, going right back to the start of his career.

Because, after all the goals, all the caps and all the debate and discussion that surrounded over 18 years of near ubiquity with the Irish team, it's easy to forget Keane was once little more than a name to keep an eye on. He was the type of talked-up young player every schoolboy year has, but only rarely lives up to expectation.

His former Coventry City and Irish underage team-mate Barry Ferguson recalls the way Keane was discussed when they were opposing players in Dublin.

"I would have been playing at Home Farm, with Richard Dunne at centre-half, and he would have been at Crumlin United. Before we played them, everybody's talking about Robbie Keane, Robbie Keane."

Read More: Stephen Hunt: We didn't get on but I'd have Robbie in my team every time

Alan McLoughlin remembers similar before an otherwise forgotten 2-1 friendly defeat to the Czech Republic in March 1998, when Mick McCarthy gathered the squad together in Olomouc.

"Obviously we were aware of Robbie from his exploits at club level from a young age, and I'd seen clips of him play," McLoughlin says. "It wasn't really until I spoke to Mick at training, and he said 'this boy's special, he can do things that are magic'. You sort of think 'yeah, you're bound to say that, you've selected him', but, once you got into a small-sided game in training, I saw exactly what he meant. We all looked at each other and thought 'wow, OK, that's decent. This boy's got talent.'"

And that should be the starting point in any debate about Keane's international career. He did more than surpass expectations from that young talent. He transformed the parameters for Irish goalscoring. If you were to tell anyone before that match in March 1998 that the young sub would go on to beat Frank Stapleton's then long-standing record of 20 goals, while also getting the goals that saw Ireland qualify for a tournament and then get a big result once there, it would have been considered a sensation.

Keane instead sensationally gorged on goals even more, but this isn't really about the 46 strikes by which he beat Niall Quinn's eventual 2001 record, or the debate over whether hat-tricks against the Faroe Islands superficially inflated his total. It was about the nature of the strikes as much as the number. Ireland have had similar goal machines before, like John Aldridge, but no one ever so well used or so ruthless. Keane quickly came to represent the kind of player the country never really had, but that so many other similar-sized countries seemed to specialise in. He solved something of a problem position, and thereby solved so many problems. If you were to try and pick out his best moments, for example, it's actually very difficult. There are at least 17 consequential strikes, more than the total individual tally of all but five other Irish players in history.

Consider some of the opposition he scored against in competitive games: Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Netherlands. Consider some of the competitive fixtures he scored in: a World Cup knock-out match, two World Cup games, four qualification play-offs.

He is undisputedly Ireland's greatest ever striker, and walks into the country's all-time XI.

Any criticism should really come in the context of comparisons to the real top tier of strikers from the club game, and he is some way short of that given he never hit more than 16 league goals in a single European season. Those close to the Spanish and South American contingent at Liverpool in 2008-09 say some of that core didn't rate him, although this was at a point when Rafa Benitez was often misusing Keane by putting him out on the wing. A player characterised by his instinctive improvisation was not being allowed use any of that.

Keane was unlucky that the two big club moves of his career were mostly decided by circumstances out of his control, even if he could possibly have picked better. He went to Internazionale in 2000 and faced competition from a cast of strikers that included Ronaldo, Chrisian Vieri, Alvaro Recoba, Hakan Sukur and Ivan Zamorano. It didn't help that manager Marcelo Lippi left mid-season, given the Italian legend so admired Keane's grinta - his spirit - but the then 20-year-old could have helped himself by choosing an alternative route even when there. Inter's approach to young players has always been to loan them out for experience, and they actually had Andrea Pirlo at Brescia that season. It might have changed Keane's career and game had he opted to temporarily go to somewhere like Lecce rather than Leeds United.

Read More: Robbie, the boy who dreamt big - and won

It is still to his credit - and an illustration of the unwavering belief that propelled his career - that one of his worst club seasons coincided with his best campaign for Ireland. Just as Keane was beginning to struggle at Liverpool, he was really revving up for his country. The qualification group for the 2010 World Cup didn't see a single goal against a minnow, but did see three match-winners and two equalisers, before his sweeping finish in the play-off against France. In all, his goals were directly responsible for eight of Ireland's 18 points.

The psychological effect of this on his teammates was arguably what really elevated Keane's career. His scoring ability gave Irish squads a reassurance they simply never had. Paul McShane likens it to a goalkeeper who you just know won't make mistakes, in that it filled the team with confidence and made them conscious they had a big chance of winning any game if the rest of the players just did the small things right.

"It was like that," McShane says. "For a team like Ireland, where we rarely dominated possession, and would have had fewer chances than other countries in tight games, you knew that, if something fell to him, he'd be on the end of it. He just knew how to sniff out a goal, sniff when the ball was going to drop.

"He was sharp. You wouldn't say he had blistering pace, but it was that first gear over 10 yards to cut short and then suddenly go inside. He just had that intelligence, how to upset defenders and drag them out of position to get that space."

Many of Keane's best qualities seemed innate, the type that couldn't be coached, given they were all so evident when he was a schoolboy playing against Ferguson.

"He just had this knack where he'd drop a couple of yards and then spin," says Ferguson. "By the time he's gone four yards, most defenders are still reacting to his first movement. His body then almost turned to jelly when he had the ball. You didn't know what way he was going to go."

Keane would still spend hours after training practicing a range of finishes that allowed him to score an array of different goals, from a reverse outside-of-the-foot dink for Coventry against Arsenal in 1999 to the piledriver away to the Netherlands in 2004. He didn't really have a signature goal, but all of this did come together in one defining moment.

Given the circumstances, given the opposition, given the finish and given that it ended up being the difference between group stage elimination there and then and going through to the next round, there is probably nothing in his career to compare to the stoppage-time equaliser against Germany in the 2002 World Cup.

Kenny Cunningham came on as a sub in the minutes before, and admits his knees were surprisingly knocking together from the nerves as he stood on the touchline, but there was none of that with Keane.

"It sums up everything we've been talking about here, from the team hanging in in a game, having somebody you know will score that one chance. Late in the game, a bit of a Hail Mary ball, that knock-down from Niall, and it still wasn't an easy goal. Then it's those attributes we're talking about, that bit of anticipation, reading where it was going, finding that pocket of space. Even then, he still had a bit to do. I'd guess, if you had a heart-rate monitor on him before he took that touch, it wouldn't change. Ice cold. It encapsulates Robbie."

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It also released Robbie. In terms of a player just enjoying his game and performing without inhibition at the elite level, there has rarely been anything like him and Damien Duff so thrillingly rampaging at Spain in the last-16 game, emboldening Keane to the point he slotted that last-minute penalty. It is a pity Ireland didn't see more of that and, by the last seven years of his international career, it almost went in the other direction.

The decline of his all-round game was indulged and eventually tolerated because of his ability to score. That led to even more debate about his role, but McShane is one of many who praises the mentality he brought to the squad.

Ferguson, who knows him longer, goes even further. "He loves being Irish, he loves everything about Ireland. I remember at Coventry, he was suspended for one of the international games, and we went driving around looking for somewhere to show the game live. This is the starting striker.

"It's a big lump of Irishness gone from the squad."

The squad won't hear him again in the same way, won't know he's in the room. He's left the building.

From Olomouc to Oman, the finisher's career has come to an end.

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