Thursday 23 January 2020

Brian Kerr: I've a lot to thank Robbie Keane for – and so has the nation

It bewilders me how any Ireland supporter could fail to appreciate a goalscoring machine who matured into the ultimate team player

Robbie Keane alongside his Ireland U18s manager Brian Kerr in 1998
Robbie Keane alongside his Ireland U18s manager Brian Kerr in 1998

Brian Kerr

May 1997. Robbie Keane stood in the centre-circle of this windswept pitch on Dublin's northside and looked around.

May 1997. Robbie Keane stood in the centre-circle of this windswept pitch on Dublin's northside and looked around.

Keane with Richie Baker while training in Nigeria during the U20 World Cup in 1990
Keane with Richie Baker while training in Nigeria during the U20 World Cup in 1990

He was 17, three months away from announcing himself with two goals on his professional debut for Wolverhampton Wanderers, unmuscular and small, yet noticeably confident.

Did it matter to him that the players lining up against him were well on their way to becoming men and also on their way to a third-place finish in the World Youth Cup?

Not a bit. So instead of allowing himself get bullied by these big, tall, seasoned defenders - who he was giving three years away to - he ran amok.

This practice match we had set up between the Irish U-20 side and a mix and match XI of the country's best 17 and 18-year-olds was meant to serve as a confidence booster to the older group, who were just about to fly to Malaysia for a World Cup.

The U18 team that played at the 1998 European Championship in Cyprus.
The U18 team that played at the 1998 European Championship in Cyprus.

Instead, after about ten minutes of the first half, their confidence had been shattered by the brilliance of this little lad, so much so that Noel O'Reilly, my assistant, turned around and said, "is it too late to get yer man on the plane?".

Unfortunately it was. The squad had already been picked and Robbie Keane was a player I didn't know a huge amount about.

Yet it seemed clear then, within minutes of watching him, that his destiny would take him away from pitches like this, surrounded by a large hedge and half a dozen spectators, to the biggest and best stadiums in the world.

As months, and then years, passed, he got better and better.

Keane with then Ireland senior manager Kerr in 2005. Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Keane with then Ireland senior manager Kerr in 2005. Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

And even though he didn't have blistering pace, he was always a yard ahead. Even though he wasn't particularly tall, he could play up front on his own. He was a natural goalscorer yet wasn't inclined to lazily hang around the penalty area.


And on this particular day, our awkward first date, he was both a joy and a nightmare to watch.

"This game was meant to be about us sorting out our defence," I said to Noel. Instead, with that defence being continually embarrassed, I gave the ref the nod to blow the match up early.

So that was my introduction to Robert David Keane. And from that moment on, we all began to dream about what he would become.

By Wednesday afternoon of this week, when he announced his retirement from international football, it's safe to say those ambitions were realised.

From a personal point of view, I've a lot to thank him for, because my appointment as Ireland youth team manager coincided with the arrival of him, Duffer, Richard Dunne, John O'Shea and Andy Reid - plus another two dozen stars who lit up European youth football.

The success we had wouldn't have occurred without their emergence. Nor would I have subsequently been honoured with the national team job.

So part of me will always feel my timing was good in terms of getting that youths job when they were breaking through. Then, when I went to the senior team, it was comforting to have them around.

I liked them - as players, obviously, but as people too.

That was why when I read some of the sporting obituaries that were written about him on Thursday morning, and listened to Shay Given say that "sometimes Irish fans, for whatever reason, didn't appreciate how good he was", I felt the importance of separating fact from fiction.

If there is still 'a lack of appreciation' for what Robbie achieved, then place his record of 67 international goals in context.

Denis Law and Kenny Dalglish are Scotland's joint-top scorers with 30. Ian Rush holds the record for Wales with 28. You think about England, and all the brilliant goalscorers they have produced, from Bobby Charlton to Jimmy Greaves to Gary Lineker, and yet their top scorer - Wayne Rooney - is stuck on 53 goals.

And if there is a suggestion that he didn't do it on the big stage then consider the following: five of his goals were scored in World Cup or European Championship play-off games (against Turkey in 1999, Iran in 2001, France in 2009 and Estonia in 2011); he scored three times at the 2002 World Cup, including last-minute equalisers against Spain and Germany.

If there is a perception that he only did it against weaker nations then the stats prove he didn't. Yes, 15 of his Ireland goals came against San Marino, the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Andorra and Malta, but remember when Jack Charlton went to Liechtenstein in 1995 and dropped crucial points in a European Championship qualifier? A Robbie Keane would have been a useful guy to have around that day.

So let's look more closely at the evidence. Out of his 67 goals, 23 came in friendlies, 15 were scored against the lowest-ranked teams in Europe, and the remaining 29 goals were scored in key, competitive internationals, from teams seeded as high as Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Russia, Holland, Turkey and Sweden down to lower-ranked opponents like Kazakhstan and Georgia.

How can any of those goals be devalued? Every Ireland manager he played under - from Mick McCarthy, who handed him his debut, through to Martin O'Neill, who will present him with his final cap this Wednesday - has reason to be grateful to him. Constantly he delivered.

So the argument put out there that some Ireland supporters disliked him for a time is a difficult one to take.

When I was senior manager, I was conscious of the fact he wasn't that highly thought of with certain sections of the press and I remember speaking to his agent about this, suggesting he should conduct more interviews, make himself more available.

In time, essentially when he became captain, he began to acknowledge the importance of that role and as the years passed, he matured impressively. And, accordingly, public perception of him changed. The overwhelmingly positive reaction to his retirement on Wednesday was evidence of that.

What was noticeable was how players - from those he played with at the start of his career (Niall Quinn, Tony Cascarino) through to the younger guys who have only recently got to know him (Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick) - all spoke warmly and positively about Robbie the person as much as Robbie the player.

And it got me thinking back to the World U-20 Cup in Nigeria in 1999. By this stage, Robbie was a big star - a full international in a team that had no shortage of Premier League players: Stephen McPhail, Barry Quinn, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff.

They all had a profile but Robbie's was the highest of the lot and yet even though he was the best known of the players, there was a humility about him when he was asked to chip in.

One day, before a game against Australia, a young priest called Frank Diamond, a Derry man, said mass for the team in the corridor of the hotel. He asked for someone to do a reading. Robbie, the least shy of the group, volunteered. There was that niceness about him, that ability to look at himself as a kid from Tallaght, not as a millionaire footballer.

Later in that tournament, one of our training sessions got interrupted by the arrival of hundreds and hundreds of kids who climbed over the perimeter wall to catch a glimpse of what we were doing, and when it quickly became clear they wanted to be entertained, we rolled Robbie and Duffer out to put on a magic show, where their flicks and tricks had the kids looking on in awe.

He just had that sort of personality. There was a bit of cockiness, a bit of a cheeky-chappy brashness to him, which stemmed from the fact he knew he could deliver, not just in his own age group but also against the hard-nosed bruisers of the Championship and then against the best in international football and the Premier League.

The world had changed him by the time we worked together a second time.

Only four years had passed from Nigeria and the World Youth Cup to my appointment as senior team manager, yet in that intervening period he had been transferred four times, to Coventry, then Inter Milan, Leeds and Tottenham. He had seen a lot; had become the main man in the international team, had grown out of his youthful innocence and was aware of his value.

He was still respectful, though, toeing the line tactically, always working hard for the team. I know that having to go through his agents to speak to him grated with some people.

I was also learning how the game worked in 2003. It differed to when I started my youth team job in the 1990s. At first I used to talk to the players' parents and their clubs. Then agents became part of the process and it got messier for everyone.


Yet just when you wondered if the modern-day player was forgetting about where they came from, something like March 2003 would happen, the month Robbie's father passed away.

At the time we had a hugely important double-header, away to Georgia initially and then Albania. Robbie buried his father on a Thursday and then joined the squad on the Sunday.

So when he issued that statement outlining how much he loved playing for his country, no-one should doubt it.

Why else would he have left the labour ward after the birth of his second child to fly across the world to sit on the Ireland bench for last year's European championship play-offs against Bosnia?

Why did he play some Ireland games with pain-killing injections?

He did it because he cared, and as the years passed and he matured, it came as no surprise to me to hear how he encouraged his fellow players to sign away their image rights because the funds were going towards Irish footballers struggling for money.

He graduated from talented individual to the ultimate team player.

Personally I have a lot to thank him for. But so, too, has the nation.

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