Keane driven by desire– not cap records
YOUNG Robert Keane, who turned four last month and will lead out the Ireland team tonight next to his father, is beginning to learn a thing or two about football. He knows what Daddy does.
"Does he criticise your performances?" Robbie Keane is asked.
"Not as badly as yous," he replied, with a smile, quick as a flash.
Everybody laughs, but there's a truth lying within. This is a historic day for Keane, his 126th appearance in his Irish shirt and an opportunity to add to his record haul of 56 goals.
He will receive a warm ovation, and the crowd will chant his name. Yet there is still a lingering feeling that he is not fully appreciated, a sentiment that has been aired so many times this week that it's in danger of becoming cliched.
Certainly, he has taken his fair share of criticism, from both media and supporters. He's led a colourful career with plenty of highs and lows, with his seven-year captaincy a perfect illustration of that, veering from the unfortunate Steve Staunton era to the topsy turvy reign of Giovanni Trapattoni.
He is 32 now and the necessary debate about his role within the Irish set-up at a time when many nations are favouring just one central striker, perhaps, has a hint of ungratefulness about it. There is no easy way to say goodbye and Keane's assertion that he intends to play on for another five or six years – and has no intention of departing the international scene anytime soon – means that it will continue.
His legacy will be remarkable, with nobody in danger of troubling his caps or goals record anytime soon. Indeed, with younger players under more pressure to take a casual approach to the international game, they could belong to him forever.
"It's not about coming to get the caps," he stressed, in a press conference dominated by his words, with Trapattoni taking second billing. "I don't need that. I have played for my country, I have achieved what I had to achieve, I have scored the most goals for the country. For me, it's still the desire to play for my country; I still have that hunger to play and put that green jersey on."
He is aware of the critics and gives the impression that he takes great pleasure in silencing them. Some barbs sting more than others. His recurring line of defence is an unwavering commitment to the cause.
"You have to accept criticism sometimes and it's how you deal with it. You can either crumble in a corner and hide and cry about it, or you can be a man and stand up for yourself and do the best you can for the team, and that's been the case for every player.
"As a football player, all you have to do if you get criticised is do your talking on the pitch by scoring goals and turning up for your country when other people don't turn up and don't want to play for their country," he added – another reference to unnamed colleagues or former colleagues who lacked that same desire following on from similar comments in Wembley ahead of the England encounter.
"If people want to criticise me for playing for my country then I don't think I've got the problem," he said.
The Irish shirt is as special now as it was when he made his debut as a sub in Olomouc, the Czech Republic, coming on for Alan Maybury back in 1998. Damien Duff made his debut the same day and they embarked on a special journey. Shay Given and Richard Dunne are always grouped under the same heading, as the elite members of the same generation. John O'Shea came along later.
Duff and Given checked out after the Euros and Keane, who chuckled at the memory of his first Irish jersey being far too big for him, was vexed by queries about whether he'd be doing the same. "Obviously, there were a lot of questions about it because myself, Richie, Shay and Duffer came through together, so we should leave together. But that's not the case. I didn't contemplate it. If I felt like I had nothing to offer the team, I certainly would do that, but I still feel like I have a lot to offer for the national team.
"People forget I am 32 years of age, it's not like I'm 34, 36 or whatever. People are talking about Forde being in the squad and he's a newcomer, but he's 33 years of age; I am a year older than Wes Hoolahan and he's a newcomer; John O'Shea is the same age as me.
"People talk about it because I have been around for so long. For me, I have certainly got no intentions at all at this moment in time. As long as I have the hunger and desire, there's no reason for me not to. I will retire when I stop scoring goals."
A brace against Georgia last Sunday indicated he still has the knack, although they were needed after a barren spell by his standards at international level. Tonight's match provides a gilt-edged opportunity to move closer to the 60-goal mark.
He says that in the future, he will sit down and properly reflect on his achievements. Off the top of his head, he cited the goal against Germany in 2002 as the highlight, and the last minute concession in Macedonia and the Thierry Henry handball in Paris as the lowlight. A successful progression to Brazil next summer would make up for that, even if it's an outside bet following the late concession to Austria in March.
With a target to aim for, he is loath to get bogged down in the symbolism of the day. But he admits that the family are thrilled.
"I never thought for one second that I would ever be sitting here and saying I had the most caps for my country," he said. "It's something that maybe in 10 years' time, I will look back on and be very, very proud of. But I don't feel I am coming to the end – I still have at least five, six years left in me.
"And I'm certainly enjoying my football, there's no question about that. But then I always have. I'm very privileged. I get paid to do something that I absolutely love doing.
"It's not that bad, is it?"
For once, the showman had mastered the art of understatement. Tonight's mascot has big footsteps to follow.
Ireland v Faroe Islands,
Live, RTE2, 7.45