Niall Quinn: 'Can anyone match Robbie Keane's record? Not in my lifetime'
Previous holders Quinn and Stapleton hail green goal machine 15 years after first of his 60 Ireland strikes
ON this day 15 years ago, Robbie Keane scored his first goal for the Republic of Ireland – and quickly followed it with his second.
The date was October 14, 1998, the game was at Lansdowne Road and Malta provided the opposition in a European Championship qualifier.
Mick McCarthy's team won 5-0, with Roy Keane, Niall Quinn and Gary Breen also breaching the Maltese defence.
A star was born that day, but who would have foreseen that the football-mad kid from Tallaght would go on to smash the Irish goalscoring record and eclipse legends such as Bobby Charlton and Jimmy Greaves in the process?
Well, one man did. And he's on the record as having said so, prior to that encounter against Malta.
The name? Niall Quinn.
Big Quinny was quoted in the Irish Independent the day before the game saying: "Technically, Robbie is the best striker I've played with.
"Aldo (John Aldridge) in his prime was a better finisher, but Robbie will acquire that knack in time. As soon as Robbie scores one goal, he'll score lots and lots. In the next three years, he'll score between 12 and 15 goals and by the time he's finished, he'll have set records that no one will touch.
"Tony Cascarino and myself have been chasing Frank Stapleton's record for the last few years, just as John Aldridge did before us, but when Robbie gets going, he'll blow the record out of the water."
Top marks to Quinn for his forecast. Remember at the time Keane was only 18, and while he was making his fifth appearance in a green jersey, he still had his 'L' plates on as a senior international. So why did Quinn rate the teenager so highly at such an early stage of his career?
"Looking back, it was because of Robbie's approach to one of his first matches, the one against Argentina," he says. "It was my first time training with him. We were playing one of the greatest sides in the world, but he wasn't the slightest bit overawed.
"Just seeing him before and in that game, I thought he was way above anybody else who came into the scene. You could be playing a nondescript team in a friendly and other guys would be as nervous as hell, coming in so early in their career, but Robbie was different.
"He never sat still in training. I can remember Mick (McCarthy) having us sitting in a circle one time having a team talk and Robbie standing up, keeping the ball up, and Mick saying "Robbie, I'm trying to talk' and 'okay, sorry' and 30 seconds later, 'Robbie, I'm trying to talk' and he's there fidgeting, and doing things with the ball.
"And this was a kid who had just come into the squad. He wasn't sitting around in awe. He loved being there, but he was making sure it was on his terms. When I saw that, and he was so young, I just thought this kid was special."
Argentina won that friendly 2-0. It was Keane's second cap, but his first start, as he had made his debut as a sub against the Czech Republic away in March '98.
By October that year, Quinn was predicting a golden future for the youngster in advance of the Malta match, and afterwards his opinion had only strengthened.
"I can remember the night of his first two goals," he says. "I was interviewed after the game as I came off the pitch by Tony O'Donoghue on RTE, and I said to Tony, 'this guy, not only will he break the record, he could double it'.
"The interesting thing was that I was told that when they went back to the TV panel, they all said I should refrain from saying such stupid things about a young player, but they'd give me the benefit of the doubt because it was straight after the game. But even I didn't get it right – if Robbie stays injury-free, he could treble the record."
Quinn set the mark at 21 goals on his 35th birthday, October 6, 2001 against Cyprus, breaking Stapleton's previous best of 20, which had stood for 11 years. Stapleton was 34 when he eclipsed Don Givens' record of 19 goals. Aldridge and Cascarino subsequently went on to finish their Irish careers also on 19 goals.
At 33, Keane still has some time left to add to his remarkable record of 60 goals, an achievement unlikely to be matched.
Stapleton comments: "Can anyone beat him? Not in my lifetime. Maybe if we get a number of quality players who all come through at the same time and the team is playing at a high level, it could happen, but from what I see, that will be well into the future."
Stapleton and Quinn know how tough it is, and how tough it always was, to lead the line against international defenders, and they each have a big appreciation of Keane's qualities as a top-class striker. Both men suggest that the public, and at times the media, have not given Robbie the credit he deserved. And they doff their caps to him for his commitment to the Irish cause.
"I wouldn't say there's a secret to his success as such," says Stapleton. "Robbie's just a natural goalscorer. But what's even more impressive for me is Robbie's attitude to playing for Ireland.
"He loves to play and his enthusiasm in the squad is breathtaking. He wants to be there every minute he can with the team. He wants to play for Ireland and he wants to score in every game.
"I keep pointing that out to people over here (in England). I keep saying to them 'you know Robbie Keane has left Bobby Charlton miles behind in the scoring charts.' People kind of laugh, but then they think about it and realise I'm right.
"People in Ireland – not everybody, but some people – have a funny attitude towards Robbie. I don't think he deserves criticism. He deserves all the praise he can get.
"When people look at goals scored internationally, his record stands up there with anybody in the world."
Quinn was happy to soldier alongside Keane and the 'Little 'n' Large' duo made their mark on many a defence, especially in World Cup 2002 against Germany.
That famous late, late equaliser by Keane owed much to their partnership and understanding.
"At that stage, I knew an awful lot more about football. Jack Charlton said I used to run around like a headless chicken when I first started playing for Ireland," says Quinn.
"Over the years playing for Ireland and by the time I'd left Man City and gone up to Sunderland, I had a good appreciation of the fella I was playing alongside.
"And in my career I would have got better and better at that. I kept it simple, but when I was playing with Robbie Keane or Kevin Phillips (Sunderland) – and they were the only two I ever spoke to about this – if I was going for a header, I would always head it inside.
"I would never flick it straight on, I would never head it outside. I would feint to head it somewhere else, but I would always change at the last minute and head it inside.
"And with Robbie, if you see from that Germany match, that's exactly what I did. And Robbie didn't wait to see what happened, he was on his bike and that's what got him away from the defenders.
"We didn't practise it. It was just a little chat before games. I would always head it inside, and that would give Robbie a chance to get his yard of space where he'd pretend to go one way, come back the other, and three or four times out of 10, it should come to him in a good position. And it came off that night against Germany."
Quinn and Irish team-mates have valued Keane's ability around opposing penalty areas, and the LA Galaxy player has been doing the job year in, year out since his teenage years.
"Looking back," says Quinn, "I shake my head. Robbie exceeded even my expectations. He buzzes around the pitch and sees everything a half a step ahead of the defenders who are there to keep him in check.
"He has this uncanny knack of getting in between people. A centre- back thinks he has Robbie under control, he sees him there, and in an instant, Robbie has made his move and he's a yard or a yard and a half way from the defender.
"He can wriggle his way into a situation, whether it's on the shoulder of defenders, or to the side.
"He doesn't just stand there waiting for the ball to come in. His movement is superb, he's alert, and he has a brilliant, uncanny knack of anticipating what might happen next.
"Robbie's very, very difficult to mark, because of his appreciation of a bit of space, of how the ball might arrive there for him, and what he can do with it when it arrives to him. It's his greatest strength."
Keane can mix the sublime with seemingly mundane in terms of his goalscoring, and in that long-ago match against Malta when he hit goals numbers one and two of his international career, he illustrated the art impressively.
The first came from a corner by Mark Kinsella, and Keane was in the mix, with the ball first pinging off his chest before he dropped to the deck and nicked it home from a couple of yards off the line.
The second brought the crowd to their feet. Keane chased down the ball, half-shouldered a defender out of his stride, raced onto it, nutmegged another Maltese defender, and then curled the ball beautifully into the far corner.
Stapleton, like all strikers, never underestimates the tap-ins, no matter how simple they seem.
"People say he gets these tap-ins, but to get them, you have to anticipate, you have to take a chance that the ball might be there, there's a lot of things you have to do," he says.
"People see Robbie tapping the ball in from about a foot out and they think it's easy, but it's not.
"The easy part is putting it in, but it takes hard work and anticipation to get into those positions, and that comes with him being a natural goalscorer.
"We (Ireland) don't create a huge amount of chances, but as a striker what you have to do is keep going to where you think an opportunity might happen.
"Maybe nine times out of 10, you go into a position, and the ball just won't get there, but you have to keep going.
"In the modern game, somebody like Robbie can get isolated, but there might be two chances in a game, maybe one and a half chances, and you have to take them because we wouldn't be creating that many. And that makes his achievements even better.
"Later on when he's retired he'll probably be appreciated more, but when you think about the limited chances we create, 60 goals is unbelievable at international level."
And that prompts the question: how will Robbie Keane be remembered?
Quinn is in no hurry to suggest Keane should be written off yet.
"Until Robbie actually goes out of the game, he'll keep scoring goals and I wouldn't like to call that date and rush his retirement," he says.
"I think he could do a couple of years on the bench for us when he does slow down a bit.
"He'd be a great guy to bring on with the possibility of a goal over the next championship campaign or the next qualifier.
"It's a pity the Euros went as poorly as they did the last time around. It was a poor tournament by Robbie's standards.
"Was it entirely his fault? I would say no. I would absolutely question the way Kevin Doyle and Robbie were used in that tournament.
"I wouldn't heap any blame on him, but it's a pity the tournament didn't spark for him.
"It's also a pity that the results in the Austrian and Sweden games didn't go right, because otherwise we'd be in with a chance of going to the World Cup.
"Again, I'm not trying to finish him off, but it would have been fitting for Robbie to go to Brazil for the World Cup.
"He deserved that for everything he's done for his country and for the pride and honour with which he wears the jersey."