Oh Bhoy, it's a nightmare start to Robbie's dream
THERE must have been times last night when Robbie Keane wondered exactly what he was doing here. What kind of twisted dream was this?
Surely, it must have crossed his mind when he emerged for a warm-up in freezing conditions, onto a muddy pitch, to be greeted by less than 300 spectators. Or when the 9,308 eventually convened, with the natives thriving on every misplaced pass and unfortunate slip from their wealthy neighbours.
Certainly, it would have been worth dishing out far more than a penny for Keane's thoughts when, with his head down, he dribbled the ball towards the centre spot after Celtic, courtesy of some haphazard defending, fell behind in the 54th minute of this hearty Scottish Premier League encounter. He turned around with a clap of his hands in an attempt to rouse the spirits of those behind, but nobody was listening.
Disciples of the Celtic faith call their home ground Paradise. The citizens of Kilmarnock have no such notions of grandeur about their arena. On this evening, it was closer to hell than heaven for a man whose club career has entered a purgatorial phase. By full time, it was the long suffering blue-and-white shirted Killie followers, who haven't tasted a win over the Bhoys since May 2001, that were ironically chanting 'Keano, Keano.'
It was so far removed from the mood earlier in the day. There had been a palpable buzz in the preliminaries, with even Rangers boss Walter Smith conceding that Keane's arrival was a badly needed lift for the struggling league.
The proliferation of 'Keane 7' jerseys around confirmed that the surprising acquisition had injected life back into the title race. For Celtic followers, it was just what the doctor ordered. Yet the stark reality of the league he now inhabits is illustrated by the fact that last night's opponents don't even have a doctor.
Kilmarnock may have one of the more respectable grounds in the Scottish league, but they also have the less appealing ogre of £9m debt. Hence the controversy generated recently when their skipper, Kevin Kyle revealed to the local press that the club's decision to plough ahead without medical staff had ruled him out of a league fixture. So, any Killie players unfortunate enough to incur illness or injury have to check in with their local GP.
The inequality is stark and Killie's positioning near the foot of the table is no coincidence. Keane's estimated £70,000 a week salary is in the region of three times the bill for the squad inherited by Jimmy Calderwood when a simmering row between previous incumbent Jim Jeffries and chairman Michael Johnston eventually bubbled over.
His transfer deadline capture amounted to the loan trio of Chris Maguire from Aberdeen and Scott Severin and Rob Kiernan from Watford, the latter an Irish U-19 interational.
He was on the bench last night alongside Conor Sammon, who will be known to League of Ireland fans as a reasonable performer with UCD and Derry City -- and both figured in the second half.
Killie did have one Irishman deployed at the outset -- 25-year-old Tim Clancy from Meath, who arrived in Scotland via Millwall and the football hotbeds of Walton & Hersham, Weymouth and Fisher Athletic. A different world to the journey that the captain of his country has taken to here.
Keane met his new team-mates earlier in the day and was able to skip some introductions with a few familiar faces around.
Darren O'Dea missed out here though, with Keane's old Wolves mate Lee Naylor in his place, while Aiden McGeady started after his last-minute drama on Monday slipped under the radar. A late £9m bid from Birmingham was rejected.
At least the high profile arrival will take some of the creative burden off the 23-year-old. Alas, one responsibility that Keane did not assume, contrary to speculation, was the captaincy for the night, with Glenn Loovens wearing the armband.
With all eyes trained in his direction, Keane's first contribution was a dummy that left Killie's Italian centre half Manuel Pascali flapping at air. Alas, the Spurs outcast's subsequent attempted pass was terrible. The next time he got near the ball, Pascali clobbered him. Buongiorno -- and welcome to Scotland.
A theatrical dive from Marc Antoinie Fortune succeeded in raising their ire further, with the hosts producing a spirited opening 30-minute display which left Celtic's attack dormant. It felt more like a cup tie than a league encounter.
Keane wandered around to little effect, dropping deep looking for a sniff of the ball. He got sight of goal when a McGeady pass created an inch of space, yet the effort was bravely blacked by Simon Ford, the well known ex-Grimsby defender. You must know the chap.
Before the break, the 29-year-old finally managed to find some proper room, with a trademark dart to create a one-on-one situation with home keeper Cameron Bell. The first attempt lacked conviction and was blocked; the second was scrambled to safety.
It would go from bad to worse after the interval. Ex-Trim Celtic and Belvedere man Clancy was producing an accomplished display, and he was prominent in the build-up to the opening goal from Maguire, who shrugged off an array of bodies to find the bottom corner.
"We are the Killie Boys" was the chant from a section of the home support, with a sectarian play on words that would surely have been appreciated by the smattering of Celtic fans.
They have a charming command of history in these parts and the turn-up for the books was heralded in a frenzied fashion when referee Mike Tumilty blew the final whistle.
Keane, who squandered another late chance by firing straight at the legs of the in-form Bell, didn't quite know where to look, adjusting his shin-pads before turning around to applaud the minority of the visiting throngs who hadn't already made their way to the exits.
He will get a full taste of Scottish football's unique fervour on February 28, when he makes his Old Firm debut. The only problem for the Tallaght man is that if Celtic produce similar performances in the four games that precede the short trip to Ibrox, then this experiment will have already developed into a terrible waste of time.