Friday 19 January 2018

Stephen Hunt: When Robbie Keane scored a goal, he almost turned into Cristiano Ronaldo

When Robbie scored a goal, he almost turned into Cristiano Ronaldo. It was 'look at me'. Photo: Reuters
When Robbie scored a goal, he almost turned into Cristiano Ronaldo. It was 'look at me'. Photo: Reuters
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

I never really saw eye to eye with Robbie Keane, but then we probably didn't get off to the best of starts. He was at his peak when I first came onto the international scene in 2007, whereas I was a bit raw in terms of knowing the game. From the way I came up through the lower leagues, I didn't feel I had time to respect hierarchies.

In training, there was a bit of typical footballer back and forth going on and I said something back to him to stand my ground, but didn't give him the respect he might have felt he deserved.

He probably doesn't even remember any of this now, and it mightn't have really registered at the time, but everyone else in the squad used to react when Robbie was present. There was a certain tension when he was around, of the type that only comes with players who have done what he's done in a team. And that's the thing. He does deserve that respect. I'd have him in my team every time, and that says it all.

Despite all that, the reaction to his international retirement last week has been interesting. Given some of the debate there used to be about Robbie, and this argument he was under- appreciated, there's a slight sense of some of the country making up for that. It did get me thinking about it. If he was sometimes under-appreciated, I wonder was it because of his body language.

When Robbie scored a goal, he almost turned into Cristiano Ronaldo. It was 'look at me'. You could have made a lung-busting run to set it up for him, someone could have put it on a plate, but it was still all about him. It didn't matter what type of goal it was, even a tap-in. It was as if he was saying, 'I am the king'. There would almost be this look on his face asking, 'Are you surprised it's me?' He definitely turns into that when he scores, craving the attention.

That's maybe not seen as the Irish way, and it might have counted against him with some people, but it is the way of so many great players. It is the arrogance of those who achieve the records he did. It is probably what it takes.

Read More: Farewell to a big lump of Irishness

He's an animal for goals, a man possessed for them, and it comes out when he scores.

A good example of his hunger was the last-minute equaliser in Bari in 2009, when my brother Noel thought he'd scored. I thought it would have been easy for the captain to give it up - but he didn't. The FAI backed Robbie, no surprise there. But then this shouldn't be a surprise when you have the record he does.

He didn't mind upsetting his team-mates to get where he wanted and, while he wouldn't really be one for massive criticisms, I did notice he would throw his arms up and wave them in the air if you didn't give the pass he wanted. After he did that, he would often make a move as if he was about to run around a defender, or pretend to close down, but that was just for show. Really, he was just saving his energy for the next run that might get him a goal.

People might have thought that was lazy, but that is to misunderstand his game. It was intelligent, and one reason why he scored so many.

The best way to illustrate this is probably to put it from my perspective, as one of the wingers charged with supplying him. When I was looking up with the ball, it wouldn't have been his run I'd be instinctively looking out for.

That was because, unless it was for a cut-back - like the 2009 goal he scored against France - it wouldn't really have been the option on. You'd instead have seen the other striker pointing to exactly where he wanted the ball and really going for it, or a player bursting from the left . . . until Robbie would come out of nowhere to score.

That's what he specialised in: anticipating the second ball. He just had such a knack for it. He would know where to be to get the rebound, or the ricochet, or what would happen if the defender won it.

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He knew where to be, and could score with some range of finishes. You'd see a lot of strikers doing the graft for him: Shane Long, Kevin Doyle, Niall Quinn, all making bursts into the box thinking they were going to score - and it would fall to Robbie. I'd imagine his strike partners were sometimes frustrated, but then who could complain with that amount of goals? I remember when the late Bobby Robson was working with Steve Staunton, the only instruction we ever heard from him was: 'Just pass the ball to Robbie and Duffers'. It used to frustrate me, of course, but then Bobby had seen enough good players in the game and he was probably right.

And Robbie turned up in so many big games. One touch, that was it.

Even if players were sometimes frustrated with him, they knew what he was all about on the pitch. They respected that and, off the pitch, he was definitely well-liked. It wasn't a case of playing up to him because of who he was. He would have the crack with everyone, just not with me!

Robbie would be very relaxed leading up to games until, just before kick-off, he would have something to say. Then he'd go into goalscorer mode, into the zone. He wasn't a ranter or raver.

He would always make new players feel welcome, too, and shake their hands - but I would say he probably kept his guard up to an extent. The one he was always very close to was Richard Dunne. They were never far away from each other.

For years, the two of them had the same injury to miss training the day after an Irish game - that is to say they had a few drinks once the match was finished. They were quite old-school in that attitude, and liked a couple after the game to relax, but then you have to remember that they had more pressure on them than most with Ireland. And they both performed under that pressure. Who could question them on that?

The last few years have also shown just how utterly dedicated Robbie was to Ireland, beyond his goals. He was no longer guaranteed his game, but was still coming over. He still cared. He is proud to be Irish.

He should be proud of his achievements in international football. He should be proud of his goalscoring record. It undeniably makes him one of our best ever.

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