Saturday 20 January 2018

The only thing that's orthodox about Robbie is his scent of opportunity

Time to wipe cynicism from our eyes and hail Ireland's greatest striker

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Robbie Keane marked his golden evening with the only signature he knows, three more goals banked in one of Europe's great international resumes.

There was no formal ceremony, no fawning essay inked into the match programme, no announcement on the tannoy even. The recognition for his 126th international appearance came strictly from the stands, a loud, guttural roar of "Keano, there's only one Keano" carefully choreographed to rise towards a perfect Dublin sky ten minutes in. What a night of numbers then.

It was his fifth wedding anniversary and he'd marched out with four-year-old Robert alongside, father and son in matching tangerine boots. Keane was being quoted at just 11/2 for the hat-trick on his big night and when, with the game just four minutes and 19 seconds old, he swept home Aiden McGeady's cross, it seemed the planets were aligned.

But it would be another 50 minutes before Seamus Coleman set up his second and, for him, that will have felt like a small eternity.

Because, apart from scoring goals, Keane doesn't really do much else in football. The Almighty neglected to bless him with, say, Kevin Doyle's strength, Shane Long's pace or, come to think of it, the bulk and natural aggression of a Frank Stapleton or Don Givens. One-on-one with a goalkeeper, he's as capable of tripping over a grasshopper as dinking tidily to the net.

So, he's not especially clinical, fast, strong or even combative. He's poor in the air, no more physical than a mascot and prone to mimicking Tom Daley when defenders get too close.

Maybe the only thing orthodox about Robbie as a striker is his scent for opportunity. His need to score is equivalent to the average compulsion to breathe. And that – above all – is what truly defines him, an appetite for football that is unashamedly narrow. Actually, you have to suspect that a game in which he fails to score is, regardless of the outcome, a private disappointment.

He has that selfishness of the greats, then. A tiny pre-occupation with self.

All three strikes last night were rudimentary finishes from low crosses, the kind most functioning footballers would most probably back themselves to take. His gratitude towards Conor Sammon for setting up the 79th minute third was palpable, given he'd all been provided the ball on a silver salver.

But to score 59 goals for Ireland isn't just impressive, it's faintly ridiculous. In roughly the same number of appearances for France, Thierry Henry managed 51. So Robbie's scored more goals for, face it, a mid-strength European country than Gabriel Batistuta got for Argentina or David Villa has summoned on behalf of Spain.

He's already 10 ahead of England's all-time greatest, Bobby Charlton, and – if Keane hangs tough for another two years or so – he'll probably edge up close to that little, barrelled German genius, Gerd Muller (68).

Yet, we equivocate on his place in the vanguard of Irish greats. Actually, worse, we seek to downgrade his scoring arithmetic (too many goals against minnows) and paint his commitment to the Irish cause (forcing LA Galaxy's hand to release him for last week's Wembley friendly) as some kind of narcissistic streak.

When Robbie reports for international duty, who could blame him if his greatest apprehension came from anticipation of another date with a media that tends to intercept him with emigration officer smiles?

I suspect that part of the problem is that Keane has never had anything but the most cursory of relationships with us.

Access to his world doesn't extend beyond the faux intimacy of a pre-match press conference, most of which is spent staring glassy-eyed into the distance as journalists pick through the wreckage of Giovanni Trapattoni's latest crime against the English language.

That said, the impulse to tug Robbie down a peg isn't confined to the press box.


Twitter feedback to any article this week on the looming milestone of his record cap ranged from mild enthusiasm to overt sarcasm. It was a reminder of the gracelessness that social media can spread, virus-like, into the collective psyche.

To any rational eye, this week should have been entirely about respect for and appreciation of the Tallaght man. Instead, it facilitated every semi-computer literate village-idiot determined to have a pop.

Any manager he's played for declares Robbie a model professional, fellow players uniformly depict him as a decent, entertaining bloke.

And in an age when international football so inconveniences some high-profile bench-warmers, Keane still reports for duty with the enthusiasm of a man who cares.

His life, thus, seems a strange paradox today. He is rumoured to be worth in excess of £25m and it isn't unusual for his family to frequent basketball games with the Beckhams.

The rabid ostentation of a privileged life in LA has to do strange things to the mind, but Keane doesn't play that Big Time Charlie thing whenever he is home.

He may live in a gated paradise where the private swimming-pools are big enough to have tidal fluctuations, yet a part of Robbie Keane never quite left Glenshane.

When Niall Quinn wrote the foreword to Paul Lennon's biography of Keane last year, he was moved to draw a comparison between the Irish captain and Kevin Phillips, both former strike partners of his.

Two weeks ago, of course, Phillips scored the goal that propelled Crystal Palace back into the Premier League. At 39, he is seven years Robbie's senior.

"The title of Ireland's greatest player, in my eyes," wrote Quinn "should be a five-way tussle between Robbie, Paul (McGrath), Roy (Keane), John (Giles) and Liam (Brady)."

Time, maybe, to wipe the cynicism from our eyes.

Irish Independent

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