Saturday 20 January 2018

Welcome to the real world of Scottish football, Robbie

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THERE was no fanfare when Robbie Keane emerged from the side door of Rugby Park on Tuesday evening.

Instead, he was greeted by two dozen or so sombre Celtic fans looking for an autograph from the unhappy players trudging towards the bus to reflect on an ignominious experience.

While Keane did command the hardcore's full attention on his short walk, allowing other players to slip away, there were no happy poses or feverish bouts of backslapping.

It was a long way removed from the papal welcome he received at Parkhead the night before, when a microphone was produced to greet the 4,000 fans who anxiously waited for his arrival.

A similar number of Celtic followers made the 25-mile journey to Kilmarnock, but they were in no mood to stick around after a humiliating reverse at the hands of Jimmy Calderwood's unfancied troops.

After fluffing a pair of chances in the freezing conditions on a poor playing surface, you would have understood if Keane had decided there and then to relocate to the comfort of London.

For the next four months, however, this is his reality. The Old Firm jousts will deliver a match-day atmosphere and ambience that he will be familiar with; otherwise, the away-day adventure promises to be an eye-opener.

Kilmarnock is a friendly club. While the cosseted Celtic stars are generally protected from the great unwashed, the Killie players mingled around the car park chatting with well-wishers.


Indeed, Calderwood strolled across to the adjoining Park Hotel, where his entrance into the bar was acclaimed by the assembled well-wishers, many of whom were just ordinary, decent supporters. No boundaries. A scene that would resonate with those who hang around their local League of Ireland or GAA club.

Keane was brought up in a different football environment. Nevertheless, he was decent enough to stop for each and every one of the small number of Celtic fans seeking a snap and a signature.

The Celtic website is already adorned with images of Keane -- visitors yesterday were greeted with the news that 'Keane 7 Hero' shirts are available from only £31.94 -- and he's clearly aware that his profile carries certain responsibilities.

Away from the man-marking of Celtic's PR department, he obliged the Irish journalists present by offering his thoughts on the evening. "Obviously it was disappointing," he said. "I did have a few chances and their 'keeper pulled off great saves. That's one of those things. It wasn't to be."

He acknowledged that he had struggled in the dying stages, a combination of a lack of recent activity and, perhaps, a hectic period leading up to the match. The heavy pitch probably didn't help either.

"I feel I need a few more games to get 100pc fit," he said. "I started to tire towards the end of the game but that was to expected. I will only get fully right when I play a few games and getting those games under my belt will be great; I'm looking forward to that."

Was this the start of a longer stay? "It's exactly what I said at the press conference on Monday," he replied, sticking by the line that it was only a temporary relocation. Certainly, the opening night had given no reason to offer an emotional statement to the contrary.

Nevertheless, he was clear enough about why he was happier in Ayrshire than he would have been on the bench in Elland Road last night.

"At the end of the day, I just like playing football," he said. "It's as simple as that. I love playing football. When I am not playing, I am miserable and I miss it. So that's the reason why I am here."

And with that, it was off to the sanctity of the bus, following a stern-faced Aiden McGeady who looked none too happy with proceedings.

A reckless hacking down of an opponent in the dying stages smacked of an unhappy camper; unlike Keane, who spurned Wolves, he wasn't given the option of playing in the Premier League for the remainder of the campaign -- a late Birmingham bid for McGeady was knocked back while Celtic readied the confetti for the Irish skipper.

It will be interesting to see how Keane's relationship with his new colleagues develops. He has a reputation for being popular with his peers although this is a different situation; he's by far the highest-paid star in a dressing-room under pressure.

Resentment can fester in such environments if results aren't going well. The longer-standing squad members have been on the receiving end of sharp criticism and they'll have to deal with the consequences of the post-mortem if Rangers maintain their clear gap at the top of the table and retain the crown.

"We need time, but we need to find a good relationship as quickly as possible," said ex-West Brom man Marc Antoine Fortune, Keane's strike partner on Tuesday, who was equally exasperated in the immediate aftermath of Chris Maguire's 54th-minute winner.

"The new arrivals are not a problem. We need time, but then we know what we have to do and we will do it."

Henrik Larsson, who tasted life with Manchester United and Barcelona after his Celtic experience, has warned Keane that he must be prepared to live life in a "goldfish bowl". The Old Firm clubs try their best to protect their stars, but it's practically impossible to blend anonymously into Glasgow life. It's too small a place.

McGeady, a local who should know where to go, received a punch from a stranger in a Glasgow nightclub during a period last season when the socialising of Gordon Strachan's squad never seemed to escape the headlines.

Rangers' American midfielder DaMarcus Beasley looked out of his window on Monday to see that his prized motor was on fire. "Someone blew my car up," he Twittered.

The rivalries are parochial. An irate Killie fan contacted this newspaper yesterday, bristling at the suggestion that inserting their club's name into 'Billy Boys' -- a hateful ditty that UEFA banned Rangers from singing three years ago -- could have sectarian connotations. Killie fans argue that they like the tune and, in their defence, they sing it wherever they go. Not just against Celtic.

Of course, the irony is in the suspicion that a minority of Bhoys followers would enjoy a bit of provocation; the same choice individuals who dropped the odd IRA chant into their medley of songs on the walk from the train station to the stadium on Tuesday. The actions of a few accelerate generalisations.

But that's Scottish football. A strange place that's sometimes homely, sometimes unsettling. It's their world, and Robbie must learn how to live in it.

Irish Independent

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