Robbie Keane: A Career Well Lived

by | Sep 3, 2016

What a goal it was, Robbie Keane’s 68th for Ireland, a national record that looks likely to remain until doomsday. The opposition at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium in Keane’s 146th and last international were Oman. But that took almost nothing away from the skill with which Keane lifted the ball over Nadir Bashir and planted a right-foot volley past keeper Faiz Al Rushaidi from eight-to-ten yards. It’ll be twenty yards before the decade’s out but the original had enough pure quality not to need embellishment.

Where namesake Roy saved his best football for Manchester United and only occasionally fulfilled his potential in his national shirt, Robbie Keane arguably did the reverse. His club career involved too many short stints at clubs to be consistently admirable. That his best football was at Tottenham, where he had by far his longest one-club spell, was no co-incidence. He was but a “kid with potential” at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Coventry City, albeit a good one. He didn’t cover Internazionale and Liverpool (bar one stunning goal at Arsenal) with his glory. He only hit top form sporadically at Celtic in a godawful team, unable to prevent a 4-0 defeat at St. Mirren as Tony Mowbray’s managerial career temporarily went down the pan.

After a bright start, he was at Leeds United at the wrong time, although that could be said of almost every player since Peter Ridsdale did what Peter Ridsdale did at/to football clubs. And while he shone at LA Galaxy (pun intended), the United States’ Major Soccer League (MSL) is still “only” the MSL, for all its recent improvements. For Ireland, though, he was a star from the start, often THE star, without whom Ireland’s international record would be so much less. At the risk of making him sound like a rock band, he was possibly best seen live (I saw him play, brilliantly, in about half-a-dozen internationals), darting across the forward line with enough energy to frequently “happen” to be in the right place at the right time.

Keane was one of what I’m desperate not to call a “golden generation” of young Irish footballers who created a storm in underage international ranks in the 1990s. Under the astute, almost impenetrably-broad Dublin-accented manager Brian Kerr, Ireland’s under-16s and under-18s became European Champions, Keane starring in the latter tournament in Cyprus. He seamlessly upgraded into the senior team that year and scored five times in Ireland’s Euro 2000 qualifying campaign. This included Ireland’s only goal in their away goals play-off defeat to Turkey. And against Yugoslavia, 17 years ago this week, Keane gave almost the perfect striker’s performance. He opened the scoring in a 2-1 win and didn’t waste a pass all night. It was, in my opinion and the others watching in a Kingston-Upon-Thames pub, the best player on both sides.

Keane was approaching international stardom when Ireland qualified for the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea, scoring again in the 2-1 aggregate play-off victory which got them there. He was, of course, the second most famous Keane in manager Mick McCarthy’s original squad. But after Roy Keane threw Toys ‘r’ Us out of the proverbial pram, “there’s only one Keano” meant Robbie. And he lived up to the acclaim. His late, late, make that LATE equaliser against Germany is probably his most famous goal and was the one which led all the TV tributes to him that I saw before the Oman match. It was not his best Ireland goal. But it was the most important as it helped ensure qualification for the knock-out stages, where he coolly debuted as Ireland’s penalty taker, equalising from the spot against Spain in the last minute.

But as his goal celebrations became “trademark,” so the critics jumped in. “Terrible bow-and-arrow celebration” sneered monthly magazine When Saturday Comes in August 2002. And a vicious letter in the September edition read: “The set-up is fine. Then he lets himself down completely by letting go with BOTH hands (which) would have the bow and arrow falling miserably to the floor.” Seriously, though, Keane was becoming vital to Ireland’s set-up. Partly due to his continued development as a player but arguably as much due to the slump in form in McCarthy’s post-Roy Keane matches and dismal spells under his old youth boss Kerr and former team-mate Steve Staunton.

Keane became Ireland’s leading scorer during Kerr’s tenure and Staunton made him captain. But little else went well for either manager, despite Keane continuing to score regularly. His first Ireland hat-trick came in 2006. Against San Marino, admittedly. And including one of his 12 international penalties. But Keane was always there, through… well… thin-and-thin if we’re being honest. In 2008, Italian Giovanni Trapattoni became Ireland boss and kept Keane as captain. This was a no-brainer. By now, Keane was indisputably Ireland’s most popular player, as witnessed before Trap’s second game in charge, a Craven Cottage friendly against Colombia that May, when he got much the biggest cheers from the Irish faithful in Fulham (myself included). And by now, he was arguably the only Irish player to threaten the “world-class” label. He scored early against Colombia and manfully played a lone striker role as Ireland hung on while Colombia kept the ball for almost ever.

He was joint top scorer across Europe’s 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign. However, play-off defeat was, infamously, his lot again. France won 1-0 in Dublin but Keane brought the tie level with a fabulous goal in Paris before all the Thierry Henry handball nonsense with which I will not bore you again. The Paris goal was one of his last against recognised “top-class” nations. He top-scored in the almost unwatched 2011 “Nations Cup,” an ill-advised “home” nations tournament with Ireland replacing England, whose “inaugural” edition was also its “exaugural” one. And two against Macedonia in the Euro 2012 qualifier which immediately followed brought up his international half-century. Ireland got the softest of play-off draws and Keane’s two goals in Estonia helped them to the finals.

Keane was by now combining MLS duties with EPL loan spells (West Ham and Aston Villa, he must have had a penchant for claret and blue). And whilst he garnered deserved praise for his commitment to Ireland, travelling thousands of miles for competitive and non-competitive matches, the MLS was not ideal preparation for top-class international football. Euro 2012 was early in this spell, however. And Keane wasn’t the only Irishman completely off the pace in a borderline-embarrassing tournament. But while the experience pushed some contemporaries into international retirement, Keane stayed for two more qualifying campaigns.

The World Cup 2014 campaign scarcely improved on Euro 2012. Keane’s late penalty gave Ireland an undeserved win in Kazakhstan but his opening goal in Dublin against Sweden came during one of the only sustained bits of energetic football Ireland produced in the campaign. His second international hat-trick was in a 3-0 qualifying campaign win in June 2013, the only quality in a frustrating evening against the Faroe Islands. I know because I was there. The Euro 2016 campaign was a far worthier send-off, even if he was the bittiest of bit-part players at the finals themselves. His third international hat-trick came against Gibraltar in Dublin (all in the first 20 minutes) and he got two more in the return game. Those, though, were his only goals of the campaign. He played in Ireland’s mediocre start to the group but watched their stirring revival largely from the bench. And he went to France, despite a calf injury, seemingly more for his “experience” than his form. This, for a 35-year-old, wasn’t surprising. But more and more Irish fans were becoming disaffected at Keane’s continuing selection despite he being a good way past his best.

Others had cast aspersions on his goalscoring record, since his record began to break records. In September 2011, the Journalism Society published The Robbie Keane Myth, an article examining Keane’s record after he “surpassed Bobby Charlton’s record haul of 49 goals to become the British Isles’ leading scorer.” (I know, I know. Don’t write in. I’m only quoting). It suggested that, while he had “far outstripped” many top international goalscorers, “sometimes you have to look beyond the stats to see a player’s true worth.” It concluded that very few of Keane’s 31 goals in competitive matches were “crucial” as 17 were against “minnows” and of the “14 goals against opposition ranked the same or higher than Ireland” the last one “in a game Ireland won against high-class opposition was…1999 against Yugoslavia.” One wonders how other top international scorers’ records would fare under similar scrutiny, though. After all, Keane’s most important goal (see Germany above) wasn’t “in a game Ireland won against high-class opposition” either.

More recent attempted “myth-busters” included former Ireland international Stephen Hunt. In his Irish Sunday Independent newspaper column last weekend, Hunt admitted he “never really saw eye-to-eye” with Keane. When Robbie Keane scored a goal, he almost turned into Cristiano Ronaldo screamed the headline. Hunt explained: “It was ‘look at me’. You could have made a lung-busting run to set it up…someone could have put it on a plate, but it was still all about him…It was as if he was saying, ‘I am the king’.” He added: “That’s maybe not seen as the Irish way.” However, he concluded: “It is the way of so many great players…the arrogance of those who achieve the records he did. It is probably what it takes. Elsewhere, Hunt said “there was a certain tension when he was around.” Yet it is a rare person who lasts a career without irritating some people, especially in ego-heavy occupations such as football. And Hunt said this tension “only comes with players who have done what he’s done in a team. He does deserve that respect. I’d have him in my team every time. And off the pitch he was definitely well-liked.”

Keane was lampooned for declaring new signings various combinations of lifelong boyhood fan dreams come true. In 2008, he said: “As a fan, joining Liverpool is a lifelong dream of mine.” On joining Celtic in 2010, he was a “Celtic fan…I’ve always wanted to play for Celtic.” And his 2011 move to LA Galaxy was “a dream come true.”  Mind you, Liverpool/Celtic fans in the Dublin suburb of Tallaght where Keane was born in 1980 were probably not uncommon (Keane was 10 when Liverpool were last English champions). And for all his perceived arrogance and insincerity, this week’s tributes to Keane have hardly been done through gritted teeth. Far more have been heartfelt than forced.

Keane’s scoring record in sides not always known for expansive football was outstanding. And if he wasn’t “world-class,” Keane was a very good international footballer for a very long time. And what a goal it was. His 68th for Ireland.

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