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Robbie Keane - the great unloved of the Republic

Robbie Keane during his last performance for Ireland, against Oman at the Aviva Stadium on Wednesday
Picture by PA 

MAYBE it’s an Irish thing, where we point out too readily a person’s faults while failing to celebrate the good things in them.

A couple of years ago, Roy Keane made an observation about Robbie Keane. It was a few days before the Republic of Ireland team were due to face Germany in Gelsenkirchen in a Euro 2016 Qualifier. The debate of the day was whether Robbie Keane could continue to be Ireland’s first-choice striker.

If the Irish were settled on playing just one striker away from home in Qualifier games, did Keane have the legs for such a demanding role? After all, he was 34 and firmly in the twilight of his international career. At pitch-side in Gannon Park, Ireland’s training base at the time, Roy Keane made a few salient points about his namesake.

“Sometimes, people ask: ‘Can we play Robbie away from home?’ and talk about what he can’t do, but just look what he can do. He does the hardest part of football - he puts the ball in the back of the net. That’s why he gets the plaudits and they’re all well deserved.”

Keane’s observations were simplicity itself. When you strip away everything and study the fundamentals of the game, Roy Keane is right: scoring goals is the hardest thing to do in football. In a friendly game against Georgia in June 2013, Shane Long had come off a hot streak of form with his club West Brom.

The Tipp man was given the captain’s armband for the day by Giovanni Trapattoni. Even at that stage, there was a sense Long could displace Keane as Ireland’s number-one striker. Keane started the Georgian friendly on the bench.

What was particularly memorable about that Sunday afternoon friendly in balmy Dublin was just how bad the Georgian defence performed. When you watch Shane Long in person, the most impressive aspect of his game is how freakishly quick he is over the ground.

He is excellent in the air, he never gives defenders a minute’s peace and his approach play can be very good at times. He was all these things against Georgia. He had four glorious chances to score and was probably unlucky with two of them, but he ended the afternoon scoreless. Long has always been too erratic in front of goal.

Keane was sprung from the bench in the second-half of that friendly and grabbed two goals in two minutes. For all of the perceived weaknesses in his game, Keane executed the hardest thing in football better than any other Irish striker before him.

That’s why he scored 68 international goals and Long has a mere 16 in 68 appearances. And yet, Ireland’s record-breaking goalscorer has been a maligned figure for long stretches of his international career. He was the great unloved.

Maybe he made a rod for his own back with the flashy white boots period, extravagant flicks and cocky ‘Tallaght-fornia’ attitude that made people ambivalent towards him. Maybe it’s an Irish thing: if you’re going to be flamboyant, you better be good. And if your performances dip, you’ll suffer the consequences. That’s the way Irish culture rolls. Be careful not to get above your station.

Throughout his international career, Keane was probably judged more harshly than any of his team-mates. During the lean times, the critics’ lens invariably fell on the Dubliner and the focus was often unforgiving. Keane was the post-Charlton poster boy. And while he may have featured, and excelled, at the 2002 World Cup finals, there were many barren years.

There were a lot of failed qualification campaigns in Keane’s time which, in some ways, makes his goal haul all the more impressive. He was scoring goals outside Ireland’s vintage years. Even when the Republic ended their 10-year wait to reappear on the major championship stage - Euro 2012 - Trapattoni’s team was dysfunctional on so many levels. They had no attacking plan, Keane fed off scraps and still managed to score goals.

Keane, pictured with former boss Giovanni Trapattoni, scored goals even during difficult periods for Ireland

For a long time, he was criticised for not scoring against the so-called bigger nations in qualification. Generally speaking, Ireland didn’t beat the bigger teams too often. But Keane nailed that perception during his 18 years as a senior international. Ibaraki, Suwon, Paris and Bari were just some of the nights he produced against the best. 

He probably had too many transfers in his club career to allow him to evolve into a more rounded player. The right kind of strike partner was important too, in order to squeeze the best out of him. He fed off Niall Quinn’s erudite knock-downs and touches and his best period at club football was undoubtedly when he played with Dimitar Berbatov at Spurs.

For some of his critics, he played to the gallery and over-cooked his patriotism at times. But he backed it up. When other players were pulling out of the ill-fated Carling Nations Cup in 2011, Keane turned up and publicly criticised those who were only too keen to send a sick-note.

On Wednesday night, he played his last game in the green jersey. Fittingly, he scored against Oman. It was a slightly mushy send-off for the 36-year-old, who will continue to play for LA Galaxy. A lot was expected of him when he donned the green jersey. Perhaps too much at times. And he felt the brunt of it when things didn’t happen for the Republic.

His critics were always a bit too eager to criticise aspects of his game and never celebrated enough the things he was good at. But all those things will fade through time and history will be generous to him. Rest assured, it won’t be long before we’ll be watching the Republic of Ireland in a big game and lamenting a missed chance - and yearning for a finisher like Robbie Keane.

Warts and all.

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