Robbie Keane should enjoy cut at Gibraltar

Any of you mathematicians out there fancy decoding this little baby? (Deep breath): 0000011003210002002054031002651206140004.

Robbie Keane should enjoy cut at Gibraltar

Give up? Well, in truth, I’ve cheated a bit by running it all together like something spewed out by a Nasa computer. In fact, those are the individual international goal stats for the 37 players chosen by Martin O’Neill for his Irish squad to face Gibraltar and Georgia next month. And if I’d rather more helpfully presented them in a vertical column, the giveaway figure — the Nasa ‘wow’ signal, if you will — would have been that whopping 65 two-thirds of the way through, sticking out like a Mount Everest transplanted to the midland plains.

Once again, we look upon Robbie Keane’s mighty works and, when we’re not rejoicing, we despair, since his return in 140 games in the green shirt remains light years ahead of second-placed Kevin Doyle (14 in 61) and third-placed Shane Long (12 in 54).

And after that, we’re instantly free-falling to single digits, with Jon Walters (6 in 33), Aiden McGeady (5 in 76), Simon Cox and James McClean (both 4 in 30), John O’Shea (3 in 104) and the rest on twos, ones and zeroes. (Though we won’t blame the goalies).

As we know, goal machine Keane is still bang at it at club level, the MLS currently ablaze with plaudits for the veteran after he marked the passing of his 100th regular season appearance for LA Galaxy with back to back braces, bringing his running total this season to 15 with, remarkably, 13 of those coming in the club’s last nine games.

Yet if the MLS is hardly the Premier League, neither is it on a par with the middle to upper echelons of the international game where, in this Euro qualifying campaign, Keane has struggled in front of goal to the extent that Martin O’Neill took the almost revolutionary step of not starting him in either of the games against Scotland. Coming off the bench late in both of those matches, Keane could only draw a blank, as he also did when starting away to Georgia and at home to Poland.

But he did find his scoring touch at home to Gibraltar, his hat-trick helping Ireland to a 7-0 stroll in the park in October of last year before, a few days later, John O’Shea got in on the act in that euphoric 1-1 draw away to Germany which had everybody on the brink of booking flights to France before Scotland, Poland and Scotland again supplied some very sobering reality checks.

Still, with Gibraltar first up in the firing line with the resumption of Euro qualifying on September 4, it’s no bad thing that Keane is in scintillating form Stateside, since goals mean points and, for an Irish side playing catch-up, it’s all about bagging three in Faro next month.

The consensus, of course, is that this should prove to be little more than a formality, the trip south to the Algarve regarded by most who plan to travel as a late summer chance to sample a main dish of sun and sardines, with some Euro points on the side.

Which, considering the opposition has a record of one goal for and 34 against in six games, is hardly an insult to the cut of Gib.

Not that you’d want to be putting it like that to Martin O’Neill.

You could sense him bristling a little when his squad announcement press conference this week spent 95 per cent of its time dealing with everything bar the actual games against Gibraltar and Georgia.

“We have to win both games,” he said through gritted teeth, when the matches did get a brief look-in between Jack Grealish and Stephen Ireland.

“It’s essential. We’re still well in the group and capable of qualifying but six points is absolutely vital.

“The Gibraltar game is so important. We cannot afford to slip up at all. We need to go as strong as we can.”

That’s the appropriately professional way to approach it, of course, even if it’s still an almighty stretch to imagine that the men from the Rock could find enough within themselves to be able to add Faro, 2015 to the dishonourable roll-call of stand-out debacles in modern Irish football history, like Cyprus 5 Ireland 2, San Marino 1 Ireland 2 and Liechtenstein 0 Ireland 0.

No, let’s not even go there.

Of course, the concept of the six-point haul from September also assumes another routine assignment at home to Georgia on September 7. Again, on the face of it, the stats back up the optimism, the Georgians having managed just one win in the group so far — against Gibraltar, naturally — while shipping thirteen goals and scoring just four.

However, it won’t be forgotten that it took a late, rare flash of Aiden McGeady’s magic to get Ireland’s campaign off to a winning start in Tbilisi, while the same people who are already banking the points from the upcoming return game in Dublin — and, furthermore, suggesting that they could be enough to put Ireland firmly back into qualifying contention do so in part on the basis that the Georgians we’re meant to beat handily at home will come into that game having done us the inestimable favour in Tbilisi of tripping up a Scottish side which has taken four out of six points in their games against us.

Ah, it would do your head in. No wonder Martin O’Neill, like gaffers the world over, insists on taking it one game at a time.

But while he’s right to counsel against any hint of complacency ahead of the trip to Portugal, in looking over the state of his charges he must be privately pleased that the first game of the new international season is, after all, against the group whipping boys.

Coming hard on the heels of the start of the new club season, September fixtures can be a minefield for international managers and, at the moment, that’s definitely the case for O’Neill who was forced to concede this week that between injuries and lack of game time — not to mention the unhappy truth that few, if any, of the Irish players being selected in England have exactly been pulling up trees to date — his squad is hardly at a peak of battle-hardened preparedness as Euro qualifying begins to turn into the home straight.

Which is another reason why, for only the 141st time, a nation is about to turn its lonely eyes to Robbie Keane.

Johnny Lyons: Farewell to the human riff

News of the death of Johnny Lyons this week came as a shocking bolt from the blue.

The many tributes which have been paid to the 98FM sports broadcaster, especially from work-mates and close friends, have spoken of his outstanding qualities of kindness, helpfulness, professionalism and unfailing good humour. To listeners who knew him only via the airwaves, there was a palpable sense of loss that they would never again enjoy hearing arguably the most distinctive voice in Irish broadcasting – and distinctive not least because, rare among his profession, he sounded exactly the same off-air as on, especially when he was hailing someone across a crowded room. And Johnny, whose cast was definitely broad, did a lot of hailing in crowded rooms.

To those of us who travelled with him on Irish football trips over the years, he was the Motley Crue of our motley crew, though I don’t suppose Nikki Sixx, or for that matter anyone else in the metal fraternity, could also claim a seriously in-depth knowledge of Dutch football and cricket to go alongside an unquenchable thirst for the heavy, heavy monster sounds. Towering in leather, amped up to 11, Johnny stalked Irish sports journalism like a human riff.

Poignantly, just a few short months ago, he was tweeting his sadness at the passing of George Byrne, another Dublin journalist with an equally fierce twin-passion for music and football: “RIP my good friend. Too soon my friend too soon. So good to me as a cub in Hot Press. I’ll never forget you.”

Said the man who was himself impossible to forget. My condolences to all his family and friends.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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