“Robbie, listen to the crowd. Aren’t they great? Talk to them.”
Robbie: “What do you want me to say?”
Duffy, wily old pro, turned to plan B: “Just listen to them for a minute.”
Listening, at that Phoenix Park homecoming in 2002, Robbie Keane heard what Ireland thought of him. He had just delivered on the world stage. Not yet 22, a disappointing season at Leeds could be put down to David O’Leary’s adventure souring. Robbie had showcased, instead, what Inter Milan had gambled on two years earlier. And after a patchy beginning to his international career, he had justified the giddy excitement that greeted his full debut in Lansdowne against Argentina four years before, when Ariel Ortega sprinkled the stardust for Robbie to dance in.
Now, in Keane and Damien Duff, we had superstars ready to take over from the man who had split the place in half.
But in the moment too, there was awkwardness, a hint of suspicion, a reluctance to play the game. A certain discomfort with that microphone thrust in his face.
Bizarrely, we seem to have spent much of the last 14 years listening, trying to gauge what people make of Robbie Keane. There has been scorn for the scope and variety of his boyhood dreams, scoffing at his gesticulations, loss of patience with his occasional unwillingness to play the game. Even the almost gratuitous swelling of his international goals record has only fastened tighter the flat-track bully tag.
Just this week, one website felt the need to issue a final plea: “Ignore the haters, Robbie Keane is Ireland’s best ever striker”.
It would have been easier to measure Robbie against Frank Stapleton and John Aldridge and the other contenders had he been born when he should. In many ways, he has been a footballer out of time. Fittingly, Keane became Ireland’s best number nine while wearing number ten. A classic inbetweener, he hadn’t quite the intuition of the greatest tens and lacked either the animal power or dispassion in front of goal to become one of the best nines.
And he arrived at his peak years when English midfields were being overstocked at the expense of a second frontman.
But he had a lot in his locker. A bit of everything. It’s easy to imagine him thriving in the ’80s Everton side, taking Adrian Heath’s place alongside Graeme Sharp. Even being Liverpool’s Beardsley.
At Spurs, where he had his best years, there were low moments when the strength of Mido or Kanoute was preferred, but he found telepathy with Berbatov and for a spell, two nine-and-a-halves added up to more than the sum of their parts.
But it was, as Fergie put it, only Tottenham.
If the failed six-month audition in Milan could be put down to youth and a change of manager, his six months at Anfield was the opportunity to pull himself up a rung on the pantheon.
Rafa Benitez drew a line under it pretty coldly: “Could anyone see Robbie, playing the way he was, scoring a lot of goals for us?”
Never found wanting when the line between good and great needs to be drawn, John Giles puzzled it out on Newstalk this week, wondering if Robbie simply lacked the drive to produce week in, week out.
But they still pine for him down the Lane, and when they discussed his international retirement on the Tottenham message boards this week, there was consensus he delivered the work-rate and commitment to thrive under even Pochettino. A claim nobody was making for Berba.
Maybe the certainty of his entrance just skewed our hopes. Before they were called worldies, he had two on his Wolves debut — a blast and a prod. For anyone nourished on Serie A highlights or Gazzetta Football Italia, to watch ‘Baby Irish’ lob Peruzzi in the Italian Super Cup was ridiculously glamorous.
But greatness eludes most. Duff stopped short. Even a talent as compelling and elegant as Ortega flitted through his career, from club to club, man-marked by the underachievement tag. Though alcoholism played a part too, towards the end.
Once Robbie had given up on greatness, his indulgence was an addiction to goals.
Long ago, Sean Wall, chairman of his schoolboy club Crumlin United, defined it. “I always remember his last game for Crumlin. He had a goal disallowed that would have given him his 60th goal of the season. He was gutted at the time but I assured him he was going on to bigger and better things. Knowing Robbie though, I’m sure he’s still irritated that he didn’t get his 60th of the season.”
At a time when the game has almost turned its back on specialist goalscorers, it found a place for him, even if he had to drop a level or two. And the beauty of international football is it provides many different levels.
Here again, he was out of step. In an era when players retire from international football to preserve their club careers, he arguably did the opposite as long ago as 2010, when he first stepped away from top-level football to join Celtic.
Even now, the delay in announcing Oman as a lap of honour implies Robbie was holding out for a reprieve, some indication that Martin O’Neill could still find a use for his compulsion.
ext Wednesday, he will cope much easier when the microphones are thrust in his face. He has picked up much in Hollywood. And maybe some things too from David Beckham.
As far as hearts and minds go, a key breakthrough came not on the pitch at all, but on the Late Late Toy Show two years ago when he made another boy’s dreams come true.
And at the homecoming in Dublin airport after Euro 2016, he had no problem figuring out what we wanted him to say.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart and from the bottom of the players’ hearts and the journey is only beginning with these young players.”
His journey was almost over. Unlike other modern Irish sporting goodbyes, this one is to be short and bittersweet. There is to be no farewell tour for Robbie Keane, no festival of finality. Although you could argue he has been bowing out gracefully for about four years.
Hopefully, there is at least one final somersault, for old time’s sake.
And a nation’s appreciation can be distilled into 90 minutes, or maybe 70. And when he listens to the crowd when he is substituted, there will be love there too, and maybe, finally, the rope lifted on the area in official affections reserved for people like Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell.
Robbie Keane never quite became a superstar, but he had a lot in his locker and eventually people came to realise and appreciate that he had emptied most of it out.