LIAM MACKEY: Even Robbie Keane could see Ireland’s bigger picture

To mangle poor old Willy the Shake — and, frankly, I’ve pretty much made a career out of doing just that — you could argue that nothing in Robbie Keane’s Irish career became him like the leaving it.

And I’m not talking about his valedictory goal on Wednesday night, even if it was indeed the purest drop, the very quintessence of Keano. The flick up and over to take out the defender, the turn to ready himself for the dropping ball, the stretching volley to leave the keeper helpless, and the whole thing executed in one instinctive, unbroken movement — this wasn’t the kind of goal you coach someone to score. This was the kind of goal I’m pretty sure Robbie Keane was scoring in games of three-and-in on the streets of Tallaght when he was just a nipper.

Chatting to Keith Andrews at half-time in the stadium, he said that on air he’d used the term ‘Gazza-esque’ to describe the finish, a reference to yer man’s goal for England against Scotland at Euro ’96. Others were reminded of a 17-year-old Pele pulling off a similar one-two combination against Sweden in the World Cup final of 1958. And much closer in time and much closer to home, who could forget Stephanie Roche’s almost world-beating worldie, although I would have to bow to the superior wisdom of the most knowledgeable football expert I know — that would be my 8-year-old daughter Laila — who insists that Steph’s goal was much more spectacular than Robbie’s.

As for the party-poopers — and, inevitably, there have been a few — who solemnly pronounced that we shouldn’t be reaching for superlatives to describe anything which happened in the context of a friendly-bordering-on-testimonial against a side that made Gibraltar look like a tough nut to crack, well, all I can say is that I wish George Best was still around to put them right.

When Best was winding down his playing career in the United States in 1981, he scored a goal for St Jose Earthquakes against Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the old NASL that was simply mesmerising, as he dribbled around a host of defenders in a crowded box, selling dummies every which way, before finally burying the ball in the back of the net. (Check it out on YouTube and, if you’ve any sense, swoon). And to those, especially in England, who sought to diminish the magic of the moment on account of its modest surroundings, Best liked to say that if he’d done the same thing against a team of 11-year-olds, it would still have been a scintillating goal.

So, no matter that the Oman defence will never be in danger of being confused with an Italian rearguard, Keane’s wonderful goal on Wednesday night was just about the best possible way that, at the ripe young age of 36, he could have crowned his final appearance in the green shirt.

But could it have gotten any better? Well, maybe. The goal, as we all know, brought Robbie level with Gerd Muller on 68 in the all-time international hit parade. But just one more and he’d have been ranked in the stats as “more than” not just “equal to” a player widely regarded as one of the deadliest strikers of them all. (For the record, a second goal would have moved Keane up to joint 13th alongside Hossam Hussein but, with all due respect to the Egyptian, the fact that the Irishman had eclipsed the great Muller would, in this neck of the woods, have made for the more enduring legend).

So given the night that was in it, and the charitably accommodating nature of the opposition — and soppy sentimentalist that I am — I genuinely wasn’t expecting to see Robbie Keane withdrawn from the action until he’d been allowed to exhaust every last opportunity to increase his goal haul. At the earliest, I figured he’d get the call from the bench with about, oh, 10 seconds or so remaining, just enough time to allow him the standing ovation that was his due, before the referee’s whistle brought proceedings to a close.

And if, some time before that, the same ref had seen fit to award a borderline penalty to the home side — entirely legitimately from his point of view, of course — well, that wouldn’t have surprised me either.

Instead, I must admit that the end of Robbie’s Irish career came as a bit of a jolt from where I was sitting, the final call abruptly arriving with a good 33 minutes still remaining in the game.

And so, of course, Keane did get to receive the tumultuous acclaim of the stadium, and the hugs and handshakes from team mates and management, before departing the scene as an international player for the last time.

And then came the really classy bit.

Because if the man himself harboured even the slightest twinge of disappointment at the cutting short of his final act for Ireland, not only did he not show it, but his comments afterwards even suggested that had he been in Martin O’Neill’s shoes — and it’s surely a safe long-term bet that one day he will be — he would have made the same substitution call at much the same time. If not, indeed, earlier.

“First and foremost, the lads have a game on Monday,” he said, a succinct reminder that even an apparent walk in the park against Oman can’t be dismissed as an entirely ‘meaningless’ friendly when it’s also the final warm-up for a World Cup qualifier away to Serbia.

So in taking that long, emotional walk into Irish football history, he was acutely conscious that he was also getting himself out of the way of Irish football’s immediate future.

Or put it another way: on Wednesday, Robbie Keane might have been the man of the hour but a fit-again Jon Walters was the man of the match.

And, with Belgrade beckoning, that might even have been the most heartwarming news of all from an uplifting night at Lansdowne Road.


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