The local security man on duty at the media entrance to the stadium in Poznan on Tuesday night had one pressing question on his mind for the Irish journalist: where oh where was Giovanni Trapattoni?
Conscious that I was about to break bad news to someone who had clearly been anticipating an appearance by one of world football’s legendary figures, I told him as gently as I could that, well, old Trap had been given the order of the boot.
One of the most, shall we say, theatrical members of the bouncing profession I have ever encountered, he reacted to these tidings with almost operatic shock: eyes wide open, mouth agape and a high-pitched “Oh my gosh”.
So who was now “Ireland coach”, he wanted to know. Martin O’Neill, I replied. At this revelation, his voice rose another octave: “Martin ...O...Neill,” he almost squeaked. “Celtic Glasgow? But he is so famous. Oh my gosh!”
Such was the man’s state of hyper-ventilation that, quite apart from wondering what planet he had been living on for the past couple of weeks, I had to consider the potentially dangerous consequences for his blood pressure of revealing to him the identity of O’Neill’s assistant.
But, of course, I did anyway – and his reaction was entirely satisfying, his voice completely off the scale and alarming all the dogs in Poznan: “Roy Keeeeen!! Oh my gosh!! Oh my gosh!! He is a LEG-END!!!”
But not the only “leg-end” by the name of Keane in Poznan that night. Robbie, nursing an old achilles problem which will almost certainly require surgery in London next week, sat out the scoreless draw against Poland but, just by reporting for duty for the opening two games of the new management era, had already impressed Martin O’Neill with his unflagging commitment to the Irish cause.
And his value too, of course, as evidenced by the opening goal against Latvia which brought his record Irish tally to a remarkable 62 in 131 appearances.
Those stats alone should be enough to secure his standing as one of Irish sport’s immortals yet, somehow, he has never been accorded the status of national treasure which his exploits in the green shirt deserve.
Maybe it’s because he was a bit too cocky in his early days and often unnecessarily abrasive in his dealings with the media too, but the upshot is that – compared, say, to Paul McGrath or Kevin Moran or Niall Quinn – he is a Dublin football legend who has always commanded more admiration than affection. And a lot more criticism too: from the hoary old complaint that he didn’t score enough goals against the big guns to the cynical interpretation of his move to LA Galaxy as nothing more than a past-it player settling for life in a lucrative retirement home.
There was a time when, if you put that kind of accusation to Keane, he would have tetchily dismissed it by saying that he didn’t give a hoot what other people thought – and, by implication, didn’t think much more of the journalist who dared to voice it either. But it has been noticeable in recent years that, in his pre-match press conferences as captain sitting beside Trapattoni, Keane has come out of his shell a lot more. In part, that might have been a recognition of the fact that, in the presence of the Italian, there was an onus on him to bring more clarity to the lines of communication. But, at 33, there is also a maturity about Keane, as well as a sense of someone increasingly comfortable in his own skin, which makes him much more forthcoming when behind the mic.
That was certainly the case in Dublin this week when, albeit on promotional duty for the launch of Xbox One, he was entirely open and at ease in the company of a small number of football hacks.
That his move to LA Galaxy has been nothing but good for Ireland is borne out by Keane’s stats since heading off to the States – yet again, in 2013, he ends up as Ireland’s leading scorer with eight goals in 14 games. But his presence in America has also been of massive significance for Galaxy too, even if his determination to show up for his country has, on occasion, put him under added pressure not let his club down.
A jaw-dropping case in point: after last month’s victory over Kazakhstan in Dublin, Keane flew through the night to get back to the West Coast – and, just two hours after landing in LA, came off the bench to help Galaxy secure a 1-0 against Montreal. The rest of us might gape, but for Robbie Keane it’s all very straightforward, something along the lines of that wise observation that happy is the man whose hobby is also his career.
“I just love playing, people don’t understand that,” he explained. “For me, to wake up every morning and go training and playing games, you can’t beat it. It’s not going to last forever, I’m fully aware of that.
“And I dread the day that I finish playing,” he added, with a grimace. “I’ve been doing it since I was 17 years of age and I dread the day, I can’t imagine the day.”
Hopefully it won’t be for a while yet because we should all be dreading the day when this ‘leg’ finally reaches its ‘end’.
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