Martin O’Neill might feel sad about saying goodbye to Robbie Keane — and sadder still that, as he’s often pointed out, he didn’t have the services of the record goalscorer in his prime — but the Ireland manager finds consolation in the fact that, even at 32, another of his strikers, Jon Walters, is good to go again.
The national team’s player of the year in 2015, the Stoke man’s contribution to helping Ireland qualify for Euro 2016 was summed up by O’Neill yesterday as “pivotal”.
So it was nothing less than an “awful shame”, he added, that injury restricted Walters to little more than a walk-on part in France.
“I didn’t play, obviously, as much as I would have hoped,” said the man himself.
“I tore my Achilles just before the tournament and it was a case of catch-up, and it has just been a case of working since then all over the summer, every single day, to try to get things right.
“I am just about there now. I’m in a boat with a few others who didn’t play a lot and players on the fringes or who didn’t make it to the Euros who will be looking to impress, especially in this game against Oman.”
And then, more importantly, comes the testing trip to Belgrade with which Ireland will begin their World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign.
“It’s straight back into it, isn’t it?” said Walters.
“The Euros have just finished and we are straight back into it, and that’s always the case.
“You say: ‘Is it easy to pick yourselves up’, but the last couple of games in the tournament were unbelievable and showed real promise for the future.
“Some players really staked a claim and brought themselves right to the forefront of the international set-up, the likes of Robbie Brady and Jeff (Hendrick) and James (McCarthy) and Seamus (Coleman).
“I don’t think it’s a case of picking ourselves up to go again, it’s just a case of full steam ahead into the World Cup.”
But not, of course, for Robbie Keane, a player Jon Walters admired first as a fan and then as a team-mate and later still as an inspirational presence in the camp.
“The best quality of any striker is putting the ball in the back of the net, and he does it better than most,” Walters observed.
“At club level, international level, his record speaks for itself.
“He came in from such a young age and he’s had such a long time on the international stage, and even at Premier League level and every level he has been at, he’s been exceptional.
“He’s one of those players in the box, he will find space. His movement and his touch are second to none and he will always get a strike off at goal.
“He seems to bamboozle defenders.
“He has that first touch to get away from them and (with) his second touch it’s in the back of the net. He has done it on so many occasions. It’s been a pleasure to play with him and, growing up, watch as well.
“He has been an unbelievable player, but off the pitch he has been great too, especially in the last few years.
“That’s difficult for players, especially when they are not playing so much. He has been first-class.”
In common with everyone else who loves the game in this country, Walters is hoping that Ol’ Keane Goal can at least draw level with the great Gerd Muller by signing off with another one at the Aviva tonight.
But unlike the rest of us, Walters will actually be in a position to do all he can to make it happen.
“I’m pretty sure if he is playing, he will find himself in a lot of situations where he will put the ball in the back of the net,” he said.
“Over the course of me being here, he’s one of those players who always seems to find the ball in the box, always seems to find space and get a goal.
“Hopefully it will happen tomorrow night. We will be looking to set him up to get that record, definitely.”
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