Ireland 4 Oman 0: The perfect finish for the perfect finisher.
The beauty of Robbie Keane’s final night in an Irish shirt wasn’t just that he got the goal a nation craved, the goal which closes his Irish goal account on a staggering 68 and which sees him draw level in the all-time charts with the legendary Gerd Muller.
It was that the goal that put him there was like something he pulled out of his own career highlights reel, an instinctive piece of penalty box invention which would have graced any game, at any level.
Mind, it only finally arrived after a few close calls, damp squibs and false alarms.
To a warm reception from the crowd and the respectful applause of both teams, and watched from the tunnel by wife Claudine, the captain had begun the night by walking out on the red carpet with baby son Hudson in his arms and seven-year-old Robert at his side, to be greeted by the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins before being presented with a number of awards to mark the historic occasion that was in it.
Once the ceremonials were out of the way, it was the turn of the Green Army to pay a more familiar tribute, the chant of ‘Keano, Keano’ rolling round the stadium as the number 10 prepared to lead the Irish line for the last time.
Of course, it wasn’t just the Robbie Keane show last night, no matter how much it might have felt that way. The game against Oman also doubled as a warm-up for the start of World Cup qualifying, with a testing trip to Belgrade to face Serbia first on the list this coming Monday.
To that end, Martin O’Neill must have been pleased to have the opportunity to give Harry Arter what was only his third cap, while there were also rare starting places for Keiren Westwood in goal and Cyrus Christie at right-full. And, most encouraging of all perhaps, there was the sight of an apparently rejuvenated Jon Walters all good to go again.
But, inevitably, from the first blast of the whistle, all eyes were on Keane, as Lansdowne Road awaited their hero’s first chance to make the net dance. But when the Irish breakthrough did arrive, after only seven minutes, wouldn’t you know it but it was the other Robbie who delivered - and in sumptuous fashion - the apprentice Brady showing the master Keane the direct route to goal with a picture postcard free-kick, bent sweetly with his left foot past Al Rushaidi in the Oman goal.
Bang on the ten-minute mark, another round of applause and another airing of ‘Keano’ were accorded the evening’s main man but then, in a bizarre illustration of how desperately his own team mates wanted him to mark the occasion with a goal, there was the bizarre sight of Walters, when in a decent position to get a shot away, stepping aside to let Keane have a go, only for the latter’s effort to be blocked.
As the Irish piled on the pressure, Walters’ next intervention was more orthodox, a beautiful, hooked effort which came back off the far post and fell invitingly for Keane in the middle of the goal. ‘Keeper Al Rusaidi clearly hadn’t read the script, however, diving bravely at the skipper’s feet to thwart him again.
In the 27th minute, it looked like Keane was finally in, as he capitalised on some terrible defending to go one and one with Al Rushaidi but this time, with the crowd ready to acclaim the goal, his slightly heavy attempt to lift the ball over the ‘keeper also took it over the bar and onto the roof of the net.
Then, just as people began wondering if it was going to be one of those nights for Keane, cometh the half-hour and cometh the man. And, in the goal’s execution as well as its significance, it was a truly magical moment. Again Walters played a key part, knocking the ball into Keane’s path, but after that it was all Robbie’s own work, as he flicked the ball over a defender’s head and, at close to full stretch, volleyed low to the net, to score the kind of memorable goal that the great Muller would have been proud to claim as one of his own.
It was, in truth, the goal of a natural-born striker, full of schoolyard impudence, and to mark the occasion, as it were, Keane chose to forward-roll back the years, treating an ecstatic stadium to his trademark celebration of yore.
With Oman proving most obliging opposition, the irrepressible Walters got his own reward three minutes later – and again reminded us of how much he was missed at the Euros - when, from another superb Brady cross, he flashed home a header to make it three.
Keane had equalled Gerd Muller’s record but his substitution in the 56th minute ended any chance he might have had of eclipsing it, and instead he had to settle for the heartfelt acclaim of the crowd and the hugs and handshakes of his team mates as he left the green field for the last time.
Thankfully for this current Irish team’s hopes of making it to Russia in 2018, Jon Walters appears in rude good health, surviving even a cut to the head to see out the full 90 minutes. The 32-year-old’s desire, energy and two goals – the second coming on 63 minutes when he rounded the ‘keeper after a terrific run and pass from Arter – made him the game’s dominant personality. But, still, history won’t remember this night for Walters’ thoroughly deserved man of the match award.
In Brazilian football, they have what they call a ‘gol de placa’, literally, a goal worthy of a commemorative plaque. It originated with a reportedly fabulous length of the pitch solo effort by Pele for Santos against Fluminense at the Maracana in 1961, a goal not captured on camera unfortunately but which, thanks to the campaigning zeal of those who were lucky enough to be there to see, was immortalised in the form of plaque which can still be seen in the stadium’s museum.
Aviva Stadium, you know what you have to do.
Republic of Ireland:
Westwood (Randolph 45), Christie, Clark, Wilson, Brady (Ward 45), Arter, Whelan (Hendrick 45), Quinn (O’Dowda 63), Long (McClean 45), Walters, Keane (Hoolahan 56)
Al Rushaidi, Al Mushaifri (Al Mukhain), Mabrook, Almukhaini, Bait (Al Busaidi , Al Shyadi, Al Saadi, Saleh, Al Khaldi, Al Malki (Al Shuabi 75), Al Muqbali (Aal Sbdulsalam 87)
Demetries Masias (Cyprus)
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved