No-one wanted to let him go.
The selfies started in the tunnel before the game and they kicked in again as Robbie Keane made his way back to a home dressing room that was no sanctuary from the demands: the next twenty minutes were spent signing his teammates’ jerseys.
“It’s been an emotional week for me,” he said. “It’s been incredible, the support I’ve got from people, former players and managers around the world wishing me well. All I wanted to do was go out there and play the game and do well for Ireland. To get the goal capped off the evening.”
That and the resurrection of the trademark somersault/pistol celebration. He could sense the crowd’s desperation for him to score and Jonathan Walters was given an earful when he dithered over an open goal in an attempt to tee up his skipper for the farewell flourish. When the goal did come it was all his own work.
That was important to him.
Keane was grateful to Martin O’Neill for allowing him the opportunity to say goodbye to his international career here in his home town but he was all too aware of the fact that a crucial World Cup tie lies in wait in Belgrade for his old comrades this Monday.
His evening couldn’t compromise their preparation.
“I was able to say thank you to the fans so I am very grateful for that but it is important now that the players focus on Monday’s game. The intensity tonight and the way they went about it, it was important that it didn’t turn into a testimonial game.”
Squaring away emotions may take some time. And distance. His first thought as he strode off the pitch in the 56th minute was for family members like his “football crazy” seven-year old Robert who, he suspected, would be emotional wrecks. And there were thoughts and words for colleagues besides.
“I said to them in there that I wish them well. They have a great chance to qualify. They have a great team spirit among the players and I wished all the management and staff all the best going forwards. I’ll be watching it as a fan now, as I always was (before).
“This night will always stand out, going on duty once last time. It’s been a wonderful journey and 18 years and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I said a few words after the game to the other players: ‘never underestimate the best feeling in the world.’”
He left without regrets, knocking back the suggestion that he looked sharp as a tack out there and that maybe he could have countenanced an extension of his time with Ireland through to a 19th year. Martin O’Neill backed that up.
“He scored a goal tonight and he’s taken it brilliantly,” said the manager. “That type of goal he scored so often in his career but I think genuinely it is the time for him to go. It would have been nice to have had him a year or two earlier, but he’s been terrific.”
All in all, this was as good as friendlies with Oman get.
The day was embellished by moves for Irish players — Jeff Hendrick to Burnley, Eunan O’Kane to Leeds United and Aiden McGeady to Preston — though dampened by confirmation that James McCarthy will miss the trip to Serbia due to a groin injury that requires surgery.
Goals last night from Jon Walters and Robbie Brady were all the more welcome for that and, with Keane gone, scoring goals will have to be a more democratic operation.
“Jon Walters can take that up,” said O’Neill. “If anything, Shane Long might be thinking ‘I’d like a part of this. I’d like to be a goalscorer rather than scorer of great goals’. He could think he has the time, he is quick and he has plenty about his game.”
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