“It’s the first time — which is ironic — that my young son Hudson is going to walk out with me and it’s my last time ever to play for Ireland. So it’s going to be a special moment and something I will certainly treasure.”
So said Robbie Keane, with a discernible catch in his voice, as he gave his final pre-match press conference as an Irish player at FAI headquarters.
And if yesterday was not short of emotion — and that in the company of the hard-bitten press corps — one can only imagine how overwhelming tomorrow night is going to be for Ireland’s greatest scorer and most-capped player, as his team-mates, family, friends and the massed ranks of the Green Army show him the love in his native Dublin on what will be his final appearance in the green shirt.
So how, you wonder, will he get through it all in one piece? Let Oman be warned, the answer is by doing what he’s done so many times before with Ireland: Going in search, one more time with feeling, of another goal — one which, as it happens, would bring him level in the all-time international scoring charts, on 68, with the great Gerd Muller.
“Listen, I’m always chasing the next one,” he said. “That will never change for me, I’ll always chase the next one, and it’s the same with Ireland on Wednesday. I don’t care about Muller’s record or anyone, I’m chasing the next one because that’s what I’ve done since I was seven.
“And as soon as I’ve finished with the Ireland team I’ll chase the next one with the Galaxy. That’s just the way I’ve been brought up. That’s the same feeling I’ve had since I was 17 years of age. The whole game is going to be very difficult but the minute that the whistle goes, the first thing I will be thinking of is scoring a goal and that, hopefully, the team wins.”
In fact, it was pointed out to Robbie yesterday that if he doesn’t sign off with a goal, 2016 will go down as the only one of the 18 years in his Irish career in which he won’t have found the net.
“This is it then, I have to do it. Or come back again,” he grinned.
Keane revealed yesterday that he had taken the decision to retire before the Irish squad left France at the end of the Euros and had even said his goodbyes to the management and players.
“I spoke to the players, all of them individually and collectively as a group, and said that was me finishing. We said we’d announce it after everything kind of died down. So I had kind of retired without announcing it but Martin O’Neill knew and about a week or two later I got a call from him to see if I would play this game as an appreciation. I said, of course, no problem. I was delighted and humbled to have the opportunity.”
Asked what he’ll miss most about playing for Ireland, Keane replied: “I’ll miss everything. I’ll miss you guys (in the press) as well, believe it or not! First and foremost, I’ll miss pulling that green jersey on. For me, more than anything, that’s been the highlight of my career. I’ve played for many clubs but the Ireland jersey always seemed to fit me the best. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ll miss the lads, the manager, the staff, the backroom staff. I’ve had a great time with all of them. All I can do now is watch from the side and wish them well. It’s going to be a little bit different for me, a bit surreal.”
Keane has never been one to understate his pride at being Irish, and it seems emigration to the United States has served only to lend further enchantment to his view of home and all that it means to him.
“I think Irish people are like that anyway,” he observed. “What’s the first thing you do when on holidays? Look for an Irish bar! We do it, it’s crazy, but it’s what we do. I’ve always had that feeling of being close to Ireland even though I am so far away.”
And, of course, in continuing to make the trans-Atlantic journey to answer his country’s call, even after he was no longer guaranteed a starting place under O’Neill, Keane underlined a commitment to playing for Ireland which, for him, was an absolute no-brainer.
“I could never understand why people pulled out of Ireland games,” he said. “I could never get my head around that. I think now with the international team that we are in a very strong place where everybody wants to turn up. That wasn’t the case over the years. One thing about me is that I always turned up, I’ve always tried my best, even with injuries and getting injections before games. That’s just my love for Ireland and that’s my love for the country.”
And in the modern game, where club so often trumps country, it meant that Keane sometimes found himself at odds with gaffers who wanted him to cry off from international duty.
“I never did, I just said no. And maybe there were times when managers left you out because they did not think you were fresh enough and maybe other players — not on international duty and fresher — played ahead of you. But it never mattered to me.”
Looking ahead, for the immediate future the 36-year-old will continue to play for LA Galaxy so long as the body is willing and the goals keep coming but, longer-term, he hopes to be involved with Irish football again in a coaching or management capacity. He reckons it’s important that former-internationals share their experience with the next generation of Irish players.
“I think we have done that, to be fair,” he said, referencing the Irish underage set-up. “Duffer is involved, Keith Andrews, Stephen McPhail, Kenny Cunningham, Mark Kinsella. And I think that is only going to help the national team in the future. Imagine a 15-year-old kid coming in and seeing Damien Duff standing there. They’d want to impress him and do well for him. His knowledge will certainly help those young kids.”
And speaking of the young ‘uns: With Robbie having mentioned that little Hudson will make his debut at the Aviva tomorrow, we had to ask if big brother Robert is showing any signs of following in his father’s footsteps. “He is only seven,” Robbie smiled. “I started when I was seven or eight playing for a team but I played right-back. I became a striker when I was nine or 10. He is left-footed, he has a great left foot, so he has more of a chance.”
Watch this space!
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