Prepared statements “on the occasion of” can often come across as bland, off-the-peg affairs, a poor substitute for facial expression and the spoken word.
That was most certainly not the case yesterday on the occasion of Robbie Keane’s announcement that he is to hang up his Irish shooting boots after 18 years as man and boy in the service of the green shirt.
Running to more than 1,000 words, this was more like a cri de coeur, as the 36-year-old Keane, a double record-holder for Ireland with 67 goals in 145 appearances, paid sincere and sometimes emotional tribute to family, fans, team mates and managers, and prepared himself, as best he can, for a final fling against Oman at the Aviva Stadium next Wednesday.
You suspect the highly-charged experience is not going to be anything like as easy for him as he made finding the net seem to be — though in a friendly against Oman few would bet against him signing off with the goal, or goals, that all Ireland will hope he and they can celebrate on the night.
“I had always hoped this day would never come,” he said in his statement from Los Angeles yesterday. “I will miss putting on the Ireland jersey and walking out to a sea of green but I am looking forward to the game against Oman and putting on the jersey and singing the national anthem one last time in front of the home crowd at the Aviva. It will be an emotional night for me but I will savour each and every last moment.”
Those are words which carry the emotional ring of truth. Keane has often spoken of his dread at having to retire from football and, while he will continue to illuminate the MLS in the States for some time, the end of his Irish career is bound to be a wrenching experience for him.
Always intensely patriotic, he made his senior debut, as a substitute, away to the Czech Republic in March 1998 and the last of his competitive appearances, again as sub, in the 3-0 loss to Belgium this summer at Euro 2016.
Over the course of those 18 years, he tore up the Irish scoring and caps records, his 67 goals also putting him in at number 15 in football’s all-time international hitmen parade, just one behind German legend Gerd Muller on 68. Among the hotshots not far ahead of Keane are some luminaries you might just have heard of — the likes of Pele and Ferenc Puskas — while other superstars of the modern game, such the two Ronaldos and Lionel Messi, are still playing catch-up. That’s the kind of company our Robbie keeps.
Ironically, while none could doubt the lavish evidence of a rare talent which also saw him score 126 goals in the English Premier League and play in four different countries for 10 clubs — Wolves, Coventry City, Inter Milan, Leeds United, Spurs, Liverpool, Celtic, West Ham United, Aston Villa, and LA Galaxy — it took time for professional admiration to be matched by popular affection in his homeland.
Perhaps that had something to do with the perceived cockiness of Keane in his youth, that “hey-look-at-me” part of his personality which gave the world his trademark forward roll and bow and arrow goal celebration.
But as he matured, it’s fair to say that Ireland increasingly warmed to Robbie, not only for his goals but for the way in which he rose to meet the responsibility of being a captain for his country on the pitch and a touchstone off it.
Indeed, it was when first the goals and then the appearances began to dry up for him as his international career entered its twilight years under Martin O’Neill — a time when injuries were increasingly taking a toll — that Keane fully emerged as a real leader of men, showing qualities which suggest that, when he finally hangs up those boots for good, it will be to management’s gain.
Privately, it must have come as a wounding blow to his pride and patriotism when, in an unprecedented move, O’Neill dropped him for the Euro 2016 qualifier against Scotland in Glasgow, but Keane continued to make the transatlantic haul to answer his country’s call and continued to be what the manager regarded as an inspirational presence in the camp right through to the finals in France in the summer, even though his on the pitch involvement in the tournament itself was limited to just two appearances off the bench.
But for those who were there or who were watching on TV, from the old Lansdowne Road to the Stade de France and beyond, it’s Robbie Keane as that rare thing in football, a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals, who will live longest in the memory.
A natural predator, with an abundance of quicksilver movement, a clever touch and a clinical eye for a finish, at his irrepressible best Keane played with a relish, freedom, and imagination which he seemed to have imported direct and uncontaminated from the Tallaght streets of his childhood.
Everyone will have a favourite among his goals for Ireland. His immaculate finish in Paris in the 2010 World Cup play-off against France ought to be right up there in the highlights reel but, unfortunately, you might just recall that it was eclipsed by a rather more controversial goal on the night.
So I can really have no quibble with the man himself when yesterday he identified another World Cup goal — this time against Germany, at the finals in Japan and South Korea — as a personal high point. “I have been very fortunate to play at major tournaments for Ireland over the years and I will cherish all of those memories,” he said, “but one in particular stands out— the 2002 World Cup and scoring the late goal in Ibaraki against Oliver Kahn. The atmosphere, the adrenaline and the buzz from the fans that night is something I will always remember.”
I was there that night too and, from the ecstatic reaction in the press box alone, can testify that Keane’s magical intervention to secure a deserved 1-1 draw was one of those spine-tingling moments in Irish football deserving of comparison with Ray Houghton’s goals in Stuttgart and New Jersey and, bringing things bang up to date, the other Robbie’s winner against Italy in Lille in June.
Emotions will run just as high, but for different reasons, at the Aviva next Wednesday. Praising the Irish fans at length yesterday and promising he will be joining them from here on in — “I will be singing alongside you loud and proud!” — Keane added, “I am looking forward to playing my final international game in Dublin and getting a chance to thank them.”
The feeling, he can rest assured, is mutual.
Thank you, Robbie Keane.
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