Next Wednesday evening, in an otherwise nondescript friendly at home to Oman, Ireland will say goodbye to its greatest ever footballer.
After 18 years in green, Robbie Keane will walk off into the sunset with goalscoring records in tow.
It’s April 1998. A far more glamorous fixture at the old Lansdowne Road than the one that will bring the curtain down on such a storied career. The days when supporters could still stand on the terraces for friendly games.
For some reason, as a youngster, this made you feel more of a fan. A couple of sneaky pints in Sally O’Brien’s in Ringsend afterwards – although the 18th birthday was still a ways away, maybe made you feel more of a man. Simpler times.
All the post-match chat revolved around two number 10s. Ariel Ortega of Argentina, graceful and spellbinding, had chipped perhaps the most beautiful goal you will ever have the good fortune to see in person over the entire Irish defence.
And the other number 10. The boy from Tallaght.
The Irish had been outclassed that day by an Argentine team that, until then, you knew mainly from your Sony PlayStation. Ortega, Gabriel Batistuta, Juan Sebastián Veron, Roberto Ayala, and Diego Simeone. For 90 minutes they picked, prodded and teased their way in and around the hosts’ back line.
They would win easily with a pair of first-half goals from their two biggest stars as Ortega’s picture-perfect lob added to Batistuta’s trademark near-post finish.
But at least one man in green looked like he belonged on the same pitch as the swaggering visitors that day. In only his second cap – and first start – for his country, Robbie Keane was already beginning to look like something we had never seen before in an Irish shirt.
The following day, there’s a hazy memory of a radio report which claims Keane pulled the ref up as the teams waited in the tunnel before the second half to take him to task for letting the wily South Americans away with some agricultural defending.
Such cheek. Such bloody-mindedness. We were hooked.
It’s hard to reconcile that day, 18 years ago, with the 145 caps and 67 goals that have since passed in the blink of an eye.
As sports fans, we tend to cling to the players we ‘grew up’ with more than most. When players our own age begin to retire, it certainly strikes a chord.
But it’s far from sentimentality that makes our latest retiree the greatest player we have ever produced. For some reason, that has often been a title people are reluctant to bestow upon the 13th highest scorer in the 25 years of the English Premier League.
Best goalscorer? Certainly, that honour is inarguable.
But asked where he places in the pantheon of greats. Asked who among John Giles, Liam Brady, Paul McGrath and Roy Keane should move over to make room for Robbie, Irish football fans are non-committal. Some even balk at the idea that Robbie’s name belongs alongside those immortals.
In reality, it’s an open and shut case. Robbie’s career in green vastly overshadows the rest of the ‘top five’.
How we’ll miss hearing John Giles’ pearls of wisdom on the RTÉ panel. As the only player on the ‘Great’ lists that I never got to see play, I feel somehow cheated. Any player who ever shared a pitch with Giles seems to agree that he was special.
But his 67 caps with no major tournament appearances (yes, it certainly was harder to qualify in those days) can’t compare to Robbie’s 145 appearances and three major tournaments.
Nobody, it seems, has ever possessed a left foot like Liam Brady. But 72 caps, nine goals and zero major tournaments see Chippy check and mated by Robbie’s time with Ireland. Liam will always have that sweet finish against Brazil in ’87 though.
As a long-suffering Aston Villa fan, it’s hard to make the argument than anyone anywhere is better at anything than Paul McGrath. Just as Jimmy Rabbitte Snr placed a picture of Elvis above that of the Pope in his kitchen in the movie The Commitments, if I had such a picture of His Holiness hanging in my place, there would be a portrait of big Paul above it.
But Robbie has the Black Pearl in his rearview mirror as well, I’m afraid. Paul’s 83 caps and three major tournaments, with unforgettable performances littered throughout his often troubled career, is shaded by his fellow Dubliner – just.
And what about Roy? Where to begin with the Corkman. A career in green as complex as it was colourful, scattered with moments of true greatness. For my money, the best player the Premier League has ever seen and a man who still affects and helps shape the current Irish squad in his role as Martin O’Neill’s assistant. Not a bad CV.
But just 67 caps and, in the end, one major tournament. Roy’s Irish career had too many ‘What Ifs’ and you don’t have to be Mick McCarthy to argue that it simply does not rival Robbie’s.
Keane – Robbie, that is – has netted some of the biggest goals ever scored by an Irish player. Whenever a piece of magic was required, number 10 was number one… the ultimately ill-fated play-off against Turkey in 1999; two years later, in a similar fixture that this time had a happy ending, against Iran on our way to the 2002 World Cup – and not forgetting, in that qualifying campaign, his headed opener against Holland as Ireland drew 2-2 at the Amsterdam Arena.
In that World Cup, only two players would find the net against Germany – the Brazilian Ronaldo, twice, famously, in the final as he exorcised his own personal demons from 1998 – and, even more famously, Keane in the dying seconds of our Group E clash with Oliver Kahn and Co, sending beer flying everywhere on all four corners of the island.
In qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Keane netted five to make him our group’s joint top scorer – he then found the net in the play-off in the Stade de France before Thierry Henry handpassed to William Gallas for a goal that had more than a hint of squareball about it, if memory serves…
The mere mention of Euro 2012 may send a shiver down the spine of Irish fans after what eventually became of Giovanni Trapattoni’s team in Poland and the Ukraine – but it’s easy to forget Robbie bagged five goals in qualifying there too, and added another pair against Estonia in the play-off.
Placing Robbie at the very top of the Irish totem pole sits uneasily with many and it’s hard to figure why.
Sometimes, perhaps, he over-elaborated on the ball, particularly while still gripped by the insouciance of youth. And maybe he didn’t seem like the type who would have harried, harassed and harangued opponents the way we loved our lads to do in the Jack Charlton era.
No one, after all, loves a player who just seems to run around a lot and ‘get stuck in’ as much as us Irish.
But asked to pick any country’s best player of all time, it’s hard to imagine that country’s top goalscorer not being in the conversation. In France, the aforementioned Henry’s 51 goals in 123 caps leave him 10 ahead of Platini.
In Germany, Miroslav Klose and Gerd Muller top the list although both would lose out to Beckanbauer in the ‘Greatest Of all Times’ stakes. How could you have a discussion about England’s best ever without mentioning Wayne Rooney, Bobby Charlton or Gary Lineker?
In Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo; in Scotland, Kenny Dalglish and Denis Law; in Argentina it’s Lionel Messi and, in Brazil, it’s a chap called Pele.
Closer to home, the goalscoring records make even starker reading. Niall Quinn is one of the country’s most lovable sons. He smiled and winked his way through a career that saw him first appear at Arsenal, make a name for himself at Manchester City and form one of the deadliest strike partnerships the English top flight has ever seen with Kevin Phillips at Sunderland.
But Niall’s 21 Irish strikes took him 92 caps to record. In doing so, he passed Frank Stapleton by just one, with Frank’s score of goals taking him 72 appearances.
It can be pointed out that Quinn, Stapleton et al played parts of their career at a time when Ireland did not qualify for major tournaments and, of course, Quinn missed USA 94 with a serious injury.
But the fact is Robbie Keane played in some of the poorest Irish teams of the past 30 years. He soldiered through the early (and very late) days under McCarthy, the Steve Staunton and Brian Kerr eras and the rock bottom that was Euro 2012. He was there when we ‘had a Macedonia’ in 1999 and when we subsequently had a Cyprus seven years later… still, he managed to score goals all along the way.
In reality, Robbie’s real worth will only be truly felt when he is gone and goals prove hard to come by. Shane Long is a fine striker and truly deserving of his improved status at Southampton. But his 16 goals in 67 caps puts him in the same bracket as Jon Walters (41 caps, 10 goals) and Kevin Doyle (62, 14) – game, honest and always a threat, but not in Robbie’s class, unfortunately.
Will we ever see another Robbie Keane? Sadly, probably not. But wasn’t it something while it lasted.
Eric Haughan, Pundit Arena