When you look back over the course of Irish sporting history and the legends we associate with certain sports, the usual names continuously pop up: Brian O’Driscoll in rugby, Henry Shefflin in hurling, Pádraig Harrington in golf… the list goes on.
All those names are either recently retired or currently competing at their profession. Yet, if you ask an Irish soccer fan to name a legend of the game they will probably immediately mention Roy Keane or Paul McGrath.
Keane retired from Ireland duty in 2005 with 67 caps, while McGrath departed in 1997 with 83 caps. Both players combined represented their country 150 times and both deserve their place in Irish history.
We all remember McGrath’s heroics against Italy in USA ’94 when he marked another legend, in the form of Roberto Baggio, out of the game. Roy Keane, too, will undoubtedly go down as one of our greatest captains. Aside from the antics in Saipan and no matter the side you were on, we can all still appreciate his greatness and his tackle on Marc Overmars that set the tempo for an historic win in that must-win qualifier against Louis van Gaal’s Dutch side.
While Jason McAteer stole the headlines for his great finish, Keane set up that win by leaving his mark early on in the game as he often did.
While both McGrath and Roy Keane will forever be Irish legends, it is amazing and a downright insult to Robbie Keane that he is not regarded as a legend in his own right for all he has done for Irish soccer to date. The Tallaght man, too, deserves to sit at the top table with both McGrath and Keane.
After 18 years of service to the green jersey – marked by 145 appearances and 67 goals – it is truly remarkable that some football supporters in Ireland don’t hold him in high regard.
If you look at the numbers of the top international goal scorers, Keane, with 67 goals in the colours of Ireland, is ahead of star players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic on 62, Samuel Eto’o on 56, Croatia’s Davor Suker on 45 and Thierry Henry, who finished his international career with 51 goals.
It’s easy to compare Robbie Keane with other international footballers and their stats, yet when you consider how often Ireland qualifies for major tournaments, and the small size of our country, and the tougher qualifying groups we received because we are a smaller, less successful nation, then producing the world’s 13th top international goal scorer (as things stand) is actually a remarkable achievement.
The Dubliner is only ten goals shy of Pele’s record (77) and, among European footballers, Keane is fifth on the all-time list of international goal scorers.
While Wednesday’s finale will offer Keane the opportunity to rise further up that chart, Oman, his final opponents in a green jersey, will give more ammunition to his begrudgers as another ‘lesser’ side that the 36-year-old has faced.
One of the most reoccurring criticisms is the number of goals Keane has scored against smaller nations. However, if people checked the facts, they would see from his first goals against Malta in October 1998, Keane has netted against top sides including Holland in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, Germany and Spain during that subsequent World Cup, against Italy en route to attempting to qualify for World Cup 2010 and against France in the famous play-off for that tournament.
He may have scored the majority of his goals against smaller sides, yet people forget those same goals helped Ireland qualify for major tournaments. As the old football saying goes: ‘You can only play who is in front of you’.
Keane was one of only two players to score against the impressive Oliver Kahn during the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, the other being the Brazilian great Ronaldo, who scored twice past the German in the final.
Keane also netted against Spain in that heartbreaking exit from that World Cup.
In November 2009, he scored one of his most important goals for Ireland in netting against Les Bleus in the Stade de France. What happened afterwards has been well documented but that night showed how Keane can rise to the occasion and, along with his team-mates, the Irish were hugely unlucky to be eliminated.
Keane has represented the Republic of Ireland at senior level for 18 years, having starred under age as part of Brian Kerr’s golden generation that won the UEFA Under 18 European Championship with Ireland in 1998.
Mick McCarthy is the man responsible for bringing Keane into the senior set up with Steve Staunton handing the captain’s armband to the striker following his appointment as manager. It is a role he has continued to hold too, albeit in a reduced capacity as an inspirational figure on the sidelines in more recent years.
The former Inter Milan, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur forward has played in three major tournaments for Ireland – the 2002 World Cup, Euro 2012 and Euro 2016 – while also being named the FAI Senior International Player of the Year in 2010 and 2013.
Following his move to LA Galaxy in 2011, Keane never let advancing years or air miles stop him from representing his country. Despite becoming a bit part player in recent times, his enthusiasm has not faltered and his presence around camp has been nothing short of inspiring for the likes of Seamus Coleman, Jeff Hendrick, Shane Long and Robbie Brady.
It is also nothing short of disrespectful that 22 years after USA ’94, we still hold star players of that era ahead of Robbie Keane in our ‘Legends’ list. While the likes of Paul McGrath and Roy Keane will forever hold a place at the top table of Irish stars, it is ludicrous to suggest that Robbie does not deserve to sit with them.
Niall Quinn previously held the record for most goals scored by an Irish international, and Keane has surpassed that mark by more than 40 goals at this stage. The challenge to replace this goals within the Irish set up will prove a testing one for Martin O’Neill and his management team.
It will be a long time – if ever – before anybody reaches the numbers Robbie Keane produced in his 18 years of service. So while the FAI no longer holds testimonial games for departing internationals, it is fitting that Keane will get the chance to say one last goodbye at the Aviva on Wednesday night.
We should be loud on our feet and applaud a man who deserves all the plaudits he will receive. As for the doubters, they too will realise all too late just what a player we had in Robbie Keane.
Damien McEvoy, Pundit Arena