OPINION: It's high time to give Robbie Keane the appreciation he deserves

Newstalk's Raf Diallo on one of the great Irish sporting careers

At the top sits Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas. A little further back is another Magical Magyar in the shape of Sandor Kocsis. Just behind them are two German goal machines, Miroslav Klose and Gerd Muller.

And the next row below them, you see the Irish tricolour, the number 67 and a name: Robbie Keane.

Among European footballers, the Tallaght native is fifth on the all-time list of international goalscorers.

After 18 years of stellar service in the green shirt, that column which is headed by the title “Career Span”, will now read “1998-2016” as he retires from Ireland duty after the friendly against Oman on August 31st.

Keane’s international career is a testament to longevity and dedication. Given his status and past exploits, he could have gone to Euro 2016 and perhaps sulked that he didn’t get more than the few minutes in the opening group draw against Sweden.

But no, he went to France as one of the reserve strikers and by all accounts, just like the recently retired goalkeeper Shay Given, was a positive voice in the dressing room.

Yet there has always been a sense that for all his Ireland goals and for all he put into representing this country, the 36-year-old is not appreciated enough - that he is regarded as an afterthought when the greatest Irish sportspeople of all time are being listed.

It’s a point another great Irish servant Damien Duff more than echoed when he spoke to Newstalk’s Team 33 before the Euros.

"I think it's a bit of a disgrace sometimes because for me, he's a friend, but he's been an amazing player to play with.

"People say he hasn't scored big goals. He has scored big goals in big games and that's coming from me, who scored eight petty little goals," Duff told me back in March. The former winger, who came through together with Keane at underage level in Brian Kerr’s excellent sides, added that it's only when Keane retires that people will realise just how good he was, and what he achieved for this country.

We’re about to find out how true that really is.

Irish fans have surely celebrated every one of his goals, but despite claims to the contrary, he can’t be accused of not scoring at crucial moments for Ireland.

After exploding on to the international stage against Czech Republic, he found the net away against the Dutch in the 2002 qualifiers, and there was a late equaliser against Italy in Bari en route to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup playoffs.

On that infamous night in Paris in 2009, he scored the only goal in normal time at the Stade de France, finding space in the box as he so often did and converting a Duff cross. We all know what happened next, which meant Keane’s contribution to the occasion was overshadowed.

He also scored three times at the 2002 World Cup, including an unforgettable late, late equaliser against Germany when he pounced to convert a flick-on from Niall Quinn. A former strike-partner, and the player who sits behind Keane on the all-time Irish top scorers list, he also recently paid tribute to Keane, who outscored him by more than 40 goals in a green jersey.

"At the time he was scoring goals, the country then went into an awful financial abyss, and reading stories about him doing so well for himself probably came at the wrong time, because there would have been a bit of jealousy in the air,” said Quinn. “But that was all pushed to one side because he just kept scoring. I was the first one to call him a national treasure, which he gave out to me for. But that’s the way it turned out, and his place in Irish sports history is assured, guaranteed.”

Of course, Keane is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, to borrow a phrase from the American sporting lexicon, but still the critics have persisted in the face of outstanding achievement. He may be guaranteed a place in history, but there has always been a nagging doubt from some parts of the public.

“He was never under-praised in our house, put it that way,” responds Quinn. “I always knew the value of Robbie Keane, and he extended my Ireland career for a few years towards the end of my time, going into the squad at such a young age.”

Sure, there were some goals against the likes of Gibraltar. But the ‘figures’ quoted by people when they say he has only scored against minnows are empirically false. Percentage-wise, two-thirds of his international goals came in competitive fixtures, including an era between 2002 and 2012 when Ireland were a far cry from the force they had been in the late 1980s.

And lest we forget, Keane was regarded as one of the most promising young players in Europe at the turn of the millennium, so much so that Inter Milan made a beeline to add him to their squad. That move didn’t work out but he remained highly regarded on the continent long after that.

The path his club career followed is something else that Keane gets some criticism for. Despite his early promise, he didn’t perhaps establish himself as a world class player in the traditional sense. Bar his time at Inter and a brief but unsuccessful few months at Liverpool under Rafa Benitez, he never played for any of Europe’s elite clubs. His time at Liverpool saw him find the back of the net just seven times in 28 games, but his goalscoring record was healthy elsewhere. Wolves and Coventry City fans will remember a youngster who hit double figures each season before Inter came calling.

He was a regular goalscorer at Tottenham, breaching the 20-goal mark in all competitions for two seasons on the bounce from 2006 on.

“One of the great players, great character,” raved Harry Redknapp, when he described his former Spurs player on a recent visit to Dublin. “He went to America, and is still a superstar. He could have gone over there, took the money. But that’s Robbie isn’t it? Wherever he goes, he only knows one way. He works his socks off.” 

When he put pen to paper on that deal to make the move to Hollywood, fans reached into their locker and pulled out a hoary old favourite, as he described the transfer as a “dream come true.” It was clear he probably meant that at Liverpool more than anywhere else, but while playing in Major League Soccer might not be a dream that players on this side of the world think about when they close their eyes, you’d hardly expect Keane to show up to LA and say “I’m just here to pick up a good-sized pay cheque.”

That’s never been, and will never be his style. As Redknapp emphasised, it’s not as though Keane has gone Stateside and not lifted a finger (or foot, as it were). Quite the opposite. He has scored goals galore for Galaxy, shown an incredible level of commitment and made far more of an impact on the field than his former team-mate David Beckham did.

Indeed, you could ask the question: has there been a foreign superstar player who has made more of an on-field impact in the MLS?

Aside from continuing to find the net regularly, he still made himself available for Ireland and the long flights over the Atlantic, even when his once-secure place in the starting XI had faded away.

You almost forget that as Robbie Brady headed in the winner against Italy at Euro 2016, Keane had been about to take to the field. But the goal changed the thinking entirely, and he returned to the bench. Yet, as his Instagram account showed, he was at the heart of the celebrations in the Lille dressing room, beaming from ear to ear.

 

Proud to be Irish 🇮🇪 well done lads 👊🏻🍀🇮🇪🇮🇪🇮🇪🇮🇪🇮🇪

A photo posted by Robbie Keane (@robbiekeane) on

All good things must come to an end, but we are closing the book on a player whose 67 international goals will, in all likelihood, never be matched by another Irish player again.

Hopefully, Damien Duff is right and the real appreciation for Robbie Keane’s achievements on the field for Ireland will blossom after his retirement. For the 67 times he made Boys in Green fans lift their arms into the air in celebration, it is the least he deserves.

Go raibh maith agat, Robbie.