Chasing a lofted ball high into the October night sky, the player pushed himself hard to gain possession before his marker could. Clamouring for space 40 yards from goal, he was fixated on winning this battle. Breathing heavily inside the match’s opening few minutes, he looked eager to make an impact in front of the thousands of home fans skirting the pitch.
Nipping in front of the right-back with expert ease and muscle, before zipping past him with the ball now at his feet, the attacker left his opponent for dead with a sudden injection of blistering pace; the crowd grew expectant. A few rose to their feet.
Peeling away from the periphery of the pitch, zoning in on the 18-yard box, the attacker looked primed to shoot straight for goal. Instead, he steadied himself with the ball glued to his feet. A covering defender had come rushing in to nullify the threat and shut down the assault as the assailant prowled nearer. He still had work to do – had he lost his chance to score?
Not yet. Dismissing a second challenge, this time from the imposing number 6, with a deft touch to lift the ball past the desperate lunge, he skipped onward, focusing himself on pushing further toward goal, leaving the prone defender behind him on the hard turf. The decibel level increased. Shouts went out. Match programs were crumpled with tense, cold hands; yet more stood up.
Biding his time, he eased closer. Now, a third defender, pulling in tight to block his advance seemed certain to bar his progress – and he still had the task of trying to beat the ‘keeper. Sensing his opportunity was now or never, he raised his head decisively and aimed for the far right post. Unleashing a delectably directed right-footed effort that curled past the custodian and covering defender, a final roar of delight went up from the crowd.
The ball had connected satisfyingly with the back of the net. Robbie Keane was the goalscorer.
Completing a wonderful brace just minutes after he had tucked the ball home from two yards, he then produced a celebration that was to become a trademark – synonymous with him and his keen eye for goal.
But these weren’t just any old couple of goals. These were his first two goals in Irish colours and they had arrived in a competitive match against Malta at just 18 years of age as the Republic of Ireland ran out convincing 5-0 winners at Lansdowne Road in a European Championship qualifier.
One in a sea of Keano goals, that strike heralded the beginning of a wonderful relationship between player and country. A rising prodigy, he already looked the complete striker – and he hasn’t looked back since.
A record-breaker and a frontier-eraser, Keane is now a true icon of the modern game. Ask just about any Irish fan what their favourite football memory is and you can bet the Dublin-born man from Tallaght would feature heavily in most.
Currently holding the record for most international goals scored among players still active today, his amazing tally of 67 strikes for the Irish team underlines just how gifted he truly is. He’s also the highest-scoring Irishman of all time, an accolade that includes being the first-ever Irish international to score a Premier League hat-trick. Not only that, but he’s in the top five European goal-scorers in history – just one goal adrift of equalling the great Gerd Müller’s national record.
In truth, his cup overflows with individual moments of brilliance like these, and there are so many more besides.
Being a man from an island nation, however, he’s always lived with the apparent torment of having never tasted major international silverware glory. For some, that would be enough to drive you to early retirement. Not Keane. A constant fixture in the senior Irish make-up for over 17 years, it’s something that seems to have fuelled his journey towards greatness.
Indeed, starved of any real international honours – aside from his under-18 championship win in Cyprus under the guidance of Brian Kerr – his epic club odyssey soon became sustenance for success; from his brace for Wolverhampton Wanderers on his full debut at age 17 right up to his extra-time winner for Bruce Arena’s LA Galaxy towards the end of 2014.
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Read | Robbie Keane’s doomed spell at Inter Milan
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While the international scene has certainly provided him with fantastic memories and fruitful friendships, it’s at club level where he’s snatched up his most guerdons. Carrying the same gung-ho attitude with him from team-to-team, he’s appeared for more than his fair share of clubs. Having togged-out for the likes of Aston Villa, Inter Milan, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Coventry City and Leeds United, he’s been quite the journeyman, netting 126 Premier League goals in 349 appearances, putting him among the highest scorers in the division’s history. His goalscoring knack is unquestionable.
His League Cup triumph with Spurs in 2008 along with his trio of fresh MLS Cup wins are arguably the main highlights of his club career. Small recompense really for a player who’s been around for so long. Most recently of all, he was named MLS’s Most Valuable Player for the 2014 campaign – a mighty achievement for the ageing LA star. Indeed, his capture of that accolade (although a slight indictment of the league’s overall strength) underlines his unquenchable capacity to rise above the rest of the pack time and again.
Long-range efforts, tap-ins, headers and even cheeky lobs – Keane’s repertoire revealed them all for Galaxy last season as they have done for years. In truth, he is the complete centre-forward, and he has always been, regardless of wherever he’s gone and played a healthy chunk of minutes.
Mind you, still some continue to question other strands of his character, like his loyalty. Pointing to the vast number of clubs he’s joined as flimsy validation, detractors often look down on Keane for hopping to and fro all too often.
One quick look at his international career really ought to vehemently dispel any doubts about his lack of fidelity. In truth, Keane’s continuous transfer from club to club merely suggests he loves a challenge. But one thing he loves more is being able to overcome them as his goals during the 2002 World Cup, as well as his strikes against international giants such as France, Colombia, Italy, Netherlands and Spain, all attest to.
Ultimately, the paradox of Keane is that he is a striker that doesn’t rely on his goals to prove himself. Despite having scored vast amounts for club and country, his most noticeable strength is also just a by-product of something hugely overlooked. He is Ireland’s captain. He is LA’s captain. Some might say he leads through goals alone. But that’s really not the case, and it’s an assertion that disregards a whole other side to his game. Harbouring an innate sense of conviction, the 36-year-old has always led by directing himself.
Going wherever he felt needed and doing whatever seemed right, he has conjured up wonderful memories for fans and teammates alike. Because while so many point to his goals as primary evidence of his brilliance, his longevity, keenness to succeed, loyalty and consistency year in, year out, are equally as impressive. After all, it’s precisely that infectious Irish bustle which continues to replenish his leadership, his youthful exuberance and, ultimately, his team’s confidence.
Vignettes of genius often get destroyed. And although time will do that to any player, Keane looks to be in little danger of seeing his portraits fade from view any time soon.
Training camp rifts, a lack of investment at grassroots from the FAI, unjust defeats and a lack of self-belief from some managers and investors alike – Keane has persisted in delivering the goods on the pitch for his nation in the midst of each of these cumbersome snags, and more. Time and again, he has successfully switched on the style to get important results, and he continued to make himself available for the betterment of the team, despite his advancing years.
Much like the run he embarked on to score his second-ever international goal against Malta on that memorable night back in 1998, Keane’s career has always been one of consistent progress. Driving forwards all the time, he’s rarely looked back. Striving to score – and achieve – new goals, he’s rarely rested on his laurels.
Labelling him the greatest Irishman to ever play the game might well ruffle a few feathers, but it’s certainly difficult to deny that he’s always been one of the most liked and one of the most motivated to succeed. Crafting a legacy that has spanned from Ireland to Britain to Italy and on to the United States, he’s successfully forged a truly unique story. Doing his best to conquer the footballing world, he has brought a smile to many a fan’s face.
Because while he looks destined to retire without a senior medal hanging from his emerald green jersey, his impact on the game in his homeland and beyond has been a sparkling glory in itself.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90