SportSoccer

Martin O'Neill says Robbie Keane is still his best striker

SoccerBy Kevin Palmer
Robbie Keane set for Ireland recall against Poland
Robbie Keane set for Ireland recall against Poland

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill believed Robbie Keane’s international career was over when he joined LA Galaxy – but he now views the 34-year-old as his most potent attacking weapon.

O’Neill was in charge at Sunderland when Keane swapped Tottenham for Hollywood in the summer of 2011, with many joining O’Neill in suspecting Ireland’s all-time record scorer had opted to bring down the curtain on his international career.

Yet three-and-a-half years later, the tactician now charged with guiding our national team into the Euro 2016 finals has admitted he was wrong to write off the Dubliner whose appetite to play for his country is not waning almost 17 years into his unfathomable Ireland story.

The date of March 25th 1998 is etched into Irish soccer folklore as the occasion when Keane and Damien Duff made their senior Ireland debuts against the Czech Republic and all these years on, our qualifying hopes for major tournaments may still rest in the hands of a player whose longevity is as impressive as his scoring statistics.

So while some of Keane’s critics were pleased to see O’Neill leave Ireland’s No.10 out of his starting line-up for the deflating 1-0 Euro 2016 qualifying defeat against Scotland back in November, the events of that night served to confirm that we need him more than ever.

Keane may not be the player he once was and playing as the lone striker is a job he has never been suited to, but when chances fall in the box, there is one player in the latest Ireland squad named by O’Neill who is more likely to take that chance than anyone else.

Shane Long, Kevin Doyle, Jon Walters and Daryl Murphy have all been included in the selection for the must win Group D game against Poland, but O’Neill suspects the legend plying his trade in the MLS still has a big role to play.

“When he went to America, there was a feeling that Robbie may have run his course with Ireland,” admitted O’Neill. “Looking from a distance and without giving it any fantastic consideration at the time, I thought maybe that was it for him.

“He considered his Premier League days to be over and his international career as well, but then he said he wanted to carry on playing for Ireland when I came into the job; watching him training, his enthusiasm is there is abundance.

“He is not just doing this to put on a show for myself or anyone else, I believe he genuinely has a desire to continue playing for Ireland and his performances show that his passion to play is as strong as ever.

“Can Robbie play up front on his own at the age of 34? It might even be difficult for a 28-year-old Robbie to play that role and as the years go on it gets harder, but he still has so much to offer.

“Look at the list of players in the squad there and the number 65 next to Robbie’s name in his goal tally column says all you need to know. To score that many goals is remarkable and until we find someone who can step up and take that role in the side, Robbie has a big role to play for us.”

While most countries boasting a goalscorer of Keane’s standing would cherish his presence for as long as he’s willing to commit to the international cause,the Tallaght man has always attracted begrudging snipes from an army of detractors.

His protestations towards referees, his perceived balance issues in a penalty box and his record agains the very best sides are among the sticks that have been used to beat Keane with down the years, much to O’Neill’s bemusement.

“Robbie is not popular with all football fans in Ireland, is this what you are telling me?” replied a confused and surprised O’Neill, as he was presented with the suggestion that Keane is not universally loved by soccer fans all over the country.

“I didn’t realise that, I genuinely didn’t. I always thought he was considered to be a great goal scorer by the supporters here, nothing more than that.

“Just look at his record, it’s incredible. The number of goals he has scored, the number of games he has played. I’d like to think he is well thought of here, but now I’m informed that isn’t always the case and it would surprise me greatly.”

Finding a role for Keane may be the key to O’Neill’s hopes of sustaining his side’s push for a Euro 2016 place, with that defeat in Scotland a hammer blow that leaves Ireland walking a tightrope heading into the Poland game on March 29.

A revived Polish side that beat Germany in October have left O’Neill cursing his luck to find his side in what many have reminded him is a qualifying ‘Group of Death’.

“People in the game have been telling me that this is the toughest group and there is no doubt it is,” reflected O’Neill.

“Poland have their tails up, Germany are the best team in Europe and there is a renaissance for Scotland under Gordon Strachan. “We are at home against Poland in a couple of weeks and we will go and try and win the game.

“Of course we are confident. We went into the Scotland game high on confidence after a great result out in Germany, but confidence is a strange thing.

“I heard some people say Ireland didn’t turn up in Scotland and that is not fair in my view.

“There was nothing in the game, there were only a few chances and their goal came after we took ages to prepare for a corner kick. Set-pieces are deciding games these days, you have to be ready.

"Poland have got off to a great start in the group, their confidence is sky high, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be beaten.”

The obituaries for Robbie Keane’s international career may have been crafted when he was dropped for the Scotland qualifier in November, but this indefatigable goalscoring great refuses to accept his time is up.