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Ignore the haters, Robbie Keane is Ireland's best-ever striker

The veteran striker announced his international retirement today.

Robbie Keane has scored 67 goals for Ireland.
Robbie Keane has scored 67 goals for Ireland.
Image: Niall Carson

IN SPORT, EVEN the best players invariably come in for heavy criticism at times.

The reaction to Lionel Messi’s performance in the 2015 Copa America final highlighted the fickle nature of the footballing public, as does the regular vilification of Cristiano Ronaldo, particularly when playing for Portugal.

While he’s certainly no Messi or Ronaldo in terms of ability, Robbie Keane is another high-profile footballer who is no stranger to heavy criticism and who knows how it feels to carry the burden of a nation on his shoulders.

Read any online article about Keane and the comments section will invariably contain at least a few people looking to detract from his achievements. Similarly, talk to football fans in any pub in the country and there’ll always be at least one to suggest Keane was never a ‘great’ player. There’s probably even a few pundits who will claim Keane was not a ‘top, top footballer,’ while adding clichéd and slightly patronising remarks about his ‘spirit’ and tendency to be ‘a great person to have in the dressing room’.

Yet, at this stage, Keane — who announced his retirement from international football today — must surely be regarded, at the very least, as Ireland’s greatest-ever striker.

One common theme in Keane’s career is people doubting him, only for the Ireland striker to show impressive resilience to recover and develop into an exceptional talent regardless.

Alex Ferguson has admitted to regretting not signing Keane as a 16-year-old when his son Darren informed him of the player’s prodigious qualities at Wolves.

After impressive spells at Molineux and thereafter with Coventry, Keane was snapped up by Inter Milan in 2000 for an eye-watering €18 million. However, after less than five months in Italy and a change of manager, Keane’s future Ireland assistant manager Marco Tardelli would deem him surplus to requirements and sell the youngster to Leeds — a decision that, like Ferguson previously, Inter would later admit to regretting.

Despite nine goals in his first 14 starts for Leeds, again Keane was doubted by manager Dave O’Leary, and he slipped down the pecking order, with the likes of Alan Smith and Mark Viduka invariably preferred in attack.

At Tottenham, Keane finally found a club where he enjoyed sustained success, but even in this instance, the player had to fight for a first-team spot, with players such as Jermain Defoe, Frederic Kanoute and Mido initially preferred in attack.

Nonetheless, the striker ultimately repaid the faith shown in him by then-Spurs manager Martin Jol, in the form of an increasingly prolific strike rate — 2007 will surely be remembered as the best in Keane’s career, as he managed a higher scoring tally than any other Premier League player in the calendar year, with 31 goals and 13 assists from 40 starts, before winning a rare League Cup with the White Hart Lane outfit the following year.

Keane also became the first Tottenham player to reach double figures in the Premier League in six consecutive seasons, and this superb form prompted a big-money, €26 million move to Liverpool.

However, the striker’s move to Reds appeared destined to fail almost from the outset. Rafa Benitez, who was rumoured to be against the signing of the Irishman in the first place, often seemed reluctant to play Keane, invariably substituting the striker on the occasions when he did start. Again, an experienced manager was doubting Keane, and consequently, he was back at Tottenham just seven months after originally departing the club.

Keane seemingly using Tottenham as a fail-safe consequently didn’t appear to sit well with the London club’s fans, who were subsequently reluctant to embrace the Dubliner on his second spell at the club.

Therefore, following his disappointing stint at Liverpool, it wasn’t really until Keane joined LA Galaxy, when he was truly loved and appreciated again, with the striker flourishing as a result, deservedly gaining the MLS MVP last season.

Source: Chimpanzeethat/YouTube

LA Galaxy aside, Ireland are perhaps the only side that have shown unequivocal faith in Keane (until recently anyway), and as with the MLS side, he has repaid his country handsomely, becoming the all-time highest goalscorer with 67 goals in 145 appearances — a higher tally than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or any other player currently active in international football has managed.

And yet still Keane is criticised by some — he is accused of being a flat-track bully at international level, but while he has notched his fair share of efforts against teams such as Faroe Islands and Gibraltar, he has also contributed important goals against Holland, France and Italy among others for his country.

The veteran star is consequently likely to be best remembered for his form with Ireland when he does retire next week, but his status as the 13th-highest goalscorer in Premier League history can hardly be dismissed either.

Nevertheless, even still people doubt him, but has any other Irish striker done as much at international or club level as Keane? In terms of domestic football, people might argue Frank Stapleton or John Aldridge were superior, but neither can boast the level of sustained brilliance that Keane enjoyed and continues to enjoy to an extent in his career.

And while the Dubliner has had to cope with many managers and players doubting him over the course of a highly prolific footballing lifespan, one person who had remarkable faith in a 16-year-old Keane was then-manager at Wolves, Mark McGhee. And it was McGhee who gave the most fitting tribute to his former protege in the build-up to the Ireland-Scotland clash recently.

“We were going north on a tour to play some games so I took him with us and, by the time we came back, it was even more obvious he was our best player,” the current Scottish assistant boss recalled of his first proper encounter with Keane.

“So I had phoned ahead to tell the club to prepare a contract — not the usual ones you give to 16-year-olds but one that would take him through until he was 19.

“And then, by the end of pre-season, I was asking them to give him another one!

“By the start of the season I had decided he was going to play.

“He made his debut at Norwich and we won 2-0. He scored both goals. And at the end of the game, I phoned the club again and said: “Get another contract ready”.

“So Robbie signed three different contracts in the space of three months. He was brilliant — he still is.”

- This piece was originally published on 9 July 2015

The end of an era! Robbie Keane announces retirement from international football

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