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Dublin: 18 °C Saturday 24 August, 2019

What now for Ireland's Robbie Brady?

The Dubliner looks set to spend the season with Norwich in the Championship.

Image: Thibault Camus

THE TWO ROBBIES, Brady and Keane, were very much at the forefront of last night’s Ireland-Oman game.

The younger Robbie picked up where he left off at Euro 2016, delivering a goal and an assist as the Boys in Green breezed past a team who looked like they’d rather be anywhere other than the Aviva.

And of course, the older Robbie celebrated his final Ireland appearance in fitting fashion, scoring a 68th international goal to bring him level with German legend Gerd Muller in the all-time scoring list.

Moreover, aside from natural footballing talent, the two Robbies have something else in common — during the course of their respective careers, both have been played away from their natural positions at times.

Amid the many glowing tributes in various columns over the weeks, there has been one recurring criticism of the departing Ireland skipper. While he was superb at international level, there was a sense that Keane never quite fulfilled his potential at club level.

Granted, Keane is 13th on the list of all-time top Premier League goalscorers, so you can’t accuse him of drastically underachieving either. But, in 12 seasons of Premier League football, Keane’s best tally during a campaign was 16 goals — decent for most players but a little disappointing by his high standards.

Speaking after last night’s match, Martin O’Neill urged Shane Long to be a “great goalscorer” rather than a “scorer of great goals,” and interestingly enough, people made the exact same criticism of Keane during the early part of his career.

The regular moving between clubs didn’t help, but Ireland’s record goalscorer was also unlucky in the sense that his footballing peak coincided with 4-4-2 rapidly going out of fashion.

Consequently, there was almost a suspicion of Keane at times, with sides increasingly going with a powerful Didier Drogba-esque frontman, supplemented by two wingers/attacking midfielders or a number 10, as opposed to the classic big-man-little-man combo that got the best out of the Tallaght native.

At Tottenham, Keane was also regularly in competition with Defoe, with the widespread perception being that the two ‘small’ strikers could not play together up front.

While Keane had sustained spells of success, particularly at Tottenham, there were also several intermittent periods of frustration. At various points during his Leeds, Liverpool and Spurs career, he was played out of position on the wing. Moreover, if he started up front and didn’t score inside the opening 60 minutes, he was often either shunted out wide or substituted.

These positional issues and the lack of complete faith in his scoring ability perhaps partially explain why Keane never had a Premier League season where the goals really flowed, in the manner that they invariably did for players such as Drogba, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Fernando Torres and Thierry Henry around that same era.

And conversely, the fact that he is more or less guaranteed 90 minutes and is the unquestioned number one striker to an extent shows why he has scored so freely for LA Galaxy and Ireland (the inferior standard is also a big factor, of course).

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Everton v Tottenham Hotspur - Goodison Park Like Brady, Keane was sometimes played out of position at Tottenham, Liverpool and Leeds. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Consequently, Robbie Brady could perhaps learn something from Keane’s past issues. Had Keane moved to a club intent on playing him constantly in his main position, he may well have been even more successful than he was at Premier League level.

Brady, though he is a completely different type of player to Keane, currently faces a similar conundrum, in that he is being asked to alternate between different positions — left-back and midfield — at both club and international level.

Last night against Oman, Brady still impressed in attack and was rarely tested in defence. There is perhaps an argument to play him at left-back against weaker sides, as it gives Ireland an extra attacking dimension and allows Brady more space to run into and extra room to deliver his frequently superb crosses, one of which Jon Walters scored from last night.

The downside, however, is that Brady is not a natural defender by any means. On a number of occasions now, the 24-year-old has been error prone at the back.

In the Premier League last season, only Aston Villa conceded more goals than Norwich, and Brady was as culpable as any of their other defenders, as we’ve looked at already here.

And worryingly, the Dubliner doesn’t appear to have shown any marked improvement since then.

The former St Kevin’s Boys footballer was criticised for his performance last weekend, as Birmingham comfortably beat Norwich.

Amid the 3-0 defeat, Paddy Davitt, chief Norwich FC writer for the Eastern Daily Press, tweeted that the Brady at left-back “experiment” wasn’t working.

Meanwhile, journalist Melissa Rudd added: “Robbie Brady’s part in the first goal was more proof of the Irishman’s drop in form. With Martin Olsson injured he will continue to deputise at left back, but his tendency to ball watch proved costly again, a concerning continuation of his poor start to the campaign.”

After a nomination for the club’s player-of-the-season award last year, Norwich fans are also beginning to turn on Brady, with some calling for him to be dropped and accusing the player of losing his love for the club amid rumours of a transfer elsewhere.

The Irish international was heavily linked with a move to reigning Premier League champions Leicester in the summer, but the Foxes are understood to have ultimately been put off by the Canaries’ excessive asking price.

And indeed, perhaps doubts about the player’s defensive capabilities also played a part in preventing him from securing the Premier League move he clearly needs.

Yet the past week must have been frustrating for Brady, with several of his Irish teammates earning big last-minute moves while he remains stuck with Norwich until January at least.

The current situation represents a stark contrast to the euphoria of Euro 2016, when Brady — along with Jeff Hendrick — was widely regarded as Ireland’s most impressive player.

Significantly though, the former Man United youngster’s best performances in the tournament were as a midfielder rather than a defender, and surely his long-term future lies away from left-back.

While managers love players who are versatile, generally it’s in a player’s best interests to be kept in one specific area of the field.

Keane’s career suffered to an extent as he was played out of position too often, and Brady’s will too if Norwich and Ireland persist with the flawed left-back experiment.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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