Following Padraig Harrington’s recent, surprising, win at the Honda Classic, the Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show on Today FM asked their listeners to pick ‘Ireland’s greatest sportsperson‘.
Debates of this nature don’t tend to achieve a whole lot, and comparing different sports isn’t an exact science, but they still provide an insight into the tastes and interests of Irish sports fans. The listening public settled on jockey A.P. McCoy in first place, ahead of Brian O’Driscoll, Harrington, Katie Taylor and former cyclist Sean Kelly.
The absence of any footballer was noticeable, if not unexpected. Though the perception of the Republic of Ireland team has improved since Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane replaced Giovanni Trapattoni, the side are currently in a dogfight to qualify for Euro 2016 and the ‘Ole Ole’ brigade have seemingly moved on since the harsh realities of international football became apparent.
If one footballer was to make a list like the one on Ian Dempsey’s show, most would most likely opt for either Roy Keane or Paul McGrath. Any mention of Robbie Keane would probably be met with raised eyebrows and a series of ‘boyhood clubs’ jokes. Our site conducted a Sports Personality of the 2014 poll and Katie Taylor won, with 32.8% of the 2,665 votes, while Keane received five.
That’s five votes, not five per cent. The Ireland captain finished second last, with 0.19 per cent of votes.
It’d be wrong to single out some of twenty-nine others who finished ahead of Keane, but it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest most Irish sports fans would fail to recognise a few of them if they walked by them in the street.
In 2014, Keane won MLS, was named the league’s best player and scored the winning goal in the cup final, while also scoring goals for Ireland. A failure to recognise the player’s achievements conveys a greater malaise about Ireland’s record goalscorer, and perhaps public perception of football in general.
However, without seeking to enter a ‘my sport is better than yours’ trivial debate (can’t we all just get along?), the failure to contextualise and appreciate Robbie Keane’s commitment to the Irish national team, his ability and achievements is dumbfounding.
And it won’t be long before he’s a former Irish international.
Since making his international debut in March 1998, Keane has scored 65 goals in 138 internationals and is currently the twelfth highest goalscorer in the history of international football. The only Europeans to have scored more are Miroslav Klose, Gerd Muller, Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis.
Klose and Muller are World Cup winners, while the latter two played for one of the greatest sides ever, the Hungary team of the early 1950s. Puskás even played for Spain for a while.
Keane never had the luxury of switching to another international side, or team mates of that quality to set him up, yet he’s consistently scored goals across three decades of international football. Four months before his 35th birthday, Keane remains Ireland’s best chance to score a goal, yet he’s become something of a punch-line, for many, about ‘boyhood clubs’.
In addition to not adequately recognising the Dubliner’s achievements, it could be argued there’s never been a proper appreciation of just how good a footballer Keane was, and still remains.
Keane’s not a natural athlete, hence the trademark rolly-tumble goal celebration, but what he’s always possessed is great finishing ability, intelligence and wonderful movement. Keane’s 65 international goals are testament to his quality as a player, not some by-product of always starting for Ireland and beefing up his tally against cannon fodder. The striker has scored almost every key international Irish goal for over a decade.
From the last-minute World Cup goals against Spain and Germany to goals away to the Netherlands, France, and Italy, it’d be unfair to ever label him a flat-track bully. Anyway, if it was that easy to even score against the perceived minnows, the team wouldn’t still be reliant on Keane to score goals, and he wouldn’t be the top goalscorer to come from these islands.
Keane’s movement alone deserves considerable merit, an aspect of his game his former manager Gordon Strachan was particularly impressed by. ‘Where did you learn your movement from?’ the then Coventry boss asked Keane, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’.
‘I dunno’ Keane replied. ‘I didn’t learn it off anyone, it must have been something that just came to me. It wasn’t like somebody came and grabbed me and said, “Do this, do that,” you know. In training you learn little things, different movements, like coming to get the ball and spinning off… It was just something I must have just had as a kid’.
Keane’s a street footballer, honing his skills playing football growing up on a housing estate Tallaght, where space is a valuable commodity.
The striker would’ve been pitted against bigger, stronger opponents, but football’s beauty lies that skill and spatial awareness make such physical qualities redundant. If we could somehow attach Shane Long’s legs to Keane’s brain, the Irish team post-Keane wouldn’t seem so bleak.
Keane’s best spell in club football was alongside Dimitar Berbatov, an equally cerebal player. The two struck up a wonderful partnership at Tottenham Hotspur, before departing for Liverpool and Manchester United respectively in 2008.
Keane’s record in the Premier League also deserves recognition and contextualising. The Dubliner scored 126 goals in the English top flight, the twelfth highest amount and ahead of players such as Didier Drogba, Nicholas Anelka and his soon to be LA Galaxy team-mate Steven Gerrard.
If an Irish player joining the Premier League now was to make 126 appearances in the English top flight, never mind scoring 126 goals, it would be seen as a considerable achievement.
Even Keane’s record in MLS seems strangely overlooked back home. Observers of the major European leagues may consider it a footballing backwater, but players with greater talent and significantly higher profiles, such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry, haven’t performed as well as ‘the unidentified fan’ in MLS.
Keane certainly hasn’t treated his time in LA as a semi-retirement gig.
In an era when the young Irish player of the year may end up playing for another country, and players seemingly treat international breaks as a nuisance, Keane consistently shows up when it’d be easier to stay at home, 5,000 miles away.
This isn’t an argument claiming Robbie Keane is Ireland’s greatest ever footballer or sports person, but more an examination of why he’s excluded from such debates, which lack obvious context.
Katie Taylor is the best in the world at what she does, it would be pure ignorance to dispute that and completely wrong. The Irish rugby team proved last weekend they are the best team in Europe and contenders for the World Cup, while Gaelic footballers and hurlers deserve considerable credit and admiration for their levels of dedication.
However, professional football is in a different stratosphere, in terms of competitiveness, to women’s amateur boxing, rugby and Gaelic games. 209 nations play international football, that’s more footballing nations than actual officially recognised countries, and, of those, 54 play in Europe, the most competitive and wealthiest football continent.
For Ireland to even be competitive is achievement, given that we are country with fewer playing resources and less developed infrastructure than a lot of those we come up against.
This isn’t an attempt to belittle other sports, but just a reminder to those who use Irish success in other sports as a tool to belittle the Irish team. Something that will likely happen if Ireland lose to Poland on Sunday, a week after the Irish Rugby team won the Six Nations.
No-one will ever better Robbie Keane’s goalscoring or appearance record for Ireland. As it becomes harder and harder for Irish players to break into teams across the water, it’s difficult to imagine anyone scoring more Premier League goals, let alone have a career spanning three decades.
And as football continues to be homogenised, we’re unlikely to see another street footballer like Keane again. Such players are becoming extinct, as academy clones continue to be mass produced.
Keane isn’t as polished as Brian O’Driscoll, as interesting as Roy Keane or as flawed as Paul McGrath. He’s just a footballer from Tallaght who’s had a brilliant career, and deserves suitable recognition. He should not be a punchline about having numerous boyhood clubs or for failing to be recognised by someone writing a picture caption in Los Angeles.
We’ll miss him when he’s gone, and, if Ireland don’t record a positive result against Poland on Sunday, that might not be too far away.