Keane has won the struggle with me and many more sceptics
Striker is a man of rare gifts, and for all we moan about his wastefulness, his selfishness, his maddening inconsistency, we’re going to miss him when he’s gone
In the final scene of 1984, Winston Smith sits in a cafe, absently moving pieces around a chessboard between eye-watering slugs of oily gin.
His reverie is broken by the trumpet blast that announces news of a great military victory. Brimming with emotion, he stares at the face of Big Brother that gazes down from a screen on the wall. All his adult life he has resisted the dictator but now he is ready to give in.
“O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
For a long time now I have been moaning about Robbie Keane. He’s stopped affecting big matches, he’s holding back the evolution of the team, he’s just hanging around waiting for penalties. We’d play better with a strong, mobile striker like Shane Long, or a creative link-man like Wes Hoolahan, etc. etc.
Then he comes on against Georgia and buries your logic with five goals in the next 135 minutes of international football.
There were thousands of Keane sceptics at Lansdowne Road but at the end all you could hear was “Keeeanooo”. As the ball hit the net for his hat-trick on Friday I wasn’t the only one having a Winston Smith moment.
Opponents don’t come much weaker than the Faroe Islands, but if it was easy to score lots of goals against weaker teams, Robbie Keane wouldn’t be the only Irishman who’s ever been able to do it.
One mark of a good goalscorer is the ability to score different types of goal, and when you look back over Keane’s 59 you might be surprised at his range.
Although he is right-footed, only Niall Quinn, Frank Stapleton, Don Givens, John Aldridge and Tony Cascarino have scored more goals for Ireland than the 14 Keane has scored with his left foot.
His willingness to shoot with his weaker foot shows his understanding of a basic rule of goalscoring: it’s more important to surprise the goalkeeper than to burst the net.
He’s never been admired for aerial ability yet he has scored seven headers for Ireland. He’s scored 10 penalties and missed only one. Excluding headers and penalties, he’s scored 21 goals from first-time finishes, and 21 after controlling the ball.
Twenty three of his goals have come from crosses, another five from knock-downs; 13 from through-balls. Others he made for himself, including four strikes from outside the box.
He is quick, but not fast, wiry, but not powerful, and the reason he has scored so many goals is his exceptional speed of reaction, which gives him the extra fractions of metres and seconds the best goalscorers always find.
He has something else too – a kind of fighter-pilot quality of nervelessness. Thirty seven of his 59 goals have come in competitive matches.
When a player sticks around for as long as Keane there is a danger that familiarity makes you forget how exceptional they really are. Few of us are blessed with the sang-froid Keane showed to score against the best teams in Europe: Germany, Spain, Italy, France.
To illustrate the difference between Keane and an ordinary person, I need only think back to the first time I interviewed him. It was 2002, and Keane was the first Ireland player I had interviewed one-on-one except for Niall Quinn, who understood how inexperienced I was and helped me through the process like Stephen Kelly with the kid journalists in the viral ad 3 released last week.
Keane was promoting a football video game. I was a starstruck 22-year-old, dry-mouthed and sweaty-palmed as a PR man ushered me into the room where Keane waited with several members of his family.
Robbie had obviously done a few interviews already and I could see that all the Keanes were impatient to get out of there.
I had a problem with my recording gear and scrabbled to get it working while apologising for keeping everyone waiting. Eventually I started mumbling my questions, while the PR hovered and the Keane family suppressed smirks.
I felt their eyes burning into me and irrational panic took hold. I couldn’t concentrate on Keane’s answers and my mind began to race. Suddenly it went completely blank.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I stared helplessly. Keane grinned. “Is it your first day?” The other Keanes roared laughing. I still cringe to think of it.
I eventually found it in my heart to forgive myself: that’s inexperience for you. But not everyone is so pathetic on their first day in the job.
Robbie Keane was only 17 the first time he played for Ireland in Dublin. While I found myself hopelessly intimidated by a PR guy and some sceptical family members, he was undaunted by Argentina’s 98 World Cup team and 45,000 spectators. He didn’t freeze, he didn’t panic, he didn’t retrospectively justify failure with excuses about inexperience.
He just set about proving he was a natural-born international footballer.
Friday was a night to remember that Robbie Keane is a man of rare gifts, and for all we moan about his wastefulness, his selfishness, his maddening inconsistency, we’re going to miss him when he’s gone.