Ken Early: Robbie Keane's Ireland contribution doesn't end now
Given the occasion, Oman were probably the perfect opponents for friendly clash
Republic of Ireland goalscorer Jonathan Walters is tackled by with Oman’s Nadir Awadh Bashir Bait Mabrook last night. Photograph: Reuters
There were so many emotional farewells that if you didn’t know better, you might have thought Robbie Keane was about to get in a little boat and sail away to Valinor, the Undying Lands, there to dwell in eternity with Frodo, Gandalf and the elves, never to be seen again by the eyes of man.
It was relief to remember that tomorrow he’ll fly back to LA to spend another year or two bullying MLS defenders, before coming back to assume a leading role of some kind in Irish football.
There is nothing surer than that Keane will be back, though it might not happen immediately. It depends where the initial opportunities arise. He is regarded in American soccer circles as one of the steeliest professionals who ever came to play in their league and he is respected there not only for his talent but for his leadership qualities - a side of his personality which was not widely recognised during his years as a player in English football. So it could be that his first steps in coaching are taken in America.
But you can take it for granted that Robbie Keane wants to manage Ireland one day. The job might not always be as attractive as it is right now, padded as it is with extra wages from Denis O’Brien, but Keane has been successful enough as a player that his career choices need not be dictated by financial considerations.
You can easily imagine a situation where even a young and inexperienced Coach Keane might be the highest-profile candidate interested in the job. So, some of the biggest years of his Ireland career may yet lie ahead. There might even come a day when he is booed out of the stadium: it happens eventually to most of the Ireland managers.
Last night there was only appreciation, and if the formalities at times verged on overkill, there was also genuine warmth from the Irish supporters for a player who has given them more moments to celebrate than almost anyone else.
There was an indication of the fans’ fondness for Keane in the fact that 25,000 had turned up, at least 11,000 more than turned up the last time Ireland played Oman, the team with whom they are enjoying one of the great romances in international football.
It was the third meeting in four years of two sides that can’t seem to get enough of each other. From the sporting point of view it appears pointless to play friendlies against such a bad team, and from the commercial point of view Oman are hardly box office. Yet something about the relationship seems to work for the FAI. And last night, given the occasion, they were probably the perfect opponents.
So bad were Oman that Ireland could afford to play specifically to set up goals for the captain, testimonial style. On one comical occasion Keane actually jumped out of the way to allow Jon Walters a tap-in, but Walters had already left it to Keane.
Ireland were already leading 1-0 through Brady’s free-kick by the time Keane gave the crowd one last reminder of his brilliant instinctive gifts. He has always been a player who excelled when reacting and improvising in the moment, and his 68th and final goal beautifully showcased what is best about his game.
Brady created the opportunity with a clever early header, steered towards Walters, who helped it on into the box, where he knew Keane was lurking. With his first touch Keane flicked the ball over the head of the defender, and with the second he buried a volley past Faiz al Rushaidi.
“I could sense in the crowd that they were desperate for me to score the goal, I could sense it from the team and the staff as well,” he said in a special press conference after the match. “But I’ve played this game for a long time, there’s always opportunities going to come along. I flicked it over his head, it’s very hard for the defender to stop when you’re running that fast. I knew that, so it was just a matter of putting it away.”
He celebrated by rolling out his old cartwheel celebration, a little stiffer than it used to be, legs splayed in a way that would have cost him points in the Olympic gymnastics, but nobody minded.
“A lot of people have been asking me to do it,” he said. “I thought for the family, I’ll do it one last time. Maybe hang it up now.”
And with that he was gone, but probably not for long. Farewell, but not goodbye.