Striker never stopped giving during an exemplary 18-year international career. One of the great love affairs of Irish sport has finally been ended. It’s not us, just to be clear here, it’s him. After 145 games and 67 goals, Robbie Keane is finally hanging up his international boots.
There will be one more game, against Oman next week, and if the visitors know anything about not spoiling an emotional moment, there will at least be one more goal too.
Keane will not be in the slimmed down squad that Martin O’Neill brings to Serbia for the opening game of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign a few days later.
It would have been his 10th campaign and almost all have ended with the Dubliner checking out as the team’s top scorer.
There were some finals as well, most memorably 2002 in Japan and South Korea where his equaliser against Germany remains, perhaps, his greatest moment in an Ireland shirt.
Good lord, there were a few to choose from.
Strangely there were always, it seemed, grumblings from a section of the supporters who felt entitled to more and occasionally the charge would be levelled that he didn’t score enough of his goals against the bigger teams in the bigger games.
The Dutch, Czechs and French, amongst others, could have disagreed with that, but the truth is that without Keane quite a few of the lesser sides would have looked a good deal bigger from an Irish perspective.
As international teams became better coached and significantly harder to break down, the striker won games for Ireland that many took for granted but which would not have been won without him.
The years inevitably caught up with him and that his time was up was ultimately underlined when he started the home game against Georgia in the qualifiers for Euro2016 but proved incapable of making an impression. He still went to France and was a hugely positive influence as captain. But he was peripheral to the team and so the news of his retirement was not surprising.
“Robbie’s appearances and goals for Ireland speak for themselves,” said Martin O’Neill, the fifth full-time Ireland manager that he played for. “He is undoubtedly one of Ireland’s finest every players and it will take us some time to get over his absence.”
“He was a joy to manage,” said Mick McCarthy, the first. “He is a terrific footballer and at the age of 18 he used to light up the place in training. Whether we played home or away, he still played with the same joy. He was like a street footballer that just loved playing.”
If evidence was required that his departure is an event of national significance then it is worth noting that President Michael D Higgins was amongst those to offer a tribute. That must have made the 36-year-old proud.
“I have been extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to play for and captain my country,” he said in a lengthy statement confirming the news. “It was my ultimate goal all those years ago and it has been, by far, my greatest achievement.
“I would never have believed all those years ago that I would get the opportunity to play for my country 145 times and to score 67 goals and through it all, I have never stopped chasing the next one!
“I have been on the most incredible journey with the Irish team and fans over the last 18 years and words cannot express how proud I am to be Irish.”
He embarked on that journey so early – he was just 17 when he made his senior international debut – that he was still in his early twenties when people stared cracking jokes about him getting old.
“Wait til I’m 24,” he said with a laugh, when he was 23, “I might retire.”
Thank heavens he didn’t.
THANK YOU FOR THE DAYS – FIVE GREAT MOMENTS
April 22nd 1998
Home debut v Argentina
He hadn’t quite finished with Brian Kerr’s youth side but his talent made him impossible for Mick McCarthy to ignore and after the game against the Czechs in Olomouc where, it seemed, a generation of Irish players began their senior international careers, Lansdowne Road got its first real look at Robbie against Argentina. A fair few of the crowd booed when Ariel Ortega won the man of the match award because they reckoned it ought to have gone to Keane, and McCarthy suggested that many of his players would be happy to say they were there the day the 17-year-old made his home debut.
June 5th 2002
1-1 v Germany at World Cup
A goal most players would be happy to have define their career. And a special one for Keane whose late strike in Ibaraki possibly remains the greatest single moment of Ireland’s various adventures at major championships. Steve Finnan provided the cross, Niall Quinn the flick on and Keane, as he got between Carsten Ramelow and Thomas Linke and delayed his shot momentarily, provided the magnificent finish, beating Oliver Kahn with a true predator’s class.
October 13th 2004
Breaks goalscoring record
Okay, it had been inevitable for a while that Keane would eclipse Niall Quinn and become Ireland’s all-time record goalscorer. Still, when he did it, he did it in some style, netting twice against the Faroe Islands. The first goal broke the record and was celebrated by the crowd as though they all had a share in the achievement. Quinn marvelled afterwards about just far behind in the younger man’s dust he might be left trailing.
World Cup playoff v France
The events on the pitch in Paris define how these playoff games are remembered but there was something about Ireland’s captain that week. He had always seemed to take his role as captain seriously but it is hard to recall him reflecting that often in his public utterances. He talked about Ireland’s hunger, spirit and desire; words old pros might pass on to young team-mates as handy ones to have about when the microphones are on. Keane, though, sounded like he believed them all that week and at the Stade de France the team played like they did too.
June 7th 2013
The 126th cap
Another record – there were so many. This one was for the most senior Republic of Ireland caps ever and he marked it the way the much younger Keane would have been expected to – with a hat-trick. There was nothing spectacular about any of the goals in this comfortable win over the Faroe Islands but there was something quite marvellous about the way he was there to put them away. He spoke afterwards about sticking around for another six years. He managed three, and for that we should all be thankful.