The Keane is dead...
A sporting reputation is a shimmering, delicate thing. It has been a career defining season for Robbie Keane. Back in Se...ptember it appeared as if he was going to drift into oblivion and never recover. Dropped by Spurs in favour of an English striker who looked capable of being inspired by the opportunity of going to a World Cup, Keane was trailing in Jermaine Defoe's wake and languishing. The Spurs fans have always loved Robbie's tricks but they were pretty close to deciding the show-pony wasn't going to take them to Arsenal's level.
His country too seemed less than interested in his plight. When he came off against Israel at 2-0 up at Lansdowne we all knew it changed the game but only because Brian Kerr went for the defensive substitution instead of attacking his weak opponent. It was the Switzerland game in October, also at home, where he was called ashore to obvious surprise but no genuine argument that marked the low point. In the afterglow of Steve Staunton's brilliant first game it's possible you've already forgotten that we failed to qualify for the World Cup play-offs (and how) but a 0-0 draw at home against the Swiss was Kerr's last game. The performance was terrible, the atmosphere dead and the players responded in kind. It wasn't as huge a leap as it looks now to think that Duffer and Keane might have found some excuse never to play for Ireland again to spare themselves the embarrassment.
Robbie Keane played for his country at 17, became top scorer at 24 and now captain at 25. All along the way he's been slapped on his back for being so young and lapped it up himself. Age isn't the only metric of success though. The only real medal of note he's picked up so far is the one he won under Brian Kerr as a kid in 1998 at the European Under-18 championships. His goalscoring for Ireland is at a decent international strike rate even allowing for the amount of goals against friendly opposition and the penalties he's taken. He has tended to miss chances for Ireland though and has luxuriated in the position of striker in chief, allowing himself to blame others for misfiring partnerships and absolving himself of responsibility to keep the game going Ireland's way. The result is a slight ambivalence about Keane among the Ireland fans which shouldn't be there for our second best player.
Just recently the president of Inter Milan has been talking about Keane in lavish terms, about a Keane who is now one of the perfect footballers who should never have been allowed to leave Inter in the first place. Perhaps this was the pervasive power of Keane's agents using their Italian contacts to extract a few lines about Keane's place in the global game as a bargaining chip for his new four year deal at Spurs. Maybe the timing was purely co-incidental. Maybe Massimo Morrati wanted Keane back to play alongside the inconsistently brilliant Brazilian Adriano or to replace like with like. Either way Spurs realised that they had something good on their hands and he's signed on for the Martin Jol revolution as cheerleader in chief. A new deal makes him a bigger presence at the club, gives him career security for the first time in a very long while and offers us the prospect of Keane heading towards rather than away from his peak.
In the summer of 2005 while Keane had plenty of time on his hands he was talking up Gordon Strachan and his love of Celtic as a kid. It looked like a calculated ploy designed to take him to a place where he'd be adored. Keane likes to be loved. Now he has the chance to be universally loved for his abilities as a footballer. The first game after his new deal was signed was Keane's best for Spurs. It came in the same week we'd seen one of his most complete games for Ireland.
Reports of his demise may have been premature last year. They were mostly driven by the thought that he's a very rich 25 year-old who hasn't needed to work too hard for his talent to overshadow those around him. Then Defoe put it up to him and Keane crushed him. Unlike the last Keane to captain Ireland he isn't a driven workaholic eking out his talent, though he might become one. Steve Staunton will put it up to Robbie game by game and Ireland now trusts him to rise to the moment. There's only one Keano.