Great to see Robbie Keane return to the Premier League and even better to have the chance to catch up with him this week and see how life in California has been treating him.
I last spoke to Robbie on the night he led Ireland to Euro 2012 qualification in Dublin and here we are now just a few months away from the tournament itself. These are exciting times and just from talking to Ireland’s record goal-scorer you get excited yourself! I know it’s only January, but it has been a long wait since our last tournament. Too long.
“It’s obviously a tough group we have got, Enda,” the Ireland captain told me on the day he completed his loan move to Aston Villa. “We are in there with the world champions, Spain. They are the best team in the world. Italy? We always seem to get them, every competition. We kinda know a little bit about them at this stage. Then there is Croatia, who we played in Dublin last year. It’s a tough, tough group but we are better when we are the underdogs.”
Robbie’s career has taken him all over the world, from Serie A to a World Cup and now to California where he plays in the MLS for L.A. Galaxy alongside David Beckham.
“I spent Thanksgiving with them and the (Galaxy) owner. We’re close, we’re in the team together. What he has achieved over the years is incredible and he’s out there every day, showing the desire. He never misses training. David is not the kind of player to sit in a physio’s room – he always wants to be out training. That inspires the young lads. I have played against him lots of times. It suits me the way he plays, he’s always looking for me.
“Los Angeles is a great place, there’s no question about that. It’s a great place to bring a family up. I’m there for the football, that’s the most important thing, it’s an added bonus to be living in such a great place.”
Another big influence on Robbie Keane over the past few years has been Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni, who is busy preparing for next month’s friendly in Dublin against the Czech Republic.
“He has been brilliant, not just for me but for the whole team,” Robbie tells me. “What he has done since he has come in is make us a very, very hard team to beat. We don’t concede goals. Everyone knows exactly what their job is. That’s a great thing.
“Regardless of the way things are going he sticks to his way, he plays 4-4-2. It has certainly helped the team. We all know about the previous campaign. We were so close. This time round we only lost one game, that says it all. He has given the whole side a lift. The Irish people have really taken to him. It was the same with Jack Charlton. He has made a massive impact with the players.
Keane has been a talisman for Trapattoni, always by his side when called upon, the sharpshooter who just keeps finding the net at all the right moments.
So what does it feel like to score 51 goals for Ireland and break every record going along the way? (The last being Sir Bobby Charlton’s 49 for England).
“It’s not something I really think about. For me it’s about scoring goals for the country. All the talk of scoring 50? Did I ever think it would happen? Probably not, but every time I set targets. When I hit 30 I wanted 40, when I hit 40 I wanted 50. I love Ireland and I’m very fortunate to get to score goals for my country.”
Despite regularly banging in goals at international and club level since he was a teenager Robbie still gets criticised by certain sections of the Dublin media. I often wonder what more do they want from an Irish striker? Goals, guts, passion, pride, Keane delivers it all. It irritates me that he still gets grief, so how does he feel?
“Genuinely? I’m not bothered. I have had it for years. All you can do is do your best and score goals. The most important thing for me is our country doing well. Every walk of life has people who criticise you. You either accept it or you hide. I just get on with it, I have been playing for a long time. Imagine what they would say if I wasn’t scoring goals?!”
The same mudslingers will of course be the first people on the plane to Poland come June, that’s what makes me laugh. And in June we will be looking to Keane to keep delivering, keep scoring.
This group of players has a core that went to the World Cup in 2002 together and now they are relishing the thoughts of taking on some of the best teams in the world at Euro 2012. Keane, Shay Given, Damien Duff and the man the fans now call the ‘Minister for Defence’, Richard Dunne.
I was behind the goal in Moscow as Dunne put in one of the greatest shifts ever seen in an Ireland shirt. Ever. What did Keane make of that night?
“Moscow was singlehandedly the best performance anyone has ever put in for us. The previous best was Paul McGrath against Italy at the World Cup in 1994. I watched that on the television that night. To be there that night in Moscow, to see it first-hand. Wow. We need Richard Dunne in our team, we need people like him. He has been absolutely tremendous, he is just a great presence in the team. The whole team these last two campaigns has grown into a mature and strong side.
“For a while it was quiet on the talent front, but now you can see the younger players coming through. These are exciting times for Ireland, everyone is desperate to play. Seamus Coleman is doing well (at Everton), James McCarthy has come in and made himself a regular in the squad. There’s a lot of young players coming through. We need that in Ireland, we are not a country that has a lot of players to choose from, like England. We are a small country but all the better for it.”
And what about the fantastic fans who travel all over to support the Boys in Green? Are the players aware of the noise they make in far-flung places like Yerevan and Skopje?
“Yes, the players are very grateful. We know it’s very hard for people to travel, these are tough times and tough times to get a job. The fans come in big numbers. The turn-out in Armenia was amazing, the same in Andorra, everywhere really. It just goes to show you, this has been a great qualification campaign. When our fans are behind us it helps the team so we need to keep asking them for their support.
“Qualifying means a hell of a lot. I was very fortunate to play in the World Cup in 2002. But when you are 21 you think you are going to qualify for every competition. It doesn’t work out like that. It means a hell of a lot to captain the country to it. For me as a kid I was watching Euro ’88 and Italia ’90, stuff like that. This has given the whole country a lift. When people are behind you, they are behind you.
“The Ireland fans deserve it more than anyone. It has been a tough road, but we are there now. It has given the whole country a lift, which we needed.”
Robbie will play for Aston Villa now until the end of February and he will then head back to California to get ready for the resumption of the MLS with L.A. Galaxy.
His football journey has been a fascinating one, his story an incredible one. And the good news for Ireland fans? There are plenty more chapters left yet.
Read Enda Brady’s exclusive column every week only in The Irish Post. In this week’s paper (out Wednesday, February 1) he chats to Westlife singer Nicky Byrne.