Ireland's Playoff History - How Robbie Keane Found Himself "In His Element"
Querying the worth of Robbie Keane's 68 goals in 146 games for Ireland is a fool's errand.
For every argument against the validity of Andorra, Faroe Islands or Gibraltar as credible opponents, Keane's goals against Spain, Germany (2002) and Italy (2009) were considerable beyond the stature of those sides themselves - all three came after the 87th minute and brought Ireland level in the match.
Where Keane excelled - beyond delivering on such occasions where it was expected - was in scoring important, necessary goals.
As Ireland prepare for their fourth play-off campaign in the space of five tournaments, it is worth considering the scarcity of Irish footballing success during Keane's middle-period.
Over the course of an 18 year international career that yielded no automatic qualification, four play-off campaigns were Keane's lot. At 19, 21, 29 and 31, Keane featured against Turkey, Iran, France and Estonia as Ireland attempted to secure a rare spot in an international tournament.
Across seven games (he did not play in the away leg against Turkey), he contributed 5 goals, scoring in every tie, remarkably.
As the opportunity arises once again for someone to join recent inductees like Robbie Brady and James McClean in the Irish footballing hall of fame, Keane demonstrated time and time again on such nights why he was the player for all occasions.
Republic of Ireland Vs. Turkey (1-1), Lansdowne Road, 13/11/99:
Playing in his first series of competitive internationals, 4 goals in 6 games made Keane Ireland's leading goalscorer for the qualifying campaign. Scoring twice on his Premier League debut with Coventry City in August, by the time November rolled around, what separated Ireland from a place at Euro 2000 was a two-legged play-off against Turkey.
While events in Atatürk would be heard, but not seen by an Irish audience, the first-leg in Dublin demonstrated the precocious confidence of a 19 year old Keane in front of goal. Seemingly destined to finish deadlocked, a sharp interchange of passes within the Turkish penalty-area found Keane, who, with a typically deft first touch, proceeded to slip the ball past Rüştü Reçber on the 79th minute.
Unfortunately, as has been so often the case for Ireland, concentration slipped and Turkey equalised shortly thereafter from the penalty-spot. A 0-0 draw in Turkey would ultimately mean Keane's first experience of a play-off was an unsuccessful one.
Republic of Ireland Vs. Iran (2-0), Lansdowne Road, 10/11/01:
Going unbeaten throughout a qualifying campaign that pitted Ireland against tough opponents in the Netherlands and Portugal, an inferior goal difference ultimately meant Ireland would take the play-off route while the Portuguese prepared for South Korea & Japan.
Fortunate perhaps to draw a representative from the Asian confederation, the immediate concern was directed toward Ali Daei - a player who would hit a century of international goals three years later. Although Keane's goal-scoring contribution to the group stage had been limited, when Iran came to Dublin in 2001 for the first-leg, Keane again proved crucial.
After an Ian Harte penalty had given Ireland a late first-half lead, Keane's volleyed finish from a breaking ball after 50 minutes secured what would be a priceless 2-0 win.
In another world, it was the goal that put Ireland into a World Cup semi-final against England. You can relive that here.
France Vs. Republic of Ireland (1-1), Stade de France, 18/11/09:
Before there was William Gallas' controversial winner, there was Keane's equaliser. A performance that posited what Ireland could be in contrast to what they regularly were under Giovanni Trapattoni, the interplay between Damien Duff and Kevin Kilbane leading to Keane's goal was mesmerising.
With the French defense in disarray as Bacary Sagna and Sébastien Squillachi both attempted in vein to nullify Duff's cross, Keane's positional awareness was demonstrated to its fullest. Knowing not to move with the French defenders, when Duff pulls the ball back to him on the edge of the 6 yard box, good-fortune would be a cruel and inaccurate description of what had happened.
Time and time again, his ability to be exactly where he was most useful paid huge dividends. The above photo captures the nonchalance of a forward who knew exactly what he was doing.
Estonia Vs. Republic of Ireland (0-4), A. Le Coq Arena, 11/11/11:
After the heartbreak of Paris came the relief of Tallinn; Ireland had seen off a potentially tricky play-off after the first-leg. Two goals and an assist were the measure of Keane's involvement in a rare hammering divvied out by Trapattoni's Ireland, but, it was in reality more of a swansong than a glittering revival.
The European Championships that followed developed into a shambles and Keane, now 31 and playing for LA Galaxy, would ultimately never reach the same peaks again. Although he would score 15 more goals for Ireland, they were increasingly coming against the sides that are used as a stick with which to assail his international record.
Yet, for the fourth series of play-offs in succession, Keane had scored at a decisive moment in the tie. Delivering at "clutch" moments became something of a delightful habit. It is no wonder Martin O'Neill recently expressed lamented the absence of a '27 year old Robbie Keane' in this Irish side. Yet, contrary to O'Neill specifications, Keane, it seems, was always 'in his element' when it came to Ireland.