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Monday 18 December 2017

Robbie Keane's future on the line

O'Neill has a big decision to make about Keane looming that he will have to make

Robbie Keane
Robbie Keane

SO what to do about Robbie? Martin O'Neill has a call to make in the next month which could forever change the relationship between Ireland's record goalscorer and his national team.

The formation O'Neill chose for Georgia didn't work. He admitted as much and pointed out that at it was designed to get the ball and support to Robbie Keane as quickly as possible.

If O'Neill changes it, he will have to change personnel and for the first time the Ireland captain is first in the firing line.

One short sentence caught the eye at the end of the explanation offered by O'Neill's for his starting eleven in Tbilisi.

"The whole idea of our formation was, number one, we were playing away from home but I still felt we were capable of scoring a goal. The idea was to get to him (Keane) and give him a little bit of help a wee bit more quickly."

"That was the idea with Glenn being in the middle and the other two going forward as often as they could. At times it looked as if we didn't get decent movement. I must have a look at it," said O'Neill"

He must have a look at it. That short statement was loaded with significance for Keane's future as Ireland's touchstone.

Another moment sticks in the mind. When Aiden McGeady wheeled away, disbelief on his face and the winner in his pocket, you couldn't but recall the camera shot of him 15 minutes earlier when the board went up for substitutions.

He looked deeply concerned, and with some justification, but 10 and 18 went up. Off went Keane and Stephen Quinn.

How often in Trapattoni's time did Keane see out games when he was the least effective on the pitch; simply because he always carried a threat and, more often than not, came good for the Italian.

There was a case to be made for taking McGeady off. He did very well for his first goal and it was a brave finish, given the pressure he feels himself to contribute in a meaningful way.

But he gave the ball away early and often and had Trapattoni still been boss, would have definitely made the long walk to the touchline, as he often did, shaking his head in frustration.

O'Neill agreed and told us that, far from being triumphant, McGeady's first words after the game reflected the irritation he felt at some of the misdirected crosses and passes which made him a prime candidate for replacement.

And as much as O'Neill claimed afterwards that McGeady was the only man on the field capable of scoring that goal, it could just as easily be said that O'Neill is the only manager who would have left him on to score it.

A changing of the guard, a shift of emphasis? Keane has always had a get-out-of-jail card but O'Neill favoured McGeady and got some instant payback.

It is odd to put your mind in a place where a serious argument can be made to leave Keane out because O'Neill still has no other striker with his predatory instincts.

McGeady did it in Tbilisi and perhaps this is the start of something wonderful but would anyone bet their house on more of the same from a player who still seems to have more skill than his mind can contain at any given moment.

Shane Long is moody and inconsistent, Kevin Doyle on a road back which has miles to run yet. Only Jon Walters can be satisfied with his work in an international shirt over the last few years and that fact was reflected in his selection for O'Neill's first competitive game.

Many, many different justifications have been advanced over the years for dropping Keane, some on these pages, but, ultimately, managers did what managers always do and picked the man who can get them a goal, never mind what else he does.

Trappattoni hung his well upholstered reputation on Keane's ability to poach international goals at a rate he rarely managed in the Premier League and nobody could argue that the Italian was wrong.

But it was clear from events in Tbilisi, just as it has been clear for a lot longer, that Keane cannot play as a lone gun in front of a five-man midfield. He doesn't have the mobility for it and has always been at his best with lofty support alongside him.

The big question now is whether O'Neill still feels it is worthwhile to accommodate him or more fundamental than that, whether Keane's absence from Premier League football in the MSL has finally caught up with him to such an extent that the only thing he has left to offer is instinct.

O'Neill could postpone the moment he must make the big call by letting Keane run riot against Gibraltar which would, in turn, tee him up for a trip to Gelsenkirchen where experienced heads will be at a premium.

proud

He's a proud man, is Robbie, and it will be interesting to see how he deals with it if this scenario plays out and his active status is downgraded.

Somehow, it is hard to imagine him making up the numbers on the bench, waiting for 20 minutes at the end of a game to make a difference

His enthusiasm is still there, no doubt about that. When McGeady worked his magic and the Georgian net bulged, Robbie came off the bench with a wild lunge and embraced his bearded namesake Roy.

This was two men who shared a name but not much more common ground on an island in the Pacific in 2002, united in a moment of pure delight.

It's the kind of moment football delivers on rare occasions for Ireland, the ones we all live for.

Robbie Keane has produced more than his fair share down through the decades but it is hard to avoid the feeling that he doesn't have many more to give.

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