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Jul 29, 2008

When Irish eyes are frowning

'Arrogant' and 'over-rated' are not the words generally used to describe Robbie Keane in the country where he has made his fortune, yet a vocal majority in his Irish homeland regularly brand him with such damning judgments.

While English fans look upon Ireland's all-time record goalscorer as an established Premier League star worth every penny of the £19m Liverpool paid to secure his services on Monday, many across the Irish Sea view the striker with a huge helping of cynicism.

Long-portrayed as one of those modern-day footballers with more wealth than his ability merits, Keane has been forced to accept as much flack as a high-profile criminal in the Irish newspapers down the years and the coverage of his latest high-profile transfer this week continued the trend.

A succession of early moves in his career left the impression that Keane's motivation was focused on earning a fast buck rather than the genuine pursuit of medals and most headlines in Ireland over the last few days have focused on the cash windfall now coming the way of this 27-year-old.

Thus seems to be Robbie's destiny. He may never be afforded the adulation reserved for compatriots such as Open golf champion Padraig Harrington and Ireland rugby skipper Brian O'Driscoll, but one of his former team-mates offers a stout defence of the kid who emerged from the tough Dublin streets of Tallaght to make it big.

'I have never understood why Robbie gets such a rough ride in the Irish media,' says Ireland colleague, Andy Reid. 'If you look at him in training every day, he is a fantastic professional and anyone could look up to him as a role model. You will never find anyone who knows him having a negative view on Robbie Keane.'

My own experiences with Keane are equally positive. Always willing to sign shirts for charity auctions, his politeness towards the media is impressive considering the abuse he admits has 'upset his Mum on more than one occasion', but he seems keen to put the past behind him.

'A lot of things have been said and written about me in the last year or so that haven't been very nice and it has probably made me stronger as a person,' says Keane. 'It was tough for my family at times, but I'm stubborn, I can handle things like that and don't let it worry me. I'm happy to move on and not talk about the past and I hope everyone else feels the same.'

So why does a player loved and cherished by Tottenham fans for the last six years attract so much negativity in a land where he should be king?

Could it be that some in Ireland are a little jealous of the lifestyle he has earned as the celebrity bride he married at a plush wedding in Wicklow earlier this summer. (By the way, anyone who has caught a glimpse of the new Mrs Keane, Claudine Palmer, cannot help but be a little envious!)

The truth is that most Ireland fans have never warmed to Keane due to his consistently disappointing performances in major matches for Ireland. Indeed, since his fine three-goal showing at the 2002 World Cup finals, his scoring record in qualifying matches is little short of woeful, yet the service he has often received during that time has been even worse.

His relationship with the Irish media hit rock bottom when he was photographed falling out of a Dublin nightclub five days before a major qualifier against France in 2005, with many viewing his antics as confirmation that his image as a playboy who was wasting his talent was accurate.

A poor display in the ensuing game ended with the substitute board featuring Keane's No.10 being hoisted high into the Dublin night sky to signal the low point of his career. Effectively, Brian Kerr's final act as Ireland boss was to blame his leading striker for his own failure and many members of the press pack delighted in his demise.

There are those who do not feel he should be captain of the national team and canvas for Richard Dunne to be given the role and the fact that media interviews with Keane are as rare as a lottery win has not won him friends among Irish journalists who grew accustomed to being close to the stars during the Jack Charlton era.

Yet while his adversaries have struggled to sustain their attacks on a player who has been so impressive at Premier League level of late, his appearance on RTE's 'The Late, Late Show' last year gave his detractors another chance to pounce.

Suggesting during his contentious television interview that the media had ruined the atmosphere in the national team squad and put off some young players from showing up for internationals, he was greeted with a predictably negative response which cemented Robbie's place as the media punch bag.

'Robbie Keane. You crazy, mixed-up kid,' wrote highly respected journalist, Tom Humphries after the infamous TV outburst. 'What were you thinking jetting home to lecture the confused peasantry on the insidious evils lurking within the media.

'It doesn't really matter if the team find us all to be a low down bunch of scurvy curs; the bigger picture is that if you want to communicate with the general public it is much easier to do it through expressing yourself reasonably in interviews than indulging in epic sulks

'The media are not perfect. Sometimes criticisms are excessive. On the other hand, the rewards at your end are always excessive so it balances out. All the media ask and the general public ask is that the team prepares as well as is humanly possible and gives the green jersey as much as is humanly possible. Not speaking to the media is petulant and childish.'

One of his chief opponents has been outspoken Sunday World reporter Roy Curtis, who continues to doubt whether his new status as a Champions League player will raise his standards on the international stage.

'Keane's international career has been a triumph of under-achievement,' he wrote last weekend. 'Since his stunning declaration of intent at the 2002 World Cup, he has been a raging disappointment, an emblem of Ireland's decline into mediocrity.

'It's hard to explain the dire poverty of his international displays. There have been times when he has resembled nothing so much as a headless chicken, charging aimlessly out of position. The Keane that Ireland have seen in almost every big game over the past six years is less the devastating striker who Benitez hopes is the final piece of his jigsaw and more a player adrift in a sea of self-absorption.'

Keane's tendency to argue excessively with match officials and tumble over looking for fouls has earned his black marks among some Irishmen who reject such antics, yet former Ireland and Liverpool striker John Aldridge is convinced he is the ideal signing for Reds boss Rafael Benitez.

'One player must have ticked every box when Benitez sat down to identify his summer transfer targets and his name is Robbie Keane,' believes Aldridge. 'A lot of people in Ireland have a downer on Robbie, but ask anyone within the game for their opinion on the lad and they will have nothing but praise.

'He will fit perfectly into a Benitez team as the 4-2-3-1 formation. Robbie is at home in a deep lying role behind the forwards and can also play wide on the right. Then he has the ability to lead the line through the middle, as he has done for Ireland down the years. Robbie also loves Liverpool and that means a lot to supporters.'

Infidelity has not crossed Keane's mind in a summer when he has found his true love off the pitch, but his professional life was always likely to change dramatically when Liverpool fluttered their eyelashes in his direction.

Make no mistake, Keane's love story with Tottenham Hotspur has been a very real relationship that reached a crescendo as he tearfully accepted the Carling Cup in Wembley's Royal Box last season, but Liverpool was the one club whose charms he could not ignore.

In a country where so many follow the fortunes of Liverpool, many Irishmen who have doubted Robbie Keane down the years will now support him as one of their own. You suspect a press pack whose opinion has long been set will take a little more convincing.

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