Ireland v Oman (International friendly)
Aviva Stadium, Dublin
31 August 2016 (7.45pm)
“We all dream of a team of Robbie Keanes, a team of Robbie Keanes…”
Keane has just played his last game for Ireland, ending a career of 18 years and 146 caps, and spanning four World Cup and five Euro Championship campaigns. It’s fair to say he is one of the country’s greatest footballers, although I note that in Ray Houghton’s All Time Ireland XI in the programme, the striker that the boys in my train carriage are eulogising, doesn’t make the team at all, let alone all of it. John Aldridge and Niall Quinn get the nod ahead of him upfront. I admire the integrity of the editor; I’d have been tempted to squeeze him in as a sub on this day. But who cares about Ray Houghton’s opinion right now because tonight everyone thinks Robbie is the golden boy.
It was a weird football match. It was most certainly a, “I was there” occasion. At least until the 56th minute when Keane was substituted amid much hugging and cheering. After that it became, “I wish I wasn’t there” when, with Ray Houghton’s Ignored One no longer there to entertain us, the sheer awfulness of the opposition became clear for all to see.
Oman. Apart from the keeper Ali Al Habsi, who made his name with some very athletic displays for Wigan in the Premier League (he’s now with Reading), I defy you to name a player from that nation. And apart from mentioning the Middle East (the three boys in row H, who have just finished a geography exam, were the only ones in the stadium who could actually pinpoint exactly where) I defy you to name a single fact about the country itself.
Well, I’ll give you one. They are awful at football at this level. Quite why anyone in the Irish FA thought this would be a good warm-up for Monday’s European Championship qualifier against Serbia is anyone’s guess. Quite why anyone thought this was a good warm-up for anything is anyone’s guess. But there is more. Ireland played Oman in a friendly two years ago. As they say, fool me once…
The three guys in front of me leave in the 70th minute after a particularly dire patch and a steady stream of people follow them so that Keane’s farewell speech, along with obligatory child chewing the microphone, is seen by a good few thousand less than came in through the turnstiles at the start.
On the way to the game I get off the train at Grand Canal Dock, one stop before Lansdowne Road, not only because there are a couple of pubs I want to try en route but also because it’s next to Google’s operation in Ireland. It’s only a day after the European Commission has declared that Apple, another multinational operating in Ireland, must pay back-taxes of €13 billion to the Irish government (just think what you could do with that!) because European state aid rules have been broken. I’m expecting to see some action. But there are no helicopters circling for the next multinational prey, and there are no lorries delivering huge quantities of shredders. It’s all rather disappointing. I had discovered the company’s location using Google Maps and my iPhone, the great corporate warrior that I am.
The national anthems are always a stirring moment. Especially when a sponsor unveils a giant shirt. The game was quite exciting (honest) but it sort of lost its purpose for a lot of fans once Robbie Keane was substituted. We can see you sneaking out…
Although Oman are awful to the point of being little more than training cones for the Irish players to run around, they do have one redeeming ‘quality’ right from the start: Robbie Keane will be able to score against them and add to his tally of 67 goals, therefore joining the great Gerd Müller as the leading international scorer in football history.
Robbie Brady scores a cracker of a free-kick in the 13th minute but no one in the stadium wants anything else but a Robbie Keane goal. Except perhaps manager Martin O’Neill, and he is probably willing it as well so he can substitute him and get on with his preparations for Monday.
Keane has his chances and the “oohs” and “ahhs” hum round the Aviva Stadium each time he gets so much as a sniff. The guy next to me turns and raises his eyebrows as if to acknowledge that this is the only reason we are here on this unusually warm evening in Dublin. On more than a one occasion an Irish player who is in a better position in front of goal gets out of the way or passes to Keane. It’s starting to resemble playground football where you want your best friend to score.
But, to much relief, he does score. And, what a goal. It has echoes of Pele’s first goal against Sweden in the 1958 World Cup Final. I tried copying it often enough in my garden when I was growing up. The ball lands at your feet, a bit too close to your body for comfort, but you flick it over the defender’s head making him look like a mug. But before he has realised what has happened you shimmy around him and slot the ball in on the half volley. A goal worthy of number 68 Mr Keane.
So that’s it. Robbie Keane is now up there with Gerd Müller with the most goals scored for his country. Although I should point out that Müller (whose goals I also tried to recreate in my garden) got his 68 goals in just 62 appearances for West Germany and there was no opposition like Gibraltar and Andorra to get easy goals against in those days. And certainly no friendlies against Oman.
But who cares. Tonight, in one Dublin train carriage at least, we are all dreaming of a team of Robbie Keanes. Whatever Ray Houghton thinks.
Ticket: seat high up on the halfway line (€22, which includes €2 service fee with Ticketmaster).
Beer: Five Lamps, a craft beer from Dublin in Slattery’s (€6 for a pint). Guinness in the stadium (€5.50 for a pint).
Food: a large hot dog in the stadium (€5.50).
Getting there: the DART runs to Grand Canal Dock and Lansdowne Road.
Score: Ireland 4 Oman 0.
Sunsets. Ah, that’s why all these multinationals move to Dublin.