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Ireland captain Robbie Keane finally comes of age

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There's an old saying in Irish soccer journalism that goes along the lines of the following -- You Should Have Been Here Last Night.

It’s a saying that has been around my profession for as long as I can remember. I’ve even heard it in English soccer circles, and on more than one occasion.

With nearly as many years as Robbie Keane goals approaching, it’s a saying I’ve heard more than once in my travels with various Irish teams under the tutelage of Jack Charlton, Mick McCarthy, Brian Kerr, Steve Staunton and now Giovanni Trapattoni.

It normally applies only to midweek international fixtures. We arrive into a far-flung corner of Europe on a Monday night, and so what you have to do on such occasions -- we go looking for something to eat and something to drink, not necessarily in that order and not always together.

As regular travelers will know there are very few cities in the world -- New York being an exception -- where you can find anything bar utter boredom on a Monday night.

Inevitably a taxi driver or a bar owner will come out with the famous line and tell us we should have been here last night, that the place was jumping and the crack was ninety as Christy sings.

Well, now we can add Liege to the list of “should have been here last night” venues to have hosted the Irish soccer team in recent years.

We were in this industrial Belgian city on Monday night ahead of the final game of the Irish international team’s soccer season.

Italy, not Belgium, were the opponents on Tuesday night in a game made for television rights which ensured the venue didn’t really matter. Hence Liege, a city with a steelworks and a huge Italian ex-pat community.

There’s not too many Irish in this part of the world. When I enquired at the Standard Liege ticket office on Monday, they told me they had sold two tickets to Irish fans until we realized something had been lost in translation. It was still only 200 tickets sold to the Irish, with a total of 500 members of the Green Army expected by kick-off time.

There weren’t too many people of any nationality around Liege on Monday as, once again, we heard the old “should have been here last night” line from the one late night bar owner we found still in business, and that’s mostly because his 24-hour license means he has to stay open.

With no local sights to behold us, and having tasted the Belgian national dish of fries with mayonnaise, we decided to spend the night engaged in a good old fashioned soccer debate, less than 36 hours after we had left Macedonia celebrating an Irish win in Skopje at the third time of asking.

Some of us are old enough to remember the night Jason McAteer got sent off when we lost 3-2 there in those bright orange shirts back in 1997.

Some were there in 1999 when Macedonia equalized in the last minute to deny Ireland automatic qualification for the European Championship finals a year later.

All present were in the Philip the Second Stadium on Saturday night when Keane became the leading international goal scorer from the British and Irish isles with his 50th and 51st goals for his country in the 2-0 win.

Naturally, as always happens when it comes to Robbie Keane, opinion was divided, and not just by those drinking the white beer they like in these parts.

With Irish fans -- and most of the media are fans despite what you might think -- you either love Robbie or you hate him.

I love him as a footballer for what it is worth, and have never been shy to say it on these pages.
I said it again on Monday night, but with an addendum.

Robbie has always been a great international goal scorer, and his two goals in Skopje only proved it. As one wag said, maybe he should retire from club football, where he is unloved, to concentrate on international football where he is prolific.

What’s different now, as I stated over the cold beers, is that Robbie has come of age as a captain in the past three weeks.

When others couldn’t bother to turn up for their country at the end of their well paid season, he set the tone for those who did appear inside and outside the dressingroom.

A week ago he told the stay-aways that we were talking about their “f***ing” country when it came to their absence without leave from Macedonia.

On Saturday night, again, he proved what his country means to him.

He’ll never surpass Paul McGrath as the greatest Irish player ever, in my opinion, but Robbie Keane is getting close.

And you shouldn’t have been here in Liege on Monday night – you should have been in Skopje on Saturday night, celebrating his greatness.

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