Keane did not make the last two World Cups, and let’s not forget the Euro competitions. Nonetheless when it came to game time for the Irish, his leadership was second to none.
So is Keane the best player to come out of the Emerald Isle? Is he the best player to ever wear the green and white? Well, there are quite a few experts out there who have not even placed the Corkman in their favorite Irish XI. Certainly, Liam Brady and John Giles had a better passing range and were considered more skilled than Keane. And let’s not ignore the most underestimated Irish footballer of all time, Ronnie Whelan, who should be right up there with Giles, Brady and Keane.
However, there are some qualities that Keane had that all of the above or any other Irish player could not match. And we may not see the likes of it again in our lifetime. For starters, the most important ingredient a central midfielder must have is an engine. No player for Ireland comes near the amount of ground that Keane covered in his prime. No player could get from 18 to 18 the way he did. That work rate was second nature to him. And even today no player reads a defensive midfield game the way Keane does — though, of course, he doesn’t have the running anymore.
What’s even more important about his engine room is that most times he made those runs they had a purpose, both in attack and in defense. In defense, no other midfielder could tackle like Keane. And certainly no other midfielder could cover in behind the defense the way he did. Just think back on how many times you remember Keane in behind the Irish back line clearing a through ball or a dangerous situation. At times, he almost brought the sublime into his defensive qualities. Now we are not talking on the same level of sublime as say when Brady fired in a left-footed goal or when he dropped his shoulder and switched the ball. Nor are we talking of a Giles who could put an array of passes together one after the other, his delicate chips over the top amongst them. But how many times have you seen Brady defend, cover ground off the ball and go from 18 to 18, from the edge of one box to the other? How many times did you see Giles covering the team?
As for passing, one of Keane’s criticisms was that anybody could pass the ball square. That he did not make passes like Giles and Brady is true; that Keane was not as silky as Whelan is also accepted. So there is definitely room for discussion when it comes to naming the best. But why wouldn’t you want Keane playing alongside one of these players to complement such exquisite vision. Or better still to make runs for them up and down. Considering such an option, it’s amazing that some pundits would leave him out.
It’s very difficult to pick Keane over those other three extremely talented players. One is still baffled at the Keane’s leadership when it came to the national side — a leadership that crumbled in the 2002 World Cup and did not recover when Brian Kerr brought him back. Politics must get in the way of selection here.
But most would admit that Keane was and always will be a natural-born leader as controversial as he was for the Irish. Nonetheless, it’s lack of taking the Irish team all the way when it comes to tournaments, when he had that opportunity, that keeps coming back to haunt Keane’s status as the best.
When it comes to Keane the club leader now that’s a horse of a different color. Keane does get an edge on Brady here. Brady was not as consistent in his performances for the Arsenal. But when Brady was on, Keane wouldn’t lace his boots, at least in offensive playmaking. But Giles for Leeds United is right up there with Keane. Not only was Giles capable of turning a game with the swing of his boot, he was also a force to be reckoned with. However no way did he could he cover the field like Keane. While Whelan showed impeccable reading of the game and uncanny magic in simplicity, he could not cover the areas like Keane, either. At the same time when can you remember Whelan having to cover ground? He played in front of some of the best defenders in the world at the time. But when Whelan had to produce a more mobile game, he was prone to injury. So when it comes to the engine room of the four great Irish midfielders, Keane is quite simply in a different league.
Comparisons is not always the way to go. Simply going with one’s gut feeling is sometimes better. So, it was wonderful to see Keane defending in midfield but it was magical to see the vision of Giles and Brady. Whelan was probably less obvious but his subtle brilliance will get more credit over time.
It would also be interesting to actually look at the passing stats of these players. And while Keane may not have produced the world class through ball, he probably made more passes than the other three. Indeed he probably also made more successful passes. As for touches on the ball Keane would also lead this category. Winning balls in the air is a no-brainer. In fact it’s hard to remember Brady or Giles ever winning a ball in the air. And believe it or not, Keane has scored his fair share of goals. It’s beginning to lean towards Keane getting the vote over the three maestros, though perhaps Giles is the closest when it comes to being a midfield general.
Finally when it comes to selection of the best Irish team of our time, Keane has to be in this line up, no matter what shape you put out there.