Belfast Telegraph

Roy Keane still has a pivotal role, insists Martin O'Neill

By Daniel McDonnell

It was no surprise to anybody involved in the Republic of Ireland set-up when Robbie Keane landed in Dublin on Sunday evening just 14 hours after playing - and scoring - in Los Angeles.

When Martin O'Neill named his squad for the double header with Switzerland and Slovakia, he acknowledged it was a long way to travel for the skipper considering that LA Galaxy's season is only in its opening furlong. That was interpreted as leaving the door open for the Tallaght man to skip the exercise.

Galaxy have not always appreciated the need for Keane to participate in friendly games, but the 34-year-old was never going to pass up the opportunity, even if the fact he has sat out training this week means that his involvement is likely to be curtailed.

Keane will pick up his 145th cap if he is involved against Switzerland tomorrow and will be searching for the 68th international goal of a remarkable career. The end is possibly nigh, with several hints dropped that France could be the end of his Irish service.

Since O'Neill went with Shane Long and Jonathan Walters for the qualifier with Scotland in Glasgow 17 months ago, the Republic's record scorer has had to accept a role as a squad member after a 16-year run where he was effectively the main man.

In the aftermath of the Bosnia play-off, questions were even asked about whether there would be room for the 35-year-old in the final 23 for France. That debate has pretty much run out of steam already.

"He's our best goalscorer," said Northern Irishman O'Neill yesterday. "But time catches up with you. A 27-year-old Robbie Keane would be in our starting line-up, no matter how he was performing at club level. I haven't had that luxury and when I came here he was getting on a bit."

The other part of the equation is what Keane brings to the camp. He was a vocal presence on the sideline in Zilina and O'Neill feels he has embraced an unofficial role as mentor to younger members of the group.

"I used to enjoy leaving players out at club level," said O'Neill. "Almost perversely when they were players I didn't like.

"But at international level, with people who have had really great careers, leaving them out is different. Robbie knows he's been part of this and taken any decision I've made brilliantly.

"He's the first one to congratulate the players if he's sitting on the bench and has been fantastic. It's helped that he's experienced these things. His experience and influence around the place, it shouldn't be underestimated."

Keane can be relaxed about his standing, yet his determination to make an impact tells its own story. When it comes to setting an example, he is still this team's leader.

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