Robbie Keane attracts polarised opinions from Irish supporters but statistically he’s miles ahead of past Irish strikers.Robbie Keane is the Irish all-time record goalscorer. He has more than double the number of goals of his nearest challenger – Niall Quinn. His goal average is almost twice as good as Quinn’s and emphatically superior to Givens and Stapleton. He’s almost incomparable to that trio because his stats are so markedly superior: it’s a little like comparing Don Bradman to the contenders to the throne of greatest batsman ever. His figures require extended graphs with steeper curves. And yet many dispute his credentials as the greatest Irish international striker ever.
There is more to playing as a centre forward in international football than scoring goals, but not that much more. John Aldridge was undoubtedly hampered by the role he played for Ireland under Charlton but it’s fair to say that even though he was a willing and tireless runner he didn’t reproduce his club form in international games for the first half of his career. Quinn too can point to a number of assists and general mayhem caused by his presence in the forward line but these are ancillary traits for a striker.
The interactive motion graph below illustrates the gulf between Keane and the most prolific of his predecessors. By the time Keane reaches the appearances milestone of Givens, Stapleton or Quinn he has scored more goals. He has apparently benefited from playing more friendlies, but strip those out and he still has 28 goals in 65 games. All the others also played plenty of friendlies obviously and Don Givens has only 13 competitive goals in his 35 competitive internationals.
Keane has played more and scored more but he has also scored more frequently. His average dipped in 2001 to just over a goal every 4 games. He was 21 at the time and he still had a better average at that “low point” at the start of his career than Stapleton had on average over his time in an Ireland shirt and Quinn never even reached the dizzy heights of Keane’s lows.
Another moderating factor for the statistics is the quality of the opposition. Ireland’s progress to a moderately successful team and the lesser quality of the newer smaller nations certainly distorts the level playing field. And yet it’s a myth to suggest that Keane has scored disproportionately against the weaker nations. He has 6 goals against the European minnows of Faroe Islands, Andorra and Malta and 5 against the more traditional European powers: France, Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Germany. All five of those goals were outcome changing.
Ireland are not a world footballing superpower and never have been. We’ve had some good strikers in recent history in particular, but we seem peculiarly enthusiastic about dismissing the merits of the player who has done most in recent years to bring us to another level. There are obvious flaws in his game, there are strikers who have better all-round games, there are Irish strikers who have had better club careers. He can appear frustrating (and frustrated) but Ireland, without Keane, simply would not have scored anywhere near enough goals to challenge any qualifying group. We are bordering on success largely because of Keane, not in spite of him.