Robbie Keane ready to lead Ireland at Wembley, 18 years after attending riot marred match
CARSON, Calif. – At 14-years-old, Robbie Keane was in attendance the last time that Ireland took on England at Lansdowne Road in Dublin on February 15, 1995. Now at age 32, he’ll likely be wearing the captain’s armband for his country when the Irish take on their rivals at the famed Wembley Stadium in London on Wednesday.
Initially, it seemed that Keane would miss out on the chance to take on England, but after some reconsideration by Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena, he was allowed to join up with his national team.
“They knew how much it meant for me to play against England, obviously for historic reasons; I was at the game as a kid when the riots started,” said Keane. “Bruce totally understood and it was probably the right thing to do.”
In February of 1995, The Ireland youth international was still months away from joining the Wolverhampton Wanderers Academy when he joined his uncle and his older brother Grahame for the match that would go down in infamy. Irish striker David Kelly put Ireland in front 1-0 in the 21st minute, but almost immediately after Ireland’s cheers died down, the trouble started with Keane relatively nearby.
“[There were] chairs being thrown and fires starting. It wasn’t nice to see,” said Keane. ‘I was fairly close, but not in the distance where it would have been a problem.”
A violent England-based neo-Nazi organization known “Combat 18” began to throw debris, including ripped out seats, onto the field and lower stands. This caused the referee to immediately stop the game as the players were taken off the pitch while fans spilled onto the playing surface to avoid the debris. Soon after the teams went to their dressing rooms, the violence intensified into a riot, forcing the game to be called off.
The political tensions known as “The Troubles” that embroiled Ireland and United Kingdom have cooled over the last 18 years, allowing the English FA to schedule a match with the Irish as part of their 150th anniversary celebrations. Questions of fan safety still exist as England manager Roy Hodgson has implored English fans to avoid chants of a "religious or political perspective" for Wednesday’s match.
What Keane will ultimately be concerned with, however, is the rivalry on the field, but he hopes that politics does not find its way into Wednesday’s match.
“It’s big. Obviously because political reasons a few years ago, but hopefully that’s all finished now,” said Keane. “It’s obviously a rivalry game and it’s a good game. It’s always good to play against players that you’ve used to playing against over the years and I look forward it.
“It’s great to play at Wembley and it’s great to play for your country anyway, even if I’ve got  caps, I still get the same buzz that I get for the first cap,” said Keane. “I think that for the whole country, it’s a good game to represent the whole country and put the troubles behind us.”
The match not only offers Keane a chance to lead the Irish against England, but also affords him another opportunity to play at Wembley Stadium. Keane was victorious in his lone prior appearance at Wembley as he helped Tottenham Hotspur to a 2-1 extra time victory over Carlo Cudicini’s Chelsea FC in the 2008 Carling Cup Final.
When Keane and Ireland head off the tunnel at Wembley, they’ll be greeted by scores of Irish fans, who are expected to travel in heavy numbers to London.
“[There’s] so many Irish people everywhere. There are more Irish people around the world than there are in Ireland,” said Keane. “We get a good following everywhere we go, I’m sure there will be a lot of Irish fans there and I’m sure there will be most Irish fans then English fans.”
WATCH: Keane's hat trick vs Seattle
One thing is for certain, however, Keane is heading into his international period with a full head of steam after scoring a hat trick during LA’s 4-0 win over Seattle Sounders FC on Sunday. The hat trick was Keane’s first for the Galaxy and the second first half hat trick in club history.
With a keen eye set on beating England and then Faroe Islands in a World Cup Qualifier on June 7, the Galaxy’s Irish striker admits that he’s feeling confident and eager to find the back of the net for his country.
“As a striker, it’s nice to score goals, it breeds confidence in you. It’s been a few frustrating weeks on the sidelines and now [I’m] getting back into the swing of things,” said Keane. “It takes two or three games to really get back into it [and against Seattle] I felt really, really sharp. I’m looking forward to going away with the national team. I’m feeling nice and sharp and hopefully we can get some good results.”
Adam Serrano is the LA Galaxy Insider. Read his blog at LAGalaxy.com/Insider and contact him at LAGalaxyInsider@Gmail.com