Mark McGhee is not surprised by the vibe emanating from Ireland following Sunday’s uninspiring goalless draw with England. There is a clear feeling that Robbie Keane, who landed in Dublin yesterday from the United States, has arrived to save the day.
Many Irish fans are making a connection between Keane’s absence and the drab weekend stalemate, which was described by many as being among the worst games in recent memory.
The LA Galaxy striker was also used only as a late substitute at Celtic Park in November, when Ireland again failed to score in the 1-0 loss to Scotland. Keane is Ireland’s all-time leading goalscorer and though now in his mid-30s, remains a potentially potent force.
After the England clash, manager Martin O’Neill described the player as “very special” to Ireland. There is a feeling he will turn to the player this weekend in a bid to end his side’s problems in front of goal.
Having set the striker on his way 18 years ago when manager of Wolverhampton Wanders, Scotland assistant coach McGhee knows what Keane is capable of doing. So, too, does manager Gordon Strachan, who further helped develop the player at Coventry City. Now Keane is waiting to be unleashed in Saturday’s crucial Group D Euro 2016 qualifying fixture.
While McGhee suspects the striker’s career might have become becalmed in Major League Soccer, there is always the danger he will score the goal that could prove decisive this weekend.
If he’s on the bench in a really tight game, I’d still worry about him coming onMark McGhee
O’Neill will have to decide on Keane’s fitness. The striker emerged unscathed from LA Galaxy’s 1-0 home defeat by Vancouver Whitecaps at the weekend in his first start since April following a groin injury. But, according to McGhee, the 34 year old, who has scored 65 goals for his country, is almost certain to feature at some stage on Saturday.
“I think at some point we will see Robbie Keane, if he’s fit, whether it’s from the start or coming on,” he said. “I can say I hope he doesn’t start, but then we would have to deal with him coming on.
“Either way, we’ll take it.”
He rejected any suggestion that Scotland defenders will work on stopping Keane specifically. “We will pick a team – and that team will need to deal with Robbie as part of it,” he said.
“It will be the team that will deal with him rather than thinking about the back four. We wouldn’t alter our thinking. What we would do is fine-tune it to take Robbie into consideration.
“Robbie didn’t play the game against us here, but he’s such an important player for them that he can definitely bring something to the team,” he added.
“But if he’s on the bench in a really tight game, I’d still worry about him coming on. Regardless of how Martin decides to use him, Robbie can still be a significant player in this game. Whatever stage he comes into the game, we have to be aware of him.
“I was a little surprised when he didn’t feature [at Celtic Park in November],” McGhee added. “I spoke to him before the game, and so was he. He was disappointed, he’s one of these boys who wants to play in every minute of every game, and wants to train in every session.
“I was delighted he wasn’t playing, and I’ll be pleased again if he’s not playing, I have to say.”
Among O’Neill’s other options are Southampton’s Shane Long and Jonathan Walters of Stoke City, both of whom featured against England. “I don’t think either of them would claim to be at Robbie’s level yet,” reflected McGhee. “Robbie Keane has scored more goals than anybody for Ireland.
“I think he’ll continue to get more,” he added. “He’s still playing well for his club in America. He’s had an amazing career with unbelievable moves.”
In comments that might make Scotland midfielder Shaun Maloney’s eyebrows arch, McGhee questioned the standard of football both he and Keane are experiencing in the States. Maloney joined Chicago Fire from Wigan Athletic earlier this summer in a surprise move.
Like Keane with Ireland, he is still very much central to Scotland’s plans. This doesn’t fit with the theory posited by many that going to America is the equivalent of winding down.
“I’m sure that’s not necessarily what Robbie thinks, or what Shaun thinks,” said McGhee. “I watch a lot of these games on the telly and on MyScout, and the quality is not great. They’re not playing in a league that’s really top quality by any means.
“I think the MLS is not even Championship. It’s probably First Division getting on to Championship,” he continued.
“So they are not being taxed to the level that they were when they were playing in the English Premier League or even the Championship. So from that point of view I think it’s a lesser stress on them as it were. But I think they are both so professional that they will be prepared.”
McGhee reported no casualties following Friday’s 1-0 friendly victory over Qatar, with Alan Hutton and Andy Robertson having returned to training after being left out of that fixture as a precaution. They are in contention to return for the Ireland game, although Robertson was dropped for an away fixture against Poland late last year due to fears the slightly-built full-back might come unstuck in such a physical test.
Perhaps surprisingly ahead of a match most agree will be played with a derby-like intensity, McGhee hopes that the referee, who has yet to be confirmed, is of a stricter bent. He clearly believes Scotland have the ability to prevail if Ireland attempt to squeeze the life from the game .
“If you have someone who is more pedantic or pernickety that might be good,” said McGhee. “We are away from home and we are not going there to entertain. I’m sure we will entertain but it’s not our responsibility to do so.
“In that sense we are not going there to try to create a contest that is blood and thunder. We are going there to play football and believe we can win the game by playing football.
“We are not going there for a fight but we will stand up for ourselves. So any referee who is prepared to keep a tight control of the game might be a good thing.”