CARSON, Calif. – Robbie Keane was just 14 the last time England and Ireland faced off on a soccer field, and he can remember the overflowing excitement he felt as he arrived at Dublin's Landsdowne Road with his brother and his uncle.
It was an afternoon the LA Galaxy's captain never forget, and not for the right reasons. The match was abandoned after 26 minutes, after a riot broke out following David Kelly's strike for the Irish five minutes earlier, and what Keane most remembers are “just chairs being thrown, fires started, stuff like that. I was fairly close but I wasn't in the distance where it would have been any problem to me, but I was close enough to see everything.”
He's expecting a far better atmosphere Wednesday night at storied Wembley Stadium when the Irish take on England again (2:30 pm ET, Fox Soccer), the intertwined countries' first official meeting in more than 22 years, and he's ecstatic he'll be part of it.
“It's great to play at Wembley, it's a great thing,” Keane told reporters before departing for Ireland duty. “But just to play for your country is special for me. Even though I've got 120-something caps” – 123, to be exact – “I still get the same buzz that I got the first cap. I just think for the whole country, it's a good game to represent the country, so I hope the troubles are behind us.”
Politics were behind the 1995 trouble, which was caused by Combat 18, a neo-Nazi group then affiliated with the far-right British National Party. Problems were expected, and they began after Kelly put Ireland ahead, with spectators in the England fans section throwing onto the field debris, including pieces of benches. Twenty people were hurt and 40 arrested.
“When you're a young lad, it's something you don't really want to see,” Keane said. “Especially you're going there to watch a game at that age, so you're excited to go and watch your country play, and then to be canceled after 18, 20 minutes, it wasn't nice, obviously. The riot wasn't good, and we certainly don't need it in the game.”
Political tensions between the countries, largely over Northern Ireland, have diminished. England has a large Irish immigrant community, and Keane predicted there would be “more Irish fans there than England fans.”
Keane, 32, has spent most of his career in England – he came up through Wolves' youth system and played for them, Coventry City, Leeds United, Tottenham, Liverpool and West Ham United before joining the Galaxy in 2011 – and has played once before at Wembley, in Tottenham's extra-time victory over Chelsea in the 2008 English League Cup final.
The Galaxy first weren't going to release Keane for Wednesday's game, nor for Sunday's friendly in Dublin against Georgia, but they relented after MLS agreed to release its US players for friendlies. Ireland has a World Cup qualifier June 7 in Dublin against the Faroe Islands, and Keane will return to LA after a friendly June 12 in New York against Spain.
The Faroe Islands game is most important, of course, but England-Ireland at Wembley is “a special occasion for both countries,” Keane said.
“It's big. I think obviously because of political reasons maybe a few years ago, but hopefully that's all finished,” he said. “It's obviously a rivalry game. It's a good game. It's always good to play against players you're kind of used to playing against over the years, and players that you respect. So I'm looking forward to it.”