By Glenn Mason
Robbie Keane was a proud man as he savoured qualifying for Euro 2016 - the third major tournament of his career - and he urged the younger players in the squad to enjoy every minute of the celebrations.
The Republic of Ireland squad captain was an unused substitute in both legs of the 3-1 aggregate play-off victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina and he knows his days of being a regular starter have passed.
However, he was a delighted spectator as Ireland booked their place in France next summer thanks to a 2-0 second leg win with two goals from Jonathan Walters.
The campaign has seen the emergence of new talent and such is the turnaround of players that Glenn Whelan, who took the over the armband in Keane’s absence, was the only player from the starting XI last night to start a game at Euro 2012.
The likes of Darren Randolph, Ciaran Clark, Richard Keogh, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick have come into the side and shone during this campaign and can look forward to playing on Europe’s biggest stage next summer.
“Just enjoy it,” was Keane’s simple message to the newer generations.
“With my first one (2002), I can’t really remember it too much. It happened so quickly, but they should just enjoy it. It’s a special moment in people’s careers.
“There’s not many Irish teams that qualify for major tournaments, this is the sixth, so it doesn’t happen very often.
“These are the times you have to enjoy because there are so many ups and downs in football. When you get a moment like this, you have to cherish it.
“When you qualify for a major tournament there’s no better feeling. Those young lads are going to… remember the first time they qualified for a major tournament because it’s something special.”
Keane praised manager Martin O’Neill for getting his tactics right on the night and making the crucial substitutions as Bosnia started brightly in the second half.
The Tallaght man’s season with LA Galaxy is now over after they were knocked out of the MLS play-offs and he can head off and enjoy his winter break.
The debate about whether he can still hold on to his squad place will continue over those winter months, and while he may have finished the campaign as the top scorer, those five goals came against whipping boys Gibraltar.
However, last night was not the time to look at his future and Keane’s focus was on hailing the belief and togetherness of the squad during the campaign, with Ireland coming from fourth place in June to qualifying through the play-offs in November, with victory over world champions Germany among the positive results in between.
“We’ve been together for a couple of years. It’s been a long couple of years,” said Keane.
“There’s been up and downs, as you can imagine in any competition, any European qualification.
“We’ve stuck together as a group, which is always important. The togetherness of this group, the team spirit that we have on and off the field is incredible.
“We have some good players in that dressing room and full credit to all of them. They have to go back to training but I don’t!”