WHEN I REMIND Paul Keegan of how long it’s been, he struggles to comprehend.
“Oh, my God – that’s all I can say. I can’t believe it’s that long ago. It seems like a lifetime ago, to be honest, a different world. 20 years? I’m getting old.”
In early 1996, in the space of a few months, the Dubliner graduated from Boston College and then became the first Irishman to play in Major League Soccer when he was drafted by the New England Revolution.
He’d go on to play five seasons with the franchise, racking up close to a century of appearances.
“Not bad for a street kid from Walkinstown”, he offers.
“I feel quite privileged, really. It’s a great honour to have been the first Irish player in that league.”
The story begins in a dark and depressing Dublin in the early nineties.
An underage star for Crumlin United, the storied football academy on Dublin’s southside, Keegan spent a season under Brian Kerr at St. Patrick’s Athletic. Simultaneously, he was part of a FAS course organised by the FAI, designed to give youngsters a step-up in a rapidly sinking Ireland.
And it was then that Keegan had an epiphany.
“The FAS course was great”, he says.
“Roy Keane did it two years before me and it obviously had a positive effect on him. An American team came over and we played against them and they had the kit, the tan – they just looked the part. Around that time, Ireland wasn’t a very good place – high unemployment, a lot of emigration. And my Dad was driving me on – ‘Ah, it’d be great to go over to America and make a future for yourself, a life and to get yourself an education’. So I just went down that route.
The guy that made it happen was a coach called Ed Kelly and he was originally from Crumlin. He went to the US when he was sixteen years old. He was a really good footballer and even played for the US a few times. He was always on the lookout for up and coming Irish kids.”
When he eventually arrived in Boston, it was hard to take in. For a long time, Keegan didn’t think a sports scholarship would ever happen. Especially to him. The ‘street kid’. Too many obstacles. He was out of his comfort zone.
“I never thought it would materialise, to be honest. I had to take exams and SATs to try and get over there – in English and Maths. When I walked off the plane, it was a dream come true. You saw these things on the telly. There were the big fancy cars, the weather was roasting and I was on my way to Boston College.
It was out of this world - one of the best universities in America. It was ridiculous. They had a 30,000-seater American Football stadium and nothing compared to it, really. It opened my eyes to training and it was a long way from (Crumlin’s) Pearse Park on a rainy Tuesday night. We used to train along the side of the park, by the baths. You couldn’t get into Pearser because there were no lights! We used to train in the car park and play games between the poles!
They had a bubble that covered the pitch so you could basically play indoor. It cost a million dollars to put up and they’d put it over their American Football pitch just so the players could train and we used it as well. Money wasn’t an object. It was the land of dreams, to be honest.”
Kelly had been in charge of the college’s football programme since 1988 and took Keegan under his wing. In his debut season, he was named the Eastern Conference’s Rookie of the Year. By his second campaign, he was captain.
That all came naturally.
But he had other priorities too now. Different, unfamiliar ones. And he faced up to the realisation that he couldn’t afford to let them slide. It was a difficult adjustment.
“It’s a really hard university to go and study at”, he says.
“You hear about other colleges with athletes who go all the way through and never learn to read or write. But Boston College was different. You had to keep a grade-point average to retain your scholarship and to stay eligible for the NCAA. It was tough at the time, trying to settle back after being in full-time football for a year. It was a big jump for me.”
Football saved him.
Like so many of his generation, he found himself a long way from home.
“It was a big decision. It’s only now, when I can properly appreciate it, that I feel for my poor mother. I went over, then eventually my brother Wayne came over, his best mate came and there was an influx of Irish fellas I knew from that FAS course. Wayne actually went on to win a national championship for Southern Connecticut University while he was here.
There was a guy called Paul Fahy, who used to play for Shamrock Rovers once upon a time. He was a little bit older than me but you bond with these guys. You become brothers in a way. And all of the Irish players became quite strong over there. You didn’t have family with you so for all the Irish lads, you looked after each other. It’s the weird thing about being away from home. And you can see those enclaves of Irish people now, all around the world, always together.”
During his time with the college side, Keegan broke records. In 69 games, he scored 31 goals and tallied 21 assists. That still stands. And he received numerous other accolades. For each of his four years as an under-graduate, he was selected as a regional All-American. In 1995-96, he was named ‘Eagle of the Year’ – the award given to Boston College’s finest athlete.
His graduation came at the perfect time too. One of the stipulations of the United States being awarded the 1994 World Cup was that the country needed to start a professional league of their own.
The NASL had fizzled out more than a decade before due to a lack of interest and money. By the end, it was a cold, dark and depressing place – a long way from the big, brash and bawdy days of the New York Cosmos squad cavorting with the beautiful people at Studio 54.
The league’s rapid demise still cast an imposing shadow so America’s football administrators tentatively put plans in place for Major League Soccer – which debuted in 1996.
With Keegan a top prospect, he was in demand. As per other North American sports, MLS operated a college draft and he proved a key part of it.
“It just so happened that it was the year of my graduation. They had the college draft over there – the same as with American football and the hockey – and the coaches for each MLS team were unveiled. It turned out the (local side) New England Revolution were getting Frank Stapleton and I couldn’t believe it. I was perceived as a ‘local boy’ because I was fortunate to have my Green Card over there – one of the lucky Irish to get one at the time. So that enabled me to just go in and play and not be one of the big, fancy marquee players that were getting a fortune. So I was able to sneak in the back door.
When they drafted me, I was over the moon, I couldn’t believe it. To be drafted 6th in all of America and to be drafted first by the New England Revolution was even more special. That was in the January or February of ’96 but I was still in university. I was allowed to miss a little bit of training so I could complete the studying I needed to get done and then I graduated.”
Under Stapleton, Keegan started twenty games in his debut campaign and managed four goals and three assists. Walking into the dressing room, there were a number of familiar faces. Namely a colourful, charismatic and imposing central defender.
“I remember watching Alexi Lalas in the World Cup and seeing the big, red beard and I was like ‘I can’t believe I’m here’ – I was pinching myself. The realism of going training with these players…There was one guy – Giuseppe Galderisi – he was there at the very start and he was a great Italian player and he was older. But you learned so much from them – the way they talk to you and tell you things.
One big memory is when all my family were over when I graduated. The ceremony was on the Saturday and two days later I scored the first goal for the Revolution on my debut against New York – the big rival. We beat them 2-0 and my family were in the crowd and it couldn’t have gone any better – to have them watching at the same time. And to have that degree in my back pocket – just in case it didn’t work out in football, I’d have another avenue to go down.”
But despite some impressive personnel, the Revs struggled to gel and finished bottom of the Eastern Conference. At the end of the season, Stapleton was gone and Keegan was worried about his own future.
“It was hard when Frank left because you didn’t know what was going to happen. The way MLS was at the time, you didn’t know whether you’d be kept on. The club would re-sign you every year, basically. In came Thomas Rongen, in came (former Italy goalkeeper) Walter Zenga, in came (former Liverpool defender) Stevie Nicol. To be there for five seasons, under five different managers, I must’ve done something right.”
Keegan stayed in MLS until 2000 – the Revs reaching the post-season twice in his time there.
Afterwards, there was a successful return to Ireland where he won a Premier Division title with Bohemians and the FAI Cup with Longford Town.
He arrived for a stint in Scotland in 2007 and never left. Married to Fiona and with three children – Ryan, Calum and Liam, Keegan now works as an Active Schools Coordinator with Sport Scotland while he’s also still involved with St. Mirren as an academy coach.
But the memories of MLS, however long it’s been, still give him goosebumps.
“Playing against Roberto Donadoni was just amazing. I remember playing against him in central midfield at the time and I was saying ‘I’m not diving in, I’m not diving in. I’m going to win this clean.’ And I just thought I was going to get the ball and I dived in. But he was that step ahead. He saw it coming, knocked the ball by me, I took him down and he stepped up – buried the free-kick in the top corner.
To be at the Revolution…I think everybody respected me for my hard work. I was a good player and I worked really hard and I think the people in New England appreciated that because it’s a kind-of blue collar area.
People say it’s the land of dreams and I lived that dream. A street hoodlum from Dublin! It was an amazing experience and opened so many doors.”
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