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Dublin: 9°C Saturday 15 May 2021

'I was sick of sitting about doing nothing for weeks on end, it was no good to me'

Irish U21 stiker Aidan Keena tells The42 of why he swapped Scotland’s top division for England’s non-league, and why Glenn Whelan deserved more respect during his Hearts exit.

Aidan Keena, pictured at his unveiling at Hartlepool earlier this month.
Aidan Keena, pictured at his unveiling at Hartlepool earlier this month.

THE WIRE HAS always been commended on its broad narrative sweep, but Marla Daniels’ advice to her lieutenant husband that “you cannot lose if you do not play” doesn’t extend to football. 

In football, you can only lose if you do not play. 

It’s not just a problem at weekends and on matchdays: a footballers’ continued absence saps and greys their every day. Bohemians’ goalkeeper James Talbot spoke eloquently to The42 last year of the experience of training while not even on the fringes of the Sunderland squad.

It’s hard to get motivated to train. You need games to get experience; to challenge yourself. You don’t know what will happen in a game, whereas in training you always know what drills you’re doing. I was just going through the motions.

Irish U21 striker Aidan Keena has just left a similar experience at Hearts in Scotland. 

“I’d partly agree with that”, Keena tells The42, admitting he sometimes found his motivation waning without ever considering “saying fuck it and chucking it in.” 

Instead, he’s on the move. On the face of it, his swapping Hearts of the Scottish Premiership for Hartlepool of the league better known as the English Conference seems a step down, but don’t tell him that. 

“Some might think it is a step down, but I think there are bigger opportunities here. What can come from playing and doing well in this league may give me an opportunity to go up through the leagues here.

“Speaking to the gaffer, he told me I’ll play every week and I’ll be a big player for him, and that’s just what I want at this stage. I’m sick of sitting about doing nothing for weeks on end, and then getting five minutes at the end of a game and then not getting another game for a month.

“I was sick of doing that. It was no good to me.

“You nearly just start training for the sake of it, when you know you know you’re not getting a game at the weekend. Now that I can train and it means something, allows me to get excited for games again.”

“The best case scenario at Hearts was to do well and get a new contract at Hearts, whereas here there is endless opportunity.”

Opportunities in Scotland looked abundant only a year ago, when Keena was recalled to Hearts midway through a loan spell with Dunfermline by then-manager Craig Levein with the promise of first team minutes. 

That game time was ultimately pitiful: a total of ten league appearances, across which he only once completed 90 minutes. 

Levein was sacked from his role as manager and director of football at the end of October with the club mouldering at the bottom of the league, but he remains working in the background at Tynecastle until the end of the season. 

Among Levein’s duties since taking a step back was to call Keena to the back door of Hearts’ training base as a team meeting was getting underway last month to inform him that it was time he looked for another club. 

Now-departed Hearts coach Jon Daly knew of Hartlepool boss Dave Challinor from their playing days at Stockport, and that accelerated Keena’s arrival at the English club on an 18-month contract.

“I’m a little disappointed [by how things worked out at Hearts], but I’m more excited to get playing football again”, he says.

I wasn’t really playing much in the last few months and it was frustrating. So it’s good to get out of there and get excited about football again. Basically I was pushing the gaffer for an answer if I was going to be in his plans or not. Then I was pulled and told I wasn’t in his plans, and to to find a new club. [I felt] relief, to be honest. A lot of the time you could be strung along to the last few days of the transfer window and then you’re scrambling for a club, but I’m happy that it happened early on and I could find a club easy enough.” 

Mullingar-born Keena is 20, and threw his lot in with soccer having played Gaelic football up to U16 level with Westmeath. He promptly joined Saint Patrick’s Athletic, with whom he made five senior appearances before joining Hearts in 2017.

He grew up a Liverpool fan, and his recurring YouTube rabbit hole consists largely of Fernando Torres highlight videos. Torres’ goal for Liverpool in a 4-1 win at Old Trafford in 2009 – in which the Spaniard chased down Nemanja Vidic and left him on the floor before rolling the ball beyond Edwin Van Der Sar – is his favourite, given it marries quality with the work ethic Keena has added to his own game. 

There are only so many times he can watch and try to learn from these videos, however, without an opportunity to make something more tangible of them on the pitch. 

His Irish U21 team-mate Jack Taylor provides a fresh template for life at Keena’s new club: the midfielder last week vaulted from non-league Barnet to League One’s Peterborough for a basic fee of £500,000 that may yet rise to twice that. 

jack-taylor Jack Taylor. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Yeah, brilliant. Big transfer fee paid for him too, which is brilliant. Hopefully something similar might happen for myself in the future.”

Keena left Hearts amid much less acrimony than his compatriot Glenn Whelan, who told the Irish Independent he felt “thrown under the bus” by the club when they moved him on midway through his one-year contract.

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New manager Daniel Stendel publicly questioned Whelan’s leadership qualities in December, and the midfielder’s exit was announced by the club in January with a statement that made Kirk’s dismissal from the Simpsons’ Cracker Factory seem verbose. 

Keena has no issue with how his exit was handled, but admits the club “could have shown [Whelan] a bit more respect”, given his experience.

(Stendel told a news conference on Thursday he doesn’t feel he disrespected Whelan or anyone else who has left Hearts in the wake of his arrival.) 

In spite of his lack of playing time, last year did bring an Irish U21 debut under Stephen Kenny.

“I always respected him for what he’s done”, says Keena of the senior-manager-in-waiting.

“It’s fresh in our minds what he has done with Dundalk, which is one of the best things anyone has done with an Irish team in Europe. I know he can get special things out of players.” 

Further international recognition is among Keena’s ambitions but for now he aims to play regularly, find the scoresheet and propel Hartlepool toward the play-off places.

Having made the seven-hour trip to Dover last weekend without his international clearance, he is hoping to make his debut away to Yeovil later today. 

Although they have dropped out of the Football League, Hartlepool retain a reasonably high profile on Sky Sports, given they claim the loyalties of Soccer Saturday presenter Jeff Stelling. 

“He’s said my names a few times when I was out on loan”, says Keena, “so maybe he’ll remember it now.” 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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