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A ruthless exit in Britain, rejuvenation at Sligo and Ireland ambitions

Aidan Keena on his encouraging start to life at the Showgrounds and his mixed fortunes across the water.

Sligo Rovers' Aidan Keena celebrates with the match ball after a hat trick against Finn Harps earlier this season.
Sligo Rovers' Aidan Keena celebrates with the match ball after a hat trick against Finn Harps earlier this season.
Image: Evan Logan/INPHO

AIDAN KEENA has learned to enjoy the good times in football.

At Sligo Rovers currently, he is experiencing one of the better spells in a still relatively young career.

With five goals in the Premier Division so far this season, only Derry City duo Jamie McGonigle (9) and Will Patching (6) have managed more as it stands, and Keena will be hoping to enhance his stats as Sligo travel to face Shelbourne in the Premier Division this evening.

“I started well, then picked up a bit of an injury and missed a few games and I’m back now,” he tells The42. “A couple of lads have gone ahead of me as well [in the scoring charts], I’ll hopefully catch them in the next few games. 

“I don’t really worry about anyone else too much. I said to myself at the start of the season, get to double figures as quick as I can. And then, keep getting a goal here and there and get a nice tally. I don’t really set a target or anything like that, I just try to score as much as I can.”

He feels it is too early to say whether Sligo are capable of challenging for the title, having earned a creditable 1-1 draw with Shamrock Rovers on Friday — the second time they have secured a point against the reigning champions this season — but feels they need to secure a top-three finish “at a minimum,” and thereby at least replicate last year’s third-place finish.

Despite an encouraging start to the season, on the whole, the 23-year-old says there is room for improvement in his game.

“I can maybe get a bit more consistent,” he admits. “I can have a good 10 minutes in games, a bad couple of minutes and back again, you know what I mean?”

The former Ireland underage international hails from Mullingar in Westmeath, which he acknowledges is not renowned as a soccer stronghold.

“By the time everyone gets to 17-18, there’s not much for them,” he explains. “But when you’re younger than that, football is big in the town. But once they get to that age of 16 to 18, GAA kind of takes over.

“I was lucky enough that I went up to Shelburne. I moved over to Pat’s then. I got away and started playing in Dublin as it fizzles out around that age in Mullingar.

“My two brothers play GAA as well, used to play soccer and are back playing now this season with the local club, Mullingar Town.

“They are handy enough as well, but the same happened [to them as with a lot of others], I went up to Dublin but they didn’t.”

Keena himself was a talented GAA player and featured for his county at underage level, but he was always “more interested” in soccer.

Those early days as an aspiring footballer would often be “exhausting,” combining school with regular trips on the train up to Dublin, meaning he would usually leave home around 8am and often not return until 10 or 11pm. As challenging as this hectic schedule was to undertake, Keena was always confident such dedication would pay off eventually.

“I always fancied my ability. It helped when I was scoring goals at whatever level I was playing at the time to back up that belief, and luckily enough, I was able to do that. And I was happy doing that, I didn’t actually mind travelling at all.”

A big moment was his Premier Division debut at just 17 against Bray Wanderers. However, it turned out to be memorable for the wrong reasons.

He came off the bench in the 67th minute with Pat’s under the cosh. The Saints were 2-0 down before he set up a Graham Kelly goal with five minutes remaining.

The elation of making such a swift impact soon turned to despair, as the Dublin side could not find an equaliser and Keena received an injury-time red card, which he says was deserved.

“It’s funny looking back at it now, getting on for [the dying] minutes, I was flying, I got an assist as well and then they broke and I think it was Dylan Connolly I took down. It was the first red card I ever got, so it was like: ‘Oh no, here we go.’  

“We were pushing for an equaliser. I think it was a corner or wide free-kick. He broke and I was chasing him. I thought: ‘I’ll take him down and take the yellow. I can’t let him away, he’s too quick.’ And then yeah, looking back, it wasn’t the best challenge.”

Keena still managed to make a positive impact overall amid a handful of first-team appearances at Pat’s. 

Dubliner Jon Daly, recently named as the Richmond Park outfit’s assistant boss, was coaching at underage level with Hearts at the time and recommended the teenage striker to the club.

Keena had just turned 18 when he moved across the water after a successful trial and noticed a significant difference when it came to playing in Britain.

“Obviously, it’s much more of a professional environment [compared with] travelling up from school every day — you’re actually in every day, that’s your job now.

“So it was a big change. And the standard in training was a bit tougher than usual as well.”

So does he feel he became a better player by virtue of the move abroad?

“I don’t know. If I was to get first-team opportunities more frequently, I probably would have stayed. But when I did go over, I got involved in the first team quick enough. So it maybe would have worked well either way.

“I didn’t mind being away at all. It’s only half an hour flight if I wanted to come home, and Hearts were pretty good with that. If any foreign player wanted to go home, they’d let you go.”

With Keena very much viewed as a star for the future, first-team chances tended to be limited at Tynecastle Park.

“The first half of the first season, I was on the bench a bit and playing in the reserves. Then I went on loan for the second half of the season.

“And then I was on loan for the first half of the [second] season. So I wasn’t really there for that much of it. And then I came back from that second loan, I was playing quite regularly then for maybe five or six games and then I injured my knee. And that put me out for the rest of the season. And then I came back and a new manager was there, and stuff like that. It just never really worked out the way I had hoped.”

liam-buckley-before-the-game Liam Buckley worked with Keena at Pat's and also brought him to Sligo. Source: Evan Logan/INPHO

Was bad fortune therefore largely to blame for a failure to establish himself with the Scottish Premiership outfit?

“You could say there was that bit of [bad] luck involved and there were obviously good strikers there as well, it was a big club. So it never really went the way you hoped it would. But it still wasn’t too bad either.”

Keena did get regular game time amid loan spells with Queen’s Park and Dunfermline, which proved invaluable in the long term.

“At Hearts, you’re obviously a reserve player playing with the first team. They wouldn’t really see you as an actual first-team player. You’re just one of the young lads. But you go on loan and it’s different. You’re the main striker for those teams and you get a bit more respect and stuff like that.

“And being in a first-team changing room, people having a right go at each other after games and at half-time — it is an eye-opener and you grow up a bit. Going on those loans I think made me the player I am today.”

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However, his progress in the Scottish lower leagues did not prevent a disappointing end to his time at Hearts, as the young Irishman was bluntly told he was surplus to requirements — a moment that emphasised the ruthless nature of professional football.

“It was in my last year, and there was talk of me getting a new deal,” he recalls. “Craig Levein was the manager at the time, he was saying: ‘I’ll give you a new deal, just let me get a better run of results,’ it will be easier to put to the board, basically.

“But he never got that run and he got sacked. The new manager came in, I played the first couple of games with him. I basically said: ‘I need a new deal or else I need to go. I’m coming into the last few months [of my contract], and I need to get something sorted. And he kind of said: ‘Right, on you go then.’”

A subsequent move to Hartlepool United proved short-lived, with the onset of the pandemic among other factors ensuring it was a brief stay.

“My girlfriend got pregnant as well over there. And she was from Scotland. So it just kind of made sense [to leave]. Covid had kind of wrecked that season. She wanted to move home as well. And I was just kind of like: ‘It’s the National League, I’m not playing in League One or the Championship or anything, I may as well just go back up with her.’”

A stint with Falkirk ensued, but it was a difficult time for the club who were languishing in Scottish League One.

Keena spent a year and a half there, registering eight goals in 38 appearances before his contract was terminated by mutual consent, with head coach Martin Rennie explaining that the youngster wanted to “return to Ireland and be closer to his family”.

“I enjoyed it but the club was in a tough period,” he explains. “Everything that could have gone wrong at the club when I was there went wrong, and then it just kind of fizzled out in the end and I was happy to get out.

“I just wanted to leave Falkirk. I wasn’t really sure where I was going to go. Liam Buckley rang me and I had worked with him before obviously. He’s always had a decent track record with strikers, so it was kind of a no brainer [to sign for Sligo].”

The attacker is consequently delighted to be back home for a second spell in the Premier Division.

“I think the league doesn’t get enough praise. The standard is much better than people [acknowledge] and this season, most teams have had really good [support] with fans. It’s been enjoyable so far anyway.”

So after a stop-start couple of years, Keena is hoping to fulfil his potential with the Bit O’Red and show why he invariably was considered one of the top strikers in his age group growing up.

“I think I missed out at U18 but I played every other age up to 21s [with Ireland]. I loved it, you’re playing for your country and I was still at home for most of it. There are boys in the UK and it was [beneficial] at a young age to be in training with them. They were at Premier League academies and I was at St Pat’s, so it was good to come up against them and see how hard I needed to work, and how far off I was, but I never felt like it was too far off.”

Although he adds: “We played Germany and were flying 2-0 with about 10 minutes ago. They brought on two or three players and we didn’t touch the ball for the rest of the game and they beat us 3-2. I just remember thinking ‘that’s a different level we’ve seen there.’”

Having witnessed the likes of Sean Maguire and Jack Byrne earn call-ups to the Irish senior team largely on the back of impressive seasons in the League of Ireland in recent years, Keena is hoping to eventually do likewise but understands there is much work to be done before it becomes a realistic prospect.

“There’s a long way to go before there’s an international call-up on the cards, but I need to aim for it. I’m only 23, I’ve to put in work and hopefully in the next while, I can get [a call-up]. But it’s a long, long way off yet.”

For now, Keena’s main focus is on continuing to establish himself as a key player for Sligo.

“There are a lot of times in the game where it’s not going to be enjoyable, or you’re going through rough patches or whatever. So [it's important to] make sure when it is enjoyable, to enjoy it, and to work hard so that those enjoyable moments last longer.”

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Paul Fennessy

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