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'The Irish lads at Leeds were so good to us. They would always be giving us money and stuff'

Midfielder Paul Keegan opens up about his playing days in England and returning home to help Waterford’s cause.

FOR A YOUNG lad from Dublin, Leeds United must have felt like the perfect place to receive your football education in the early 2000s.

David O’Leary, scorer of that iconic penalty at Italia ’90, was in charge, with Gary Kelly and Ian Harte both featuring regularly for his “babies” and Robbie Keane arriving from Inter Milan.

The Yorkshire club’s youth ranks also had a strong Irish contingent — promising teenager Stephen McPhail and Alan Maybury were just breaking into the first team, while Damien Lynch, Alan Cawley and Paul Keegan also called Leeds home.

Castleknock native Keegan had made the move across from Home Farm and soon found himself lining out for the reserves. Life couldn’t have been going much better.

“Leeds was a good fit for me at the time,” the midfielder tells The42. “There were loads of Irish players in the first team and the club was pushing for the youth through.

“They hooked up with Home Farm as well so it all worked out. Leeds were challenging for the Premier League and competing in the Champions League and they were such great times for us as kids.”

“The Irish lads were so good to us,” he adds. “I used to clean Stephen McPhail’s boots. They made sure that everything was looked after and they would always be giving us money and stuff. It was so easy from that side of it.”

Soccer - Friendly - Kettering Town v Leeds United Keegan lining out for Leeds in 2003. Source: Tony Marshall

A third-place finish in the Premier League earned Leeds qualification to the Champions League and they would go on to reach the semi-finals of Europe’s top club competition — losing out to Valencia in the last four.

As a ball boy at Elland Road, Keegan vividly remembers taking in many of those special nights from the sidelines.

“All these huge clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona were coming to the ground,” he says. “Going to watch those games was the best education you could ever ask for.”

However, having taken out huge loans to make several big-money signings, Leeds just missed out on Champions League qualification in the following two seasons and chairman Peter Risdale was forced to sell off their most prized assets. O’Leary got the sack in 2002 as the club plunged into an irreversible downward spiral.

Keegan witnessed its swift demise first-hand, and says the change in atmosphere around the club happened almost overnight.

“When I first went over, Leeds were really starting to build something and we signed Robbie Keane, Rio Ferdinand, Olivier Dacourt and Robbie Fowler. Everything was just getting bigger and bigger. Everyone seemed to be signing new deals and you kept hearing about people getting improved contracts.

But they’ve obviously taken a gamble on getting into Europe the following year and just missed out. All of a sudden, they’re like ‘Right, it’s a fire sale’ and everyone starts to leave.

“Things just went from bad to worse. Managers changed regularly as David O’Leary left, then there was Terry Venables, Peter Reid and Kevin Blackwell. It was a shame because you could see players departing and the club going from a Premier League team to a Championship one.”

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Semi Final First Leg - Leeds United v Valencia Leeds captain Rio Ferdinand and Valencia skipper Gaizka Mendieta before their Champions League semi-final first leg at Elland Road. Source: EMPICS Sport

Under caretaker Eddie Gray, Keegan was named in a couple of first-team squads but an injury and the arrival of Kevin Blackwell put an end to his prospects at Leeds.

“I think I was playing in the reserves in my first year, so I was 15-16 but then I was 20-21 and still playing there,” he says. “You need to push on.

“Eddie was in charge and he put me in the squad so I was on the bench against Birmingham and Arsenal. He was looking to push me on and bring a few lads through, but then I picked up an injury to my calf. I tried to work through it but couldn’t.

“Relegation was knocking on the door and he wanted to give a few of us a chance because he had been at the club a long time. I got injured though and then we went down.

“I had to have an operation on my calf, and then Kevin Blackwell came in. I hadn’t been around for a while because I wasn’t fit and the next thing he is like ‘Who are you?’. They didn’t want to know and I realised my time there was over.

Us young lads were associated with the good times at the club and they probably felt we were on high wages that maybe we weren’t deserving of.

“The whole club had changed, most of the staff and players were gone and it wasn’t the same. There weren’t the chances that I would have got under Eddie and I was looking forward to a new challenge.

“I was ready to go and carve out a career. You haven’t grown up when you’re a young lad like that and reserve team football is terrible. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose and there’s no pressure involved.”

After five years at Leeds, Keegan found himself without a club. That summer, there was interest from Barnsley and Hull City but offers were dependent on them offloading players to make room and he was keen to secure a deal as soon as possible.

Shelbourne boss Pat Fenlon had been in touch while he was still under contract, but it was a phone call from Tony Cousins that led to a move back to Ireland.

“Andy Cousins had played at Leeds and I knew his brother Tony as he came over and watched us a bit,” he explains. “He rang me and said they’d like to get me down to Drogheda, meet Paul Doolin and see if I’d like it.

“I trained for a couple of days and then signed a two-year deal straight away. It was all very quick and I think I played that weekend.

“It was a good decision because Drogheda was a great club then and they were building at the time. I knew Damien Lynch from Leeds and then there was Stephen Bradley and Graham Gartland from Home Farm so I had met a lot of the lads.”

Paul Keegan and Declan O'Brien celebrate 23/9/2005 Celebrating a goal for Drogheda with Fabio O'Brien. Source: INPHO

Keegan relished his first real opportunity to experience senior football and success soon followed. After winning the FAI Cup in 2005, the Drogs added two Setanta Sports Cups and the club’s first and only top flight title during his three-year stay.

“It was a really enjoyable time,” he says. “Paul Doolin was a tough manager but he was probably what I needed at that point. He made me into a man by emphasising how crucial every tackle is if you want to win things. I learned that from him and we won trophies, so it was brilliant. It turned out to be a good decision.”

But things were to turn sour in late 2008 as the Louth club went into examinership as plans to build a new ground fell through and extinction was narrowly avoided.

“We had won the league and did well, then the next season we came back and it’s like anything in that the second time around is always tougher,” Keegan recalls. “Everyone was out to beat us and prove a point so we were stuttering along but doing alright.

“There were plans to build a new stadium just outside Drogheda with a shopping centre and apartments. Then everything started to dry up and it turned out they weren’t going to get the planning permission.

People were beginning to pull money and we took a wage deferral for a couple of months. I just knew at the time that things weren’t there on the financial side of it. The club was in trouble so I waited to see what was happening but all of a sudden everyone started to talk about leaving.”

Early in the new year, Keegan made his exit and signed for Bohemians. He had attended St Declan’s school in Cabra — just up the road from Dalymount Park — and remembers going to watch the Gypsies play in a couple of FAI Cup finals as a boy.

Manager Pat Fenlon knew him from battles with Drogheda and got in touch.

“Bohs were a good team and they had just won the league,” he says. “I felt it would be a good progression. I looked at the players who had joined from Shelbourne and they were big names. That brought me to Bohs and I learned from those lads while winning more silverware.

“It was a perfect fit and they were flying so that made it a really easy decision for me.”

Matt Greg, Paul Keegan, Brian Shelley and Joseph Ndo After signing for Bohemians in 2009 with Matt Gregg, Brian Shelley and Joseph Ndo. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

That Bohs side was littered with talent and as a defensive midfielder who shielded the backline, Keegan’s job was to win possession and find a team-mate.

“We had a great team and I really enjoyed it. I was looking up to all these lads — Neale Fenn, who I saw there last week, Glen Crowe, Jason Byrne, Owen Heary, Joseph Ndo, Brian Shelley and Stephen Gray came in as well. The squad we had then was one of the best I ever played in.

“It was so easy for me because all I was doing was getting the ball and giving it to the other lads. Joey Ndo could beat everyone himself if he wanted to!”

inpho_00392767 Keegan lifting the league trophy with Bohemians in 2009. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Bohs clinched a league and league cup double in his first season, before adding the Setanta Cup a year later. Off the pitch too, as Keegan explains, there was a lot to be said for living close to family and friends in your hometown.

“You go in and train in the morning, then you’re coming back to the house and you can pop in to see your friends and do whatever you want.

“Living at home is a great thing to have. I’ve always told the English lads that they don’t know how lucky they are.”

Although Keegan was content with life at Bohs, former Arsenal and Ireland striker Graham Barrett had just gone into representing players after retiring and he explained that a couple of clubs across the water could be interested.

“I was kind of like ‘No, I’m happy at Bohs’,” he takes up the story, “But then something similar happened in that they had found themselves in financial trouble.

“There was talk a wage deferral again and there were doubts if the club was going to survive. Then you start thinking to yourself ‘Is football sustainable in this country? Can this be my job or am I going to have to go and find other work?’.

I was only young at the time so it wasn’t as important to me as it was for some of the lads with wives and kids. How were they going to provide?”

On top of the news that there were major question marks over the future of Bohemians, it also felt like he had some unfinished business in England.

“There always was that burning ambition to go back over,” he admits. “Kevin Blackwell had released me from Leeds and he just had that impression that I wasn’t good enough to be there. So it was always in my mind that I’d like to return and prove people wrong. Rejection is a tough thing to take.”

Paul Keegan with Darron Gibson Facing Manchester United for the League of Ireland XI at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Both Reading and Doncaster Rovers offered him trials, and a trip to the Royals was first on the cards — but it didn’t exactly go to plan.

“I went to Reading and we played a training ground game,” Keegan remembers. “It was windy, rainy and the rest of it and I was terrible. It was one of those games where nothing went right. They said they will have to give me a ring back, it just didn’t go well at all.”

That experience cast a little doubt in his mind, but the second trial was about to pay off for the then 26-year-old.

“I was thinking to myself ‘What’s the point?’. Graham told me Doncaster wanted me to have a look but I wasn’t sure if I was bothered any more as I felt a little frustrated. I agreed to go, and a week turned into two before they eventually said they would be interested in signing me in January.”

Doncaster were sitting just outside the play-off places in the Championship at the time so knowing they wanted his services was a huge confidence boost for Keegan.

After Kevin saying I wasn’t going to be good enough, it was great to hear for my own self-belief.

“But I was still tied to Bohs at the time and they were looking to pay us off as they owed us wages. I eventually said I’d take whatever was being offered and go, but then they were like ‘Well where are you going?’.

“So I was trying to keep it quiet because they could have turned around and asked for money. The didn’t know at the time where I was off to so I took what was offered, which was probably half the money that was owed, and I left for Doncaster in January.

“I wanted to give it as good a go as I could and prove myself over there. Luckily enough, it came at the right time because the money dried up in Ireland and a lot of the lads who stayed here went through hard times with reductions in wages and going onto the dole and stuff.

“It all worked out for me. Going to Doncaster gave me huge confidence and it was another challenge.”

The fact that ex-Ireland U21 international Sean O’Driscoll managed the club was also another attraction as Keegan was immediately impressed and he got off to an encouraging start.

“Sean is a very smart manager,” he says. “He is a real intellect and was probably ahead of his time a little bit.

“He was big on statistics and knew every little detail. We would have pages on the opposition team and this was just before people got really into the levels of statistics there are today.

“We’d be working in training and he would want you to sort out the problems. Training was very good and I really enjoyed it.

There was a few injuries and I came straight into the team. We had a tough little run but I loved every minute of it because we were playing all these top teams with 25,000 at most games.

“I think I played 12 games in a row and then I picked up a bang on my knee so I had to have a little cartilage done. Sean was happy with what he had seen and signed me to stay on for the next season.”

But a poor run of results at the beginning of 2011/12 saw O’Driscoll lose his job before September was out.

“The football we played was about keeping the ball, holding onto it, passing it and playing your way out of trouble. But we had too many draws come the start of the following season and the fans were expecting us to be up near the top of the table.

“The board decided to get rid of him, which I don’t think was the right decision at the time.”

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Doncaster Rovers v Charlton Athletic - Keepmoat Stadium Winning possession off Charlton's Jordan Cousins for Doncaster. Source: Nigel French

Dean Saunders replaced O’Driscoll and the club embarked on an unusual recruitment policy with the help of agent Willie McKay. A raft of foreign players with Premier League experience and relatively high profiles were signed, including former Liverpool forward El-Hadji Diouf, Freddie Piquionne, Marc-Antoine Fortune, Pascal Chimbonda, Habib Beye and Herita ­Ilunga.

But it was to prove unsuccessful. Keegan, who was sidelined at the time after undergoing two knee operations, says it caused tension among the squad as there was a real lack of unity.

“The board went through this experimental phase of bringing in all of these French players on loan,” he tells. “Habib Beye was training with Paris Saint-Germain and he would fly over on a Friday, then play on a Saturday! We had all these big players in the Championship but we weren’t working together.

There was a divide in the dressing room and we didn’t have any sort of cohesive group. When you have players who aren’t willing to work hard it’s never going to be enough.”

Rovers were relegated to League One and the strategy was scrapped, with Saunders putting together a “solid squad of home-based players” that would go on to win the title and secure an immediate return to the second tier.

In six years at the club, Keegan made 145 appearances and looks back on his spell there fondly.

“There were plenty of ups and downs but they were brilliant times,” he says. “Paul Dickov took over and I played my best football under him. He gave me the confidence to play, saying ‘Go out there, enjoy it and just keep doing what you’re doing’.

“We ended up getting relegated on goal difference, but I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Soccer - npower Football League Championship - Leeds United v Doncaster Rovers - Elland Road El-Hadji Diouf and Pascal Chimbonda were briefly with Doncaster. Pictured here with Ross McCormack, Adam Lockwood and Darren O'Dea. Source: Nigel French

Keegan also represented Ireland right up to U23 level, and while the senior call-up never came, he’s proud to have lined out in the green jersey.

“Making your first Ireland debut at U15s was such a big thing,” he says, looking back. “We played Scotland away. I remember playing England at Dalymount Park and drawing 1-1 at U19 level with a huge crowd there.

“Captaining the team at U23 level was great and I’ll never forget it. Obviously I would have liked to make the step up and play in the senior team. Maybe if I’d been playing at Doncaster and we were consistently in the Championship I might have got a shot.

“You need to be playing as high as you possibly can be to catch the attention of the international manager. Going away with the Ireland teams used to be brilliant. Even when we were kids at Leeds we loved it as you would get a week away with a bunch of Irish lads.”

Keegan had the pleasure of calling Wes Hoolahan a team-mate for Ireland but was also unfortunate enough to be tasked with marking him at club level and he can’t speak highly of his fellow Dubliner.

“I remember watching Wes as a player and I was just like ‘This fella is different class’. I saw him at Shels and I couldn’t believe he wasn’t away in England. Then I played with him at U21 level and opponents couldn’t get the ball off him.

“He’s similar to Joseph Ndo in that you couldn’t get near him and he kept the ball all day. I knew if someone took a chance on him then he would rip it up… and he has.

I played against him at Doncaster and Sean O’Driscoll told me that my job was to stop Wes. I was touch tight to him for most of the game and Wes was looking at me like ‘What are you doing? Get away from me’.

“That’s how highly we thought about him at the time — if we could stop him then we could get something from Norwich. I watch him now, whether it’s for Ireland or Norwich, and he’s generally one of the best players on the pitch.

“I also played with Glenn Whelan, who has had a great career. Stephen Elliott has done great too. Paddy Madden was with us at Bohs and he was just a young lad loving football. He’s flying now, scoring goals and he got himself an Irish cap.

“You’re delighted for lads you played with who go on and do well because it’s a tough game and you can pick up injuries and a bit of bad luck.”

Paul Keegan He represented Ireland right up to U23 level. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Under Darren Ferguson, Doncaster finished third in League Two last season to claim promotion and they had a clear-out in May with several players released. Keegan was one of the names on that list and departed as their second longest-serving player. At 33, he felt it was the right time to return to Ireland.

“To be honest, I’ve always wanted to come home,” Keegan says. “I was never going to stay in England. The last couple of seasons I had a few injuries with my knees and stuff. I’d only have been signing for a League One or League Two team. At my age, you’re not going to be pushing on and looking to play at the highest level.

“That was the reason I went over, when I joined Doncaster they were Championship and I wanted to play at as a high a level as I could. My family and all my friends are here and that was a big part of the decision too.

“It was always in the back of my mind and I kind of knew for the last six or seven months before I came back that this would be my next step — unless there was an offer that I couldn’t turn down over there. But you’re not going to get that with injuries. I was delighted to come home.”

So a League of Ireland comeback was on the cards and after speaking to a couple of interested parties, linking up with his old boss seemed like the right choice. Although Waterford were in the First Division, they were on the verge of promotion as owner Lee Power had invested well with Fenlon brought in as director of football to allow manager Alan Reynolds to concentrate on on-field matters.

“I’ve obviously worked with Pat before at Bohs and in the Ireland U23s so I knew him well,” says Keegan. “He called me and said he had been down there since the start of the season as they were building something for the future. They’ve got a good chairman in and they’re trying to do things right.

“Obviously they’re in the First Division but the aim was to get straight up. They were in a very good position at the time, sitting top when I went down. It was basically Pat trying to get in a bit of experience.

“I’ve won stuff with him before so I think he wanted me to help with the younger lads, get it over the line and build for the future. I spoke to a few people and had a couple of different offers but it just felt right with Pat and Alan. It has worked out now, we’ve got up by winning the league.

A few people said to me ‘What if you don’t go up?’ but I suppose you enjoy that bit of pressure and we just had to make sure to go out and win the games.”

He adds: “The lads are great. I knew Kenny Browne before I went down. I’m sure he’d walk into any Premier Division team. He’s a great defender and he’s very good on the ball as well.

“There are plenty of young lads and then the likes of Mark O’Sullivan so it’s a good mix of experience and youth there. When you’re going into a winning team it’s easier than going into one that’s struggling too.”

Keegan has become a regular for Waterford since arriving in July and, with the title already secured, they got their hands on the First Division trophy last weekend.

“It was really nice,” he says. “You forget that they’ve been out of the Premier Division for a long time and there are a lot of people there that were so happy. To be fair, we’ve had great crowds down there and the fans have been really good to us.

“Coming in at half-time we’ve been drawing games and the fans have been cheering us when others might boo. I think next season they will build on that with good crowds and make it a hard place to go for teams.”

Paul Keegan and Sam Verdon Keegan in Waterford's colours alongside Sam Verdon of Longford Town during a recent game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Having signed up for next year, he is already looking forward to making a return to the Premier Division.

“Pat was like ‘We want get up and we want you to be part of it next year when we build on it’. I was happy to sign. It’s exciting times for everyone so hopefully we can keep the guts of the team together and add to it because there are some good young lads there.”

Although he’s in the latter stages of his career, Keegan makes sure to look after himself and believes there’s still plenty left in the tank.

“If you look at the Championship or League One in England, you’re playing two games every week and it’s tough going. Coming back to Waterford, we’ve one game a week — training Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and a match Friday.

“It’s just that little bit easier on the body and it suits me to do that. I go to the gym and doing stuff on my time off anyway. The easy part is to keep yourself in good shape. You look at some talented players out there and they don’t do it.

Your career will be over before you know it. If you can’t keep yourself fit, some player who might not be as talented as you will be stronger and quicker. You need to look after yourself, the older you get.

“We did a lot of yoga and stretching at Doncaster and I do that everyday myself just so I can enjoy it. Like people say, you’ll be a long time retired so I want to play for as long as I can.”

He feels the nature of his role in the team could also help prolong his career too.

“I’ve always sat in there and protected the back four. It’s a position that suits and it’s one that I could potentially play for a long time. You’re just covering, looking after other players, filling in and organising as you can see everything.

“For Waterford, I’m coming down with a bit of experience so I’m talking to people around me. They were looking for a deep-lying midfielder and I think I could play for a long time if injuries go my way.”

When Keegan does eventually hang the boots up, he’s got options. He earned a degree in business during his days at Drogheda and Bohs and opened his own bar in Doncaster, which he sold recently, while coaching is also a possibility.

“That gave me an interest outside football and I enjoyed it. I’m going to do my coaching badges because I wouldn’t like to leave it behind after all the years in football as I feel I know a bit about it.

“If an opportunity came along then I could take it alongside doing something else. Sure we’ll see over the next few years”

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