Conal Keaney gets away from JJ Delaney during the Leinster SHC semi-final in Portlaoise
VINCENT HOGAN – 10 AUGUST 2013
It was a cold, spring night near Dublin airport and Conal Keaney looked like a shark caught up in a shoal of mackerel. His aggression startled those around him. In the congenial setting of Dublin training, it felt almost inappropriate. Humphrey Kelleher remembers momentarily considering a quiet word, something murmured discreetly.
“Take it easy Conal, ’tis only training … “
But some sixth sense stopped Kelleher in his tracks. Deep down, he knew the kid’s anger was articulating a broad truth. That tension bursting out of Keaney merely told the group that he was insulted by ambivalence. He needed people to share his rage, not put it on a Petri dish.
But Dublin hurling just wasn’t ready. It wouldn’t be for some time.
When Keaney eventually walked into the seductive embrace of the county’s footballers, nobody feigned surprise. Dublin GAA was a one-way street. The best hurlers were invariably decent at football too and, in time, almost all would make the same journey.
Nurturing hurling in the city became a fool’s errand, the equivalent of trying to sustain a bird sanctuary next to a power station.
Kelleher says that he still sees clearly in his “mind’s eye” the anger of Keaney’s focus that night by the din of a busy airport runway. “We were training up on Ballymun Kickhams’ all-weather pitch and we had a game of backs and forwards,” recalls the former Dublin manager.
“Conal was maybe 20 or 21 at the time, but I remember him going in very aggressively, pulling very hard.
“I felt like saying something, but I didn’t in the end. It highlighted to me that this guy wanted to win every ball, he wanted to be the winner. He stood out hugely from everybody else.
“He didn’t give a sh**e whether he got hurt or whether he hurt anybody. Now he wasn’t going in to hurt people deliberately … but that was just the type of attitude that he had. And if other players didn’t have that attitude, he didn’t want to be involved with them. That was the one characteristic that highlighted to me that Conal Keaney was special.
“The ball was hopping all over the place and he was going in, winning that dirty ball every time. And I pulled myself back from telling him to go easy, because I think he was right. If anything, he taught me a lesson that you can’t just switch it on from training on to a match.
“You train as you want to play.”
Keaney played his first senior game for Dublin’s hurlers as a Leaving Certstudent and would continue until the summer of ’04. That year, he was red-carded during a Leinster Championship victory over Westmeath, forcing him to sit out the subsequent semi-final loss to Offaly.
And Kelleher knew that he was about to lose a gem.
“Conal was there for one reason and one reason only – to win,” he remembers. “And he couldn’t see in the Dublin set-up that I had that we were going to win. He was right. I knew we weren’t going to win either, because we were going through a development stage.
“He saw the wood from the trees and we had a long chat about it. We walked around St Mary’s College grounds at training one night. We chatted and he could see that maybe the future wasn’t going to be as strong then.
“I knew he was going to go when we went down to play Wexford in a Walsh Cup match in Piercestown and actually beat Wexford. He came to me afterwards and said he was going to opt for the football. The writing was on the wall.
“I tried to talk him out of it, but could see that I was fighting a losing battle. The lure of the footballers at the time would have been far greater than the lure of the hurlers. I knew also that I didn’t have two or three Conal Keaneys to support him. He could see that there wasn’t going to be enough there.
“There were a lot of trials for guys that just weren’t good enough. It’s just the way things were.”
When Keaney was hurling at U-21 level for Dublin, his manager, Tommy Naughton, considered him potentially one of the best four hurlers in the country.
The loss of such a talent for six seasons ought to have thrown Dublin’s hurling community into convulsions. But they’d become programmed to such leakage. Others like ‘Dotsy’ O’Callaghan, Shane Ryan, David Henry and Diarmuid Connolly would follow suit. Dublin was existing as a ‘dual county’ in aspiration, but not practice.
So, while Keaney was subsequently stockpiling county titles with a rampant Ballyboden St Enda’s, he was off-limits to the county’s hurling team.
He would win five Leinster titles with the footballers and, almost every year, find himself the subject of rumour about a return to the hurling fold.
When Ryan made the move back as a reigning football all star in ’09, it was thought that Keaney might follow. He didn’t.
It took him another year to finally call time on his chase for a football All-Ireland and, wouldn’t you know it, the moment he left that dressing-room, Sam Maguire came through the door.
To be fair, Keaney wasn’t slow to congratulate former team-mates on the victory of 2011, admitting subsequently: “I wouldn’t be jealous or anything like that. There were a lot of lads there a long time trying to win it, they just happened to do it the year I went back to hurling.”
In any event, his first year back offered a fleeting glimpse of the mountain-top, Dublin claiming their first National Hurling League title since 1939. They did so with an emphatic final defeat of Kilkenny that was signatured by Keaney’s wonderful 73rd-minute point over the Hill-end goal from inside his own half.
In raw symbolism, it was a score all but bestowing the Sword of Excalibur on Dublin hurling.
But reality soon came crowding in again. In the week of an All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick, Keaney was knocked off his motorbike on the way to work in Blessington. He sustained serious knee and ankle injuries. But, despite his season being over, Keaney had the wit to recognise his blessings.
“I know I was lucky,” he said at the time.
“Over the weekend, there were a couple of other bike accidents and the people involved in them died. I don’t need to be told I’m more fortunate than unfortunate.”
One of the injuries sustained was a torn cruciate in his left knee, making Keaney the third high-profile Dublin hurler to be struck down by such an injury.
In many ways, Dublin’s whole season in 2012 would, thus, be constructed around the compulsion to rehabilitate Keaney, Stephen Hiney and Tomas Brady and a general pre-occupation with strength and conditioning.
In the process, they all but forgot to hurl.
Dublin were devoured by Kilkenny in Portlaoise and Keaney then missed their eventual championship eviction against Clare in Ennis.
For a time, it looked as if the Dublin hurling story hung in the balance.
Yet, Anthony Daly’s decision to give it one more year reassured the players that faith in them was not yet bankrupt. And, suddenly, they find themselves Leinster champions for the first time since Floyd Patterson was heavyweight champion of the World.
Keaney’s performance in the provincial final rout of Galway captured the competitive majesty that men like Kelleher and Naughton knew was deprived of the county for so long. Time and again, in the second period especially, he made some wonderful high catches that drew Daly to compare him to his own former Clare colleague, Seanie MacMahon.
Daly described the Ballyboden man as “really immense when he needed to be,” adding: “You talk about a game plan and that, it’s down to raw courage. Stick up your hand!
“To have the courage and belief to stick up your hand at a time like that, it was great on the sideline to see that.”
But, maybe Naughton put it most succinctly of all. “I think,” he said “everyone is braver around him.”
EVEN WHEN LOST to Dublin’s county team, it is said that Keaney still had a hurley in his hand every day.
The game is his first love and it shows. Under Pat Gilroy, he had drifted to the periphery of Dublin’s plans in football, stereotyped as one-dimensional. In hurling, he just travels with a bigger suitcase.
Kelleher is unequivocal.
“Without doubt, he’s a more natural hurler than a footballer,” he says. “He wins so much dirty ball, can strike off left or right, is terrific in the air and he knows how to drive through contact.
“Playing with Dublin at the time that I was involved wasn’t going to develop him any more than not playing with us. I accept that. Because we just weren’t in that space. But still you could see how important he could be to a team.
“Put it this way, if you compared our results in league or championship matches where we had him against those where we didn’t, there was a massive difference.
“I would say Conal Keaney is an exceptional hurler who is only now getting his rewards. And wouldn’t it be great for him to cap it off with an All-Ireland medal in hurling, given he lost out on one in football?”
Last February on the Ballyboden St Enda’s club website, Keaney was interviewed in a question and answer format.
One of the enquiries was “What has been your greatest moment in sport?”
His reply? “Still waiting!”