Kerry Footballers

John O'Keeffe - The Prince of Full Backs

by Weeshie Fogarty

The dissipation of so many dreams that inevitably followed Kerry's All Ireland defeat of 1982, hit nobody harder than John O' Keeffe On the threshold of his eight Celtic Cross award, victory over Offaly would have set him apart in football's Hall of Fame and place him alongside those hurling and immortals John Doyle, Christy Ring and Noel Skehan.

Afterwards, the Austin Stacks clubman remarked philosophically that "It wasn't to be'' and although his star is still in the ascendancy, who is to say now that the chance will come again?

On the run-in to the Final, O' keeffe suffered a harrowing two weeks during which he was unable to participate in any form of training. An old hamstring ailment that has plagued his career had once again surfaced, and there were serious doubts as to whether or not be would participate in the most important game of his life. Alive to the realities of the situation, the Kerry selectors, understandably amused, imposed the now-familiar and controversial defensive role on Jack O'Shea. However with the knowledge of hindsight, one wonders if the Cahirciveen colossal might have been  better employed on his own domain because from the opening minutes, it became patently obvious that John O' keeffe didn't need anybody to shore up the defense. As with so often in the past, when the whips were cracking, he was playing as well as ever and his performance over the 70 minutes was entirely worthy of a man who has never let take side down.
Kerry's much decorated defensive pivot comes from football stock and it is scarcely surprising that he should follow in the footsteps of his father, Frank, who gained an All-Ireland medal when Kerry edged out Roscommon in the titanic 1946 replay, a game which many grey-beard followers in the Kingdom still rate as one of the best finals ever seen in Croke Park. The following year Frank O' keeffe was again operating out of right full forward when Kerry lost their All-Ireland crown to Cavan at the Polo Grounds, New York.
"My father encouraged me at every opportunity'', Johno would say; and it would have been in the natural order of things had he followed him into the ranks of Boherbee John Mitchels. But circumstances dictated otherwise. He attended the local C.B.S. at Clonalour where he now teaches and here he cam under the tutelage of Michael Hayes who was a Rock street man through and through. ''The Brothers were marvellous'' John says, remembering those early days and with further gentle persuasion from Jimmy Hobbart and the late Joe Mulchinock, he threw in his lot with Austin Stacks. As the years went by, he teamed up with his distant cousin, Ger O'Keeffe, Mikey Sheehy, Ger Power, Denis Long and John L. McElligott to help fashion one of tile best sides ever seen in Kerry and when Stacks won the All-Ireland Club Championship in 1977, it was no more than fitting reward for a lot of hard work and no little dedication.
With St. Brendan's Seminary, Killarney where Fr Linane was games master, O'Keeffe captained the side which won the All-Ireland colleges final in 1969, the only Kerry schools team ever to achieve this distinction. After a lean innings in minor football, it provided a welcome respite because he had been part of an abortive attempt to unseat Cork in 3 successive provincial finals. His promotion to the Kerry senior panel was rapid and while still a student at St. Patrick's Training College, Drumcondra, he gained his first All-Ireland medal in 1969 as a substitute when Kerry, inspired by Dan Joe Crowley and Tom Prendergast, narrowly overcame Offaly at windswept Croke Park.
The following March, the reigning champions embarked on their epoch- making voyage to Australia, crossing the globe from east to west. John O'keeffe, however, missed out on that trip and when the Kerrymen winged their way out of Dublin Airport, he could hear the sound of their aircraft bearing them to far away places from his hospital bed in the Bon Secours Nursing Home, Glasnevsin. A cartilage injury had interrupted his career and when his surgeon, Dr. McAuley failed lo ''unlock'' his knee under anesthetic, it ended whatever slim chance he had of making the trip. To add to his misery, the Kerry players called to see him on their way to the airport. Undoubtedly, they meant well but for a lad of 19 summers, it was a traumatic experience. The fates, however were kind to him and when the Kingdom footballers revisited Australia in 1981, John O' keeffe, perhaps more than anybody, savoured his first glimpse of the fabled Opera House and the grey steel span of Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Immediately following his operation, he gegan to play what he considers to have been the best football of his career at St. Pats and when he moved on to University, he came under the influence of the present Offaly manager Eugene McGee, whom he refers to as a good friend and a man of rare inspirational qualities. The team tactical talks would often extend for hours on end and in 3 county finals against St.Vincents, two of which were successful, McGee had his charges absolutely "boiling over" with determination. He has fond memories of his years at U.C.D., the 3 Sigerson Cup medals that he won and the great friendships that were forged.
Immediately after winning his 3rd All-Ireland medal in 1975, O' keeffe moved to Loughborough College in the British midlands where he completed a 1 year post graduate course in physical education. It was, he recalls, a fabulous experience", living in an environment that was absolutely saturated in the mechanics and refinements of physical culture. He revelled in the atmosphere of the place where so many of the big names of sport had hung their hats including, in his own time, Sebastian Coe and David Moorcroft.
The Kerry fullback is himself a fitness fanatic. He lives quietly, eats sensibly and trains religiously. His massive physical strength is a by-product of unswerving devotion to the lofty ideals of ancient Rome: Mens sana in corpore sano. All year round, there is no respite and in Winter, his weight lifting programme at O'Mahonys gym in Tralee would make many a good athlete cringe with inadequacy. He loves the sweat and toil of the training ground, the stamina-sapping exercises, the sheer hard physical graft. Not surprisingly, his muscular development is probably the ultimate in athletic manhood and his powerful frame enshrines the physique of a Greek god. Indeed, he has often been chided for not using his strength more ruthlessly but he never does, preferring to embellish his game with pure skill rather than brute force.
Like Paddy O' Brien of Meath and Mayo's Paddy Prendergast before him, John O' keeffe made the transition from midfield to fullback with consummate ease. "As a midfielder, " he says, "I was always inclined to play defensively and consequently fullback play came easily on me." However, it is, he claims, "a pressurized position" and he would much prefer to operate outfield where he could express himself more freely. On the fringe of the Kerry square, he has faced the best full forwards in the game from Declan Barron to Jimmy Keaveney and rarely, if ever, has he come off second best. He loved playing against Dublin, the atmosphere, the tension, the sense of occasion and he relished particularly his jousts with Keaveney whom he refers to as the most consistently dangerous opponent be has faced. "He never had an off-day," he said, "He was always capable of the unexpected and conceding possession to him usually meant a score".
In many ways, 1982 would probably rate as the unluckiest year of John O'keeffe's long and illustrious career. Nobody knows the inner turmoil he must leave suffered as be awaited the showdown with Offaly in what can only have been a state of acute anxiety. With no training to sustain him, even though many would say he doesn't need it, his situation was anything but healthy but to his eternal Credit, he survived his personal moment of truth with as much distinction as any man afield.
Even though, in the early weeks of September while many Kerry supporters appeared totally oblivious of the impending danger, Johno was the only man who was fully alive to the harsh reality of the favourite's tag. "We never underestimate any team", he said, "and Mick O' Dwyer is always warning us that in the championship, there is no second chance. We know that if Offaly rise to it and put their game together, they could catch us."
Prophetic words indeed, but even in the aftermath of a traumatic defeat, he has no intention of hanging up his boots just yet. "I am only 31", he says, "and I don't feel old'' adding that his wife, Liz, had been "most understanding" towards the total intrusion that football had imposed on their lives. He speaks of the "vacuum" that retirement would bring as if it were something that he positively dreads.
On that basis, the fireside slippers and the easy chair are a long way off for one of the finest sporting ambassadors of our time.

Radio Kerry - The Voice of the Kingdom