Quiet man Johnno did his talking through his actions

December 22nd, 2015
by Weeshie Fogarty

A recent trip to Dublin afforded me the opportunity to meet up with and interview at length two of Dublin's star footballers, Jason Sherlock and Alan Brogan. Jason had been a shining star for the Dubs between 1995 and 2010 and is the current coach to the Dublin forwards; he was the big pin up boy of that time and indeed one of the first GAA players to appear on TV ads and glossy magazines thus helping to promote inter county footballers in a way never seen before. Alan Brogan retired from inter county football last week following a brilliant career and my fifty minute interview with him came at just the appropriate time. Both interviews can be listened to in full on my Terrace Talk web site.

Their stories are fascinating especially Jason's who talks about his Hong Kong born father and the racial abuse he suffered just because of his foreign looks. And Alan talks freely about his Listowel born mother and the holidays spend in that town as young boys learning football skills from the Kennelly family.

However it's not about them I concentrate on to day but on one of the greatest Kerry full backs I have ever seen. Following those interviews I refer to above I, (as generally happens), I fell into conversation with a group of GAA men at the hotel where we were staying and the conversation centred on the role or indeed the non-role of the full back in-to days game. That eventually led to the question of who was the greatest full back we had ever seen, a topic rarely discussed in my experience.

Well following much debate and discussion we were near unanimous that our own John o Keeffe was streets ahead of anyone else we had seen over the decades. The debated has been going around in my mind since then and conscious of the fact that generations of Kerry followers never saw this magnificent footballer in action what better opportunity than this year, the fortieth anniversary of winning his first All-Ireland medal at full back in 1975 than to recall some of his greatest achievements.

John o Keeffe (Austin Stacks), affectionately known as "The King". And for very good reasons. He would generally dominate his area of the field. Known to all as Johnno he played in seven All Ireland final's winning five medals in the full back position (just like Joe Keohane) to add to his previous two captured in 1969-70. He was a sub in the 1969 victory over Offaly; Kerry's 21st title, and centre back the following year against Meath, the day Din Joe Crowley scored the goal of the century. Quiet and modest, never one to brag. With his seven All Ireland medals he holds twelve Munster's, six National Leagues; eight Railway Cups; four All Stars; two All-Ireland clubs; four count y championships; Texaco Footballer of the year and one Hogan Colleges Cup. He also partnered Mick o Connell at mid field in a number of games. A hip injury which later in life necessitated a re-placement brought his magnificent career to a premature end following that historic 1982 defeat to Offaly. Only for this he would probably have gone on to set a record for All Ireland medal wins.

 Johnno simply oozed style and class in his every movement on the field. Six foot plus and build to match he was a beautiful mover on the field. He displayed a wonderful side-step and was an immaculate fielder and rarely have I seen him commit a foul and be spoken to by a referee.  Legendary sports writer Castleisland man Con Houlihan wrote after the 1975 final win over Dublin. "John o Keeffe, of course was superb-but we would have been surprised at anything less of him. He is a model footballer blessed with wonderful skills and sporting as he is skilful". John Barry one of the doyens of Kerryman GAA reporters said of his Austin Stacks club mate in The Kerryman following that same match. "Not once in the game did he put a foot wrong. It was another brilliant exhibition of full back play by Johnno". Is his All Ireland medal winning feat from 1969 to 1981 a record time span for an outfield player?

Blood, especially Kerry blood is far thicker than water and Johnno's father Frank played in that historic New York All Ireland final of 1947 so it was inevitable that once Johnno went to college in St Brendan's Killarney, the cradle of Kerry football that he would blossom.  And so he did leading the famed nursery as captain to a Hogan Cup win in 1969. He was just eighteen years of age at the time, I was part of the Kerry panel that year and Johnno was brought straight into the Kerry training following the college victory so I had a close up view of this superb up and coming young Kerry star and it was blatantly obvious that here was a very special young man possessing skill above and beyond the average player.

Johnno who has packed so much into his life is now retired from his job as teacher in Tralee CBS who he trained for many years He is living in Tralee and keeps the body in top shape as he cycles the roads of Kerry winter and summer. He also writes a very informative GAA column for the Irish Times and has been coach to Limerick and Clare as well as physical trainor to Kerry under manager Paidi o Se to win All Irelands.  He also worked with the Kerry hurlers alongside his club mate and friend Ger Power, and with Mickey Ned o Sullivan and the Kerry minor footballers and he had the honour of coaching the Irish International Rules team with Offaly great Matt Connor as selector in 2003 and 2004 With the UCD   team, he won a Dublin County Championship in 1974, and the Leinster Club Championships and All-Ireland Club Championships in 1973-74 and 1974-75. He also won Sigerson Cup   medals in 1973, 1974, and 1975. Johnno Keeffe is one of the all-time great players, his record proves that; but for me, so fortunate to have seen him all during his career his magnificent skill, sheer class, and  sportsmanship, are memories I cherish most of all when his name comes up for debate. One of the nicest gentlemen I have ever met.

Fogra; A very happy Christmas  and a healthy and prosperous New Year to all readers of this column.

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