One of my very first memories in journalism, and still one of the more abiding recollections, involves Dermot Keely. It was the early 2000s, and a League of Ireland second-tier game that was a footnote even to the gutter of sport, as his Kildare County travelled to St Mel’s Park.
orking for Nationalist then, I’ve no idea now who won, but I do know that technology was letting me down and I was stuck in the press box in a panic as the floodlights went out long after full-time. Keely had been used to the same one or two local reporters looking for interviews, but this night he was left alone. So he meandered out onto the pitch and roared into the blackness, “Ewan, do you want some quotes?”
It made me feel briefly, if mistakenly, big.
It also made him seem strangely small in my young mind, and it wasn’t befitting.
Or at least it wasn’t befitting if you didn’t know more about, and understand, the person he was and is.
The football addendum to the man behind it was well known. He’d won four league championships with three different clubs as a manager to go with the five as a player, and two FAI Cups on the line to go with five more in the middle, but the reputation dwarfed even that lot.
“A hugely grumpy b******s with a big heart,” was how one person at Station Road described him. He never disagreed.
He had long been seen as a sort of Irish version of Andoni Goikoetxea, and at one stage he stopped talking to me for weeks due to a joke made about his match-programme notes. His ruthlessness was worse for his players. Every club has their stories but, in Newbridge, when out of favour, he’d drag them to away days in Finn Harps and leave them to freeze on a bench to force their hand.
But St Mel’s Park always seemed odd, for it seemed beneath someone who’d done all that he’d done. As if a shark trapped in a fish tank, or a lion in some pokey pen at the zoo. Our basic nature is supposed to require a decent degree of ego, yet over and over he came across as accepting.
Of late, aged 66, he’s been pulling pints in Lanzarote in a pub he purchased. Now in lockdown, he reckons it won’t open again when this is done but meets it with a shrug of the shoulders. “That’s life,” he says of what’s going on. “It could be worse as most have gone through a lot worse than sitting inside with your books and your radio and your telly. We’re just totally spoilt.”
A shrug of the shoulders is how he’s treated so much, it seems, as I mention that night in Athlone too.
“I never considered them highs or lows,” he responds. “It was work. I’m not like that. I don’t have that ego. I was just doing a job. People were relying on me to do my best. It’s always been that way. The path takes you where it takes you. Like, I gave up the managing and that was it, I never looked back and ended up out here. As you get older, you respect your mortality. Jumping up and down, screaming and shouting, fighting with everyone – you can only do it for so long and you see there’s no point to that. So life takes you where it’s meant to take you.”
His is an outlook I’ve long wanted to better understand, and his is a head I’ve long wanted to get inside, I tell him.
“The best psychiatrist in the f**king world couldn’t get inside my head,” he replies.
So give an amateur a try instead.
* * *
Dermot Keely could be the curator of a museum of domestic football, for he’s witnessed so much play out before him.
There’s just one problem. Recently, he sat down with a book in mind but could mostly only remember the victories. I suggest there’s no point in mentioning stuff like playing with Terry Venables at St Pat’s then. “Jaysus, my head isn’t that gone. I’m not senile like.”
“Like I don’t know what you can say or how you can write it, but I’ll tell you the truth. They were different times and some of the stories … I won’t forget them but I have this inability when it comes to remembering the losses. My wife says it’s like I put them in a box, tie a bow around them, and put them to the back of my mind. That doesn’t matter if it was a game, a league, or something as small and silly as losing an argument.”
For him, he adds, it wasn’t a fear of losing but a hatred of it that pushed him.
Like a boxer running one more mile of road to be sure, or a cyclist refusing to bow down before the mountain’s top.
As a kid, if a game wasn’t going well, Keely would flip the board. Meanwhile, out on the street playing, if a kick-about had him in trouble, he’d take the ball and go home.
“I presume it’s my genes. Dad played for Shels all his life and I think he was tough and uncompromising,” he explains.
Recently, he was talking to his own son Alan – who played underage for Ireland – and he mentioned Dermot’s 12-year-old granddaughter. Quiet and smart, she was refusing to let her six-year-old brother win at games and when Alan suggested she let him, she said that he had to learn to lose.
“What have I created,” laughs Keely. “It reminded me of myself. If you don’t win, no one wins. I was a bad tempered little s****.
“I guess I was a bad tempered bigger s**** too.”
Is it that which makes a winner? Perhaps, for there was an awful lot of it. In that sphere, it’s Dundalk he recalls with the most fondness, although for a change it wasn’t solely the victories. While his accent doesn’t mask his Dublin roots, it was a place that provided something very different.
“If you wanted a part for your car, if something went, and you’d say it to someone in conversation and that it’d cost you 50 quid, they’d tell you to hang on. Then they’d turn up with the part after a match.
“If you were missing something, I think they were going around dismantling lads’ cars and giving it to you. It was a town like that. Everything was a wink and a nod. The sense of community. When you won something, everyone celebrated. In Dublin, only the team celebrated. It’s like the town takes inspiration from the club, not the other way.”
Thus, when they captured the double in 1979, the team couldn’t get over the bridge and, with the Imperial Hotel putting them up, and with him on holidays, he stayed a week. His late, great friend Tommy McConville stayed too, only walking the 10 minutes home to get a change of clothes.
Happiness is how Keely describes that time.
Yet even there, winning trumped happiness as he fell out with manager Jim McLaughlin over what he perceived to be a lack of player replacements and a lack of will to stay on top. Some would say his punishment was Glentoran, for a bearded man with a thick Irish accent was moved to east Belfast in 1981.
Being Keely though, he loved it. “Maybe they liked the madness in me a bit. When everyone was going around shooting one another, I was going around kicking lumps out of people on the pitch. So maybe I just fitted in.”
As, naturally, there were little moments, for it wouldn’t have been that time and place otherwise.
He mentions a teammate who he later found out was in the UVF. That same player had a business, despite no money, and it turned out to be laundering cash.
Nonetheless, he ploughed on, at one point telling manager Ronnie McFall that one prominent player was too old school to play the quick football the side was capable of. In the car park after, with word of the discontent out, he recalls the player trying to run him over.
Yet even when a phone call came to the house in Dublin one night, warning he wasn’t to go back for obvious reasons, he did. The club made their inquiries and Special Branch brought him to and from the train station for a couple of months after the threat, if only to be on the safe side.
“I was never treated better by a club though, but it was mad times. My missus is a Shinner and I’ve said to her, I read the Independent for 30 years and I knew there was trouble but I never had any idea of the depth of the whole situation. I probably had a personality, too, to blend in.
“Take Linfield,” he adds. “The blue men. I hated them. I still hate them. In Glentoran, nicer people you wouldn’t meet, and I say that knowing they had the same politics as Linfield. But the blue men didn’t sign Catholics or people from the south. When I went up, I wouldn’t have been able to sign for Linfield, they just wouldn’t have it.
“Those two are worse than Celtic and Rangers. Much more bitter than that. So instead of being on the outside and saying I don’t care as they’re both similar in politics, I got in with the Glens. I hate Linfield to this day and what they stand for.
“Oddly, they were like the Catholic Church down south in that they were all powerful, did what they wanted, walked over who they wanted, and no one said a thing. The first time I played Linfield, I was booked within three minutes and I was made. The Glens loved me for that. There wasn’t a Linfield match I didn’t get booked in. The best occasion, we beat them in the Oval in a 1983 cup final replay, and sure I couldn’t help myself.”
What did Keely do at the height of The Troubles? He jumped on the fence and started roaring at those blue men making their way for the exits.
“This will be back in Dublin tonight. This will be back in Dublin tonight.”
He’d won. They had to hear about it. It helped make the great moments.
There were more than a couple of nearly moments, too, though.
With Dundalk, they were a goal away from defeating Celtic and reaching the last eight of the European Cup where Real Madrid were waiting. With Glentoran, they nearly did the same against a CSKA Sofia side that would reach the final four, only going down after extra-time at The Oval.
On both occasions there was a victory in defeat, for there was pride. Thereafter there was defeat in spite of the victories.
“Milltown,” I mention. “People would say I don’t want to remember,” Keely says. “That’s not it. They were going to Tolka Park, I could see a team going to win another two or three leagues and it was all I thought about. I’m not a stupid person, but I wanted to believe the club would get over the idea of moving and keep winning. I wasn’t a fan of a football team, I was a player and then manager. I was naive. They needed me that year because I kept the show on the road but at the end of the year they were gone and I was gone. That spell in my life is one of the more unhappy ones but s*** happens. I deserved it.”
“The league title with Dundalk in 1995 on the last day,” I mention. “Every week they cut my budget,” he retorts. “It was like they were trying for me not to win the league. It was a constant battle with people who didn’t know enough about football, who thought players were overpaid. It was like an amusement park, wanting to get on the ride and not hand over money. I blew up every single week. I used to completely lose it.”
“Even Shelbourne,” I mention and he knows. For while Keely says he wanted the job so bad he didn’t even sign a contract, and that Ollie Byrne would give you whatever you wanted, that came with its own stresses to the point he had to take a break by 2001 citing doctor’s advice.
“I got depressed with everything going on and it was a tough job. It got too much for me. I needed to step back and step away. I think it’s the same for everyone, they see the persona you present. Going around, fighting with everyone, screaming and shouting. Ten yards away from punching the bloke in the opposition dugout.
“I was only in Shels, and a father was bringing down his young fella and he was standing behind the dugout and I said, ‘Look, why don’t you bring him up to the stand, the language was going to get bad’. He said, ‘No we bring him every week, he loves it’. There was a band of these kids with their fathers after a while, coming along to see me losing the head. That takes it out of you.
“And it’s not you either. Behind that you’ve to carry on. I used to teach, special needs, remedial then. They were a bit slow learning, but a lot it was coming from bad backgrounds. The fact I was always in trouble, they were always in trouble, there was a bond there. ‘He’s one of us’ they thought. But at times it was tough.
“I was always a footballer who taught, not a teacher who managed football. Teaching was an escape for me, I got away from all that. Then Ollie Byrne wanted to go full-time. I never saw myself as that. I never cared less as a part-time manager, but for a year, going into an office for an afternoon to pretend I was working, I hated it. I guess by that stage football had moved on past me.”
Suddenly Kildare County as a next stopping point in the journey makes more sense. All because Dermot Keely makes less sense.
Perhaps the wins could never satisfy whatever little bit of ego is in there.
Perhaps there’s so little ego that the wins had nothing to play up to.
We get talking of Kildare County after he left. The slow gradual decline; how they ended their last game with a spare set of jerseys being handed out from the boot of a car as they finally collapsed. He says he tried his best as he always did but he has no regrets about any of it. There. Or anywhere. Football. Or life after football. He says that these days there’s so much calm for him amid so much chaos.
Turns out there was no peace in his many victories. His biggest victory, though, might be this peace.