Belfast Telegraph

Footballers' Lives with Mickey Keenan: There was special bond at the Ports. I could knock on any of their doors now and I know that they would be there for me

Safe hands: Mickey Keenan at home
Safe hands: Mickey Keenan at home
Mickey Keenan making a wonder save in 2001

By Stuart McKinley

In the latest edition of our popular series, Portadown legend Mickey Keenan discusses being oldest player in the Champions League and his wife Karen's brave battle after accident.

Q: How did your football career start?

A: I started playing at 11 or 12-years-old at Bosco Youth Club. I played through the underage teams there in the Carnbane League. I was playing Gaelic at the time as well.

Q: How did things progress from there?

A: I went down to Newry Town at the age of 16. They were in the B Division then. The Carnbane League had a representative team and I'd been playing for them as well. I was in and out of the Newry team, which was good for me at B Division level.

Q: You went to Oldham Athletic in your teens, how did that come about?

A: I was going to university in Manchester. Oldham was only four or five miles away from where I was staying and Newry set it up. They were in the Second Division at the time and I signed as an amateur, playing in the youth teams. I moved up into the reserves, but only ever made the bench for the first team.

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Q: Was there an opportunity to stay after you finished university?

A: I never really thought of it. I was a student and the student life and the football life conflicted a bit, which maybe didn't help. There were no agents or anything like that in those days and when I finished I went home and then went to America.

Really, looking back, I should have been knocking on the door and asking if there was anything for me once I finished being a student, but I never looked at football as a job then. Maybe it was a missed opportunity.

Q: What did the move to America involve?

A: I'd graduated as a teacher, but there were no jobs at the time. A couple of mates had gone across to play Gaelic and I was labouring and playing local football.

I'd a couple of years on and off in Boston and then came back and got a job in youth work at home in Newry. I was still on Newry's books and was playing any time I was home. It was a good Newry team at the time in the B Division.

Q: It was only a couple of years later that you joined Portadown, how did that move happen?

A: The year before we had beaten Portadown and Glenavon on the way to winning the Mid Ulster Cup and apparently I'd had a good game against the Ports. The manager at the time, Jackie Hutton, had obviously kept me in mind and I think there was a fall out with the goalkeeper early in the season and I got a call in September or October asking me to sign.

It didn't look as if Newry were going to get into the senior league at the time. There was no promotion, you had to apply and they turned Newry down, I don't know why because the team and the facilities were as good as anyone else's.

I started to think that if they don't take us now, they never will, and a lot of boys thought the same way. The next year, after I joined Portadown, they did get accepted. I was half expecting to be back at Newry by then, not having made the grade, but lucky enough they stuck with me.

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Mickey Keenan making a wonder save in 2001

Q: How do you look back on that move now after the success you achieved at the club over a long period of time?

A: It was great to be involved playing at the highest level you can here. At the time Portadown were a mid-table team and trophies weren't really on the horizon. It was great though playing against the best teams in the country and in front of big crowds.

Q: What changed when Ronnie McFall came in to make Portadown the club it became?

A: The first change was getting rid of 90 per cent of the players. I think he only kept three - and thankfully I was one of them. He brought professionalism to the club.

We were getting boots, kit was laid out for you, thanks to Geordie Richardson, so all that raised the level of professionalism. He started to bring in good young players and build a good squad. He pushed the board to make the resources available for players and within three years he had won the league.

Q: What was it like being part of the first Portadown team to win the league in 1990?

A: The couple of years building up to it were just as enjoyable. You could see things happening and the spirit was great. Winning the league capped all that.

We would have been happy with that, but repeating it the following year and winning four trophies in one season, then a few trophies in the seasons after that and playing in Europe - it was fantastic.

I would never have thought when I was a kid in Newry I would be turning out against the likes of Porto, Standard Liege and then Red Star Belgrade, who were the European Cup holders.

Q: Portadown suffered heavy defeats in those European games, but you also received a lot of plaudits for keeping the scorelines down - were you able to enjoy those occasions?

A: Porto in particular beat us 5-0 and 8-1. I didn't enjoy the matches. I never got into a comfortable state or felt that was my level. I never enjoyed the 90 minutes, but the experience and being part of it was unbelievable.

Q: What is it like for you now to be considered a legend at Portadown?

A: Right throughout the fans were fantastic. When I first went, the gates were maybe one or two hundred, and those diehards were still there when there was three or four thousand.

When the shed sang 'There's only one Mickey Keenan' I'll always remember that. It was great.

Q: What was the team spirit like among that group that was so successful?

A: There was a special bond in the changing room, especially with that squad. I could knock on any of their doors now - Brian Strain, Philip Major, Gregg Davidson, I could go through them all.

If there was something wrong I could rock up at their doors and they know they could do the same. Even going back further than that, from the first season I was there I still see Dessie Edgar a bit and Ronnie Cromie too.

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Former Portadown player Mickey Keenan relaxing at home in Newry (Peter Morrison)

Q: You were 42 when you left Portadown for the first time, did you consider retiring?

A: The season had ended and Portadown hadn't said anything to me. I was running a summer football course in Newry through work, one of the lads was involved at Ards and he asked if I was interested in going there. I signed, but only lasted half a season.

Personal circumstances changed, my wife Karen had an accident and with the travelling and everything it didn't work out and I left in the January. I thought that was my career over, but Ronnie McFall got in touch again when he'd a bit of a goalkeeping crisis and asked me to come back, which was great.

Q: You were 45 by the time you went back to Portadown. Was that a big decision?

A: I had been in the squad when they won the league in 1996. Tim Dalton had come in by then and I was his understudy. Again I was lucky in that the rules changed allowing for a goalkeeper to be on the bench and I made the required number of appearances to get a medal - although it was Tim who won them the league.

I got the call from Ronnie mid-season in 2000 when the team was in a relegation battle, but I enjoyed it because I was kept busy. We were digging out 0-0 draws or 1-0 wins and we managed to stay up.

I would say that was as good an achievement as winning the league. The next year we won the league and to go from a relegation battle to winning the league in 18 months was amazing.

Q: Winning the league meant playing Champions League football the next season. You then entered the record books as the oldest player ever to play in the Champions League at 46-years-old. Does that give you a lot of personal pride?

A: Definitely. I think it's still a pub quiz question around Newry. I think someone has taken it off me since then, but I always add that I kept a clean sheet too - which was more important.

We lost 2-1 away from home and had one cleared off the line. Had we scored we would have gone through on away goals.

Q: Did you think of going out on a high after that?

A: We'd won the league and what was in my head was that you don't win the league with a bad goalkeeper, so I felt good enough to carry on. I remember going to Linfield and winning 1-0 and I felt I'd a good game.

You know going there you were going to have something to do and that's what you want as a goalkeeper. Age didn't come into it. Karen had a serious accident then and that was the end of it. I had to stop then, otherwise I could maybe have had a few more years. I might have had to work a bit more on my fitness and strength, I know that.

Q: What happened to Karen in that accident?

A: She was crossing the road during her lunch break from work in the middle of Armagh and ended up under a lorry. She had major injuries - life-changing injuries. She broke her back, lost a leg and had other injuries and then had to deal with the consequences of those.

That was the end of the football for me. She was in intensive care in Musgrave Park Hospital for six months and then when she got home there was a period of adjustment to a different way of life for the family and a number of operations in the years that followed.

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Mickey Keenan in action for Portadown

Q: How hard was that for you at the time - particularly with the travelling involved going up and down to Musgrave?

A: It was horrendous. My employers were very accommodating. In six months I think there were only four nights when I wasn't at the hospital.

I was getting up in the morning, cooking for the kids and leaving food out for them, going to work and then straight to the hospital and back home maybe in the early hours of the morning before getting up at 6.30am to start all over again.

At the end of it, when Karen came out of hospital, I was a complete wreck and then I ended up with six months off work as a result of it. My parents were in their late 80s at the time and I was caring for them. My brother was suffering from dementia and I was caring for him too. I ended up going part-time in work and then retiring at 55.

Q: What was the adjustment like when Karen got home?

A: She got out of hospital one day and the builders were in the next, which was horrendous too. We adapted the house as best we could, but ended up adapting it again a few years later because we just didn't know what was needed.

It's a complete change of life for her and for the family. Things we did before we don't do now, or can't do, and mentally getting around that is hard for Karen, but we've got on with it. I don't know how she's got through it mentally, but she has. It leaves scars and she's not the same person that she was.

Q: You had an international call-up in 1990. How special was that?

A: It was one call-up, at home to Yugoslavia in September 1990 in a European Championship qualifier. It was a great honour. There was obviously an epidemic striking goalkeepers that month - I had no illusions about that.

It was a nice surprise at the age of 34. That summer I had toured the USA with the Irish League team. The league then played Manchester United in a centenary match at Windsor Park and I'd a blinder that day, which got me the call up as Billy Bingham was at the game and he picked me as man of the match.

It was good, it was nice and, although it was only one, I can show my children the jersey and the picture of the squad. I was involved in almost all the age groups. I was in the Under-18 squad that won the British Championship too.

Q: Your son Rory then emulated you in wearing the Portadown number one shirt a few years later. What was that like for you?

A: It was fantastic. Good to see. He was young at the time, only 18, and he was thrown in at the deep end when there were a few injuries. He did better than he gives himself credit for.

They lost the match and he took it a bit hard because a mistake led to the goal. I thought he had a good game.

In fairness to him there was probably too much hype. Anyone else coming in would have went in and played and had no focus on them, but there was a lot of hype centred around him because of me and that wasn't fair on him.

Q: How long do you see yourself staying involved?

A: It's hard to get out. I have taken a bit of a step back now at Newry because I am involved with the committee and different things. There is never a queue of people to take over though.

I will have to drop the football side of things because now that we are a Premiership club the licence requirements state that we have to have a goalkeeping coach with a certain level of qualifications and I don't have it, so for that reason I will stand down and let someone come in.

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Mickey Keenan (sixth from left) with other Portadown legends at a gala dinner celebrating the double-winning squad's 20th anniversary (Paul Irwin)

Snapshot

Date of birth: April 5, 1956

Place of birth: Newry

Previous clubs: Oldham Athletic, Newry Town, Portadown, Ards, Lisburn Distillery

Current position: Goalkeeper coach at Newry City

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