For a long time, the general feeling around the junior football circles in Mayo was that if you could get a handle on Darragh Keaveney, you’d go a long way toward beating Kilmeena.
Granted, there was always a bit of a gap between that perception and the reality, but the fact remained that Keaveney was the main scoring threat for the West Mayo club for a good number of seasons. He was, and is, a forward blessed with a rare blend of speed, balance and the ability to produce scores from almost anywhere.
Plenty of clubs, particularly in the junior ranks, rely on these sorts of players, but it can often seem like a lonely place to live for the men themselves. The hopes of a club and a parish are pinned to their backs, and the pressure to produce — particularly in those fallow years when things aren’t going well — can be difficult to shoulder.
It was something Keaveney had to learn to live with. He made his adult debut for Kilmeena aged just 16, having been earmarked as a potential star as he came up the underage ranks in the club and, as he says himself, the spotlight that came with that sort of billing took time to become accustomed to.
“I love playing in the forwards, but I found it very tough,” he offers of those early years when Kilmeena were often struggling and he was the man tasked with carrying the forward line.
“I suppose it was good for me, going forward, that I got that bit of experience. But I knew that as time went on, the forwards that we were bringing in, John McGlynn and Keith Joyce and Seanie Ryder and these guys, you could relax a little bit. We weren’t relying on one player as much, we had six good forwards, and whoever else to come in off the bench.
“But it was a funny start for myself. I was lucky to have Niall Ryan in the forward line and I got a lot of good advice from him. Feeding off him was the main thing for me, just to learn as much as I could. It improved my game a lot.”
Fortunately for Kilmeena, things are very different now. Keaveney is still producing the goods, and arguably playing better than ever, as his 1-4 in Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final win over Clonbullogue demonstrated. But he has the support of a potent young forward division around him now, one which filled their boots in that thumping 15-point win on Saturday to earn the Clew Bay men a place in Sunday’s All-Ireland final against Gneeveguilla of Kerry at Croke Park.
“We weren’t really expecting it at all,” says Keaveney of the ease with which Kilmeena saw off the Offaly and Leinster champions at Pearse Park.
“We had watched their Leinster final and they had gone into that as underdogs, but when you saw the first 10 or 15 minutes they were three goals to a point up.
“They were a very physical side, but the one thing that was good for us was the start that we got; we were 1-8 to 0-1 up at one stage. The main thing going out was that we had to start well, and thankfully we did that.”
Keaveney is a final-year student of business at GMIT in Galway, on the same course as Kilmeena’s centre-back Stephen Staunton, with whom he has been making the regular trips up through Partry and Killawalla this winter to train for Kilmeena’s shot at immortality. Oddly enough, despite having come through a Connacht championship and an All-Ireland semi-final, Keaveney agrees when it’s put to him that his side’s biggest test so far this year came in their own county final, when Cill Chomain pushed them to within three points in a battle in Crossmolina.
“It was a relief getting out of there, really,” he says. “At the start of the year you’re always thinking about who your challengers would be, and Cill Chomain were definitely one of them.
“They’re similar to ourselves, I suppose, maybe a little bit younger, but they have some very good footballers, the likes of Justin Healy and Eoghan McGrath and these guys, Brendan Moran as well.
“It was just a tough battle and it was just relief.”
They subsequently blasted their way through the province with wins over St Mary’s of Athenry and St Patrick’s of Dromord before annihilating Clonbullogue last weekend. Their reward is a trip to Croker this Sunday and a chance to fulfil every footballer’s dream of wearing his club’s colours on the most sacred stage in Irish sport.
“It’s a surreal thing to be thinking about,” smiles Keaveney. “When you think of Croke Park, you kind of have to steady yourself. There are times you’d love to be a supporter, you’d love to enjoy the build-up and the hype. But we know as players we have to keep our two feet on the ground.
“If we don’t win it’ll mean nothing. We want to go up and win. And to go out and enjoy it, I suppose.”
If ever a game was going to generate nerves, this is surely it. Most of the Kilmeena players, Keaveney included, have never played at Croke Park before. The club has played in an All-Ireland final, back in 2003, but that was before the gates of Headquarters were opened to the junior deciders. But Keaveney, a relative veteran now aged just 26, says the jitters don’t affect him as much as they once did.
“When I was younger I would [get nervous], I’d have the butterflies in the stomach and that. But now I try to enjoy it as much as I can,” he says.
“You just relish it, really. It’s not pressure, it’s privilege. Any day you put on your club jersey it’s a huge day, be it a county final or a Connacht final or a championship day out here [at St Brendan’s Park].
“Going out playing in an All-Ireland final is just a great honour, to get the opportunity. The team of 2003 got that opportunity, which was brilliant. We know the club’s history and that’s what spurs us on. We’re really proud of the club and everything it stands for.”
And these are the weeks that clubs and communities like Kilmeena fantasise about. The rituals of decorating the village, the panic over hotel rooms, the carefully-constructed plans to get from one coast of Ireland to the other. And at the end of it all, the chance to watch their sons, nephews, neighbours, and friends play for an All-Ireland title.
As players, Keaveney and co know they can’t afford to buy into the occasion too much. But there’s also a realisation that moments like these may only come along once in a lifetime and it would be a shame to cut themselves off from the atmosphere completely.
“You meet people in the street and they’re wishing you the best and wondering, is this fella injured or is that fella going well in training,” says Keaveney.
“Kilmeena supporters have been absolutely fantastic, both at home and abroad. For the county final we were getting messages from England, America, Australia, Poland, Germany. We have Kilmeena people all over the world. They’ve been fantastic.
“It’s been tough with the restrictions and stuff, but they’ve really given us a huge lift and kept us going over the winter. I’m just so happy for them that they have this opportunity now. If ever a group of supporters deserve it, they do.
“They’ll have the flags up and the bunting up and walls painted. They’ll go mad!”
All-Ireland Club JFC Final
Kilmeena v Gneeveguilla (Kerry)
Sunday, February 6
1.30pm at Croke Park