Thursday 23 March 2017

Keane determined to make his final ball count

Sligo defender Alan Keane is hoping to end an eye-catching campaign with an FAI Cup medal today, writes Seán Ryan

Alan Keane won his first senior medal when Sligo won the EA Sports Cup in September, and he is hungry for more. Photo: Brian Farrell
Alan Keane won his first senior medal when Sligo won the EA Sports Cup in September, and he is hungry for more. Photo: Brian Farrell

Sligo Rovers' fans are still aggrieved over a controversial penalty, which handed the FAI Cup to Shamrock Rovers at their expense in 1978, 32 years ago.

Alan Keane, Sligo's right-back in today's final, had his leg broken playing against Shamrock Rovers four years ago, yet he harbours no grudge, preferring instead to look on the positive, saying, "it probably helped me in the long run because at the time I was very scrawny. I was determined to come back and, as I couldn't run, I was in the gym the whole time, twice a day. That helped me when I got back, I would have been too light otherwise. That was the good thing that came out of it."

Mind you, the memory of that incident is still vivid. "It was the third last game of the season with Galway United in the First Division, and Raf (Cretaro), who was on the wing, passed the ball back short. I went flying in and Vinny Perth got there before me, and all I remember is that it felt like I had a load of sand in my leg.

"As soon as they went to move me, I was screaming with the pain, asking for something to relieve it, and I passed out on the stretcher. They had to cut my boot off, and I woke up in the ambulance.

"Tony Cousins was our manager and he was very good to me. My contract was up, but he offered me a new one, which was great."

Keane, who joined Galway in 2005 from Mervue United, always wanted to play for a living. "I would like to have gone to England, and now I love getting up in the morning and living that professional life, doing something I love.

"When Galway got up to the Premier and went full-time, I was new to this and it took a while to adjust, but one of the things that struck me was not having to bring home our gear. It was washed for us and laid out ready, even our boots. We just had to bring ourselves to the game. I feel sorry for lads who have to play part-time, working and going training at night."

Not that the professional life has been easy for Keane, who had a succession of injuries in his four years at Terryland. "In my first season, I dislocated my kneecap, and I was only just back from that, and had played about 12 games, when I broke my leg.

Another comeback resulted in a torn cartilage, then Jeff Kenna took over and I got sent off against Sligo, but got back in time for the run-in to stay up in 2008, when we had only one defeat in eight games and went from 12th place to ninth."

When the call came from Sligo Rovers last year, it signalled an improvement in Keane's fortunes all round. "I played more games in my first season with Sligo than I did in all four with Galway."

He was also introduced to European football -- and suffered a nightmare against an Albanian team, Vllaznia, that couldn't believe their luck when they came away with a win from the Showgrounds.

"It was one of those nights, we should have beaten them. I went for a header, and the ball hit my shinpad and went into our net. Then we were awarded a penalty and I thought, great, I'll make amends, but I hit the crossbar. I did get one in the away leg, heading in Owen Morrison's cross, but it wasn't enough."

No wonder he can't wait to play in the Europa League again next year. Sligo manager Paul Cook is renowned for the improvement he brings about in his players, and no one is better proof of that than Keane, who was probably the most improved player in the Premier Division this year.

Keane has no hesitation in giving the credit to his mentor. "I was a bit raw and not the best, but this year I've been more comfortable playing. Paul is always encouraging me and wanting to make you do well. He tells you what you need to work on. I was signed as a right-back, but played most of my first season at centre-back and it takes a while to get used to a new position. Now that I'm back at right-back I feel more confident when I get the ball and I'm enjoying my football more.

"I know myself the difference confidence-wise from last year coming in raw, but Paul never gives out to you for losing the ball. He just says lose it in the right area, and play the simple ball.

"He kept telling me I had a chance of getting in the Team of the Year, and Roddy Collins did put me in his Team of the Year. Paul keeps you on your toes, he doesn't want you to get into a comfort zone."

Part of Cook's philosophy is to remind the player of the areas of his game, which he can improve on. In Keane's case, that is his final ball when he makes a run forward.

"He says, if you can't get back don't make the run forward. I have done that, and now I have to work on my final ball. It's been my downfall this year."

In every other respect, though, he is a worthy successor, as Sligo's No 2, to Seamus Coleman, who is now setting the English Premier Division alight with his displays for Everton. So well is Keane playing, that Romauld Boco, Benin captain and right-back, admitted when he re-signed for Sligo that he'd have to look for a new position.

As penalty-taker, Keane is hoping to get on the scoresheet today, and with leading scorer Pádraig Amond transferred to Portugal and Mathew Blinkhorn suspended, there is a question mark over where Sligo's goals are going to come from.

"Romauld Boco has been chipping in," he says, "and John Russell and Joseph Ndo will have to step up to the plate, and Eoin Doyle if he comes in. The two lads suspended are a big loss to us all right. Blinkhorn is an excellent target man and Richie Ryan is our playmaker, but the way the team are playing we'll create chances, and hopefully we'll take them."

Keane, who has agreed a new deal with Sligo, won his first senior medal when Sligo won the EA Sports Cup in September, and he is hungry for more.

"That medal was the first for most of us. Only Conor O'Grady had won before. It's good to win something and now we want to win more. Even if we win the FAI Cup, we'll want to win that, and the league, next year."

Shamrock Rovers v Sligo Rovers

RTE2, 3.0

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