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The ball of energy who got Libya to back him

JOHN McKeon is not a hide-your-light-under-a-bushel kinda guy. The oil and gas exploration dealmaker is touting big things on no less than three venture fronts.

The Circle Oil co-founder has seen five launches on London's Alternative Investment Market (AIM) in recent years. He expects at least two of the latest ones to become FTSE stars.

A "big announcement, big oil and gas discovery news soon," McKeon said of one project.

He's referring to Niche Group -- a major gas discovery in Turkey last summer has been followed by a promising find late last month, and possibly more to follow.

Niche is an AIM-listed former 'shell' company McKeon helped raise €5.68m for and in which he has a 26.7 per cent stake. It was worth €400,000 and is now valued at €33m. Well-known aviation sector figure Donal Boylan is executive director.

"Many are looking at Iraq and other countries, but Turkey's prospects for oil and gas are probably some of the best in the western part of the world," said McKeon.

Niche is involved through its €13m investment in Oman Resources, an Irish domiciled company that McKeon part-owns. It holds an exploration licence on a 49,821-hectare block estimated to contain 80 billion cubic feet of recoverable gas in the Tuz Golu basin, south central Turkey.

Investors hope for another Circle Oil. When McKeon's appointment was announced last April, Niche's share price shot up 145 per cent.

He exited Circle Oil in 2008, just after helping persuade a Libyan government fund to invest €23m in the company. What happens with that now in the midst of the current turmoil in that country is another story -- McKeon won't speculate.

Of the Turkish prospects, he said: "Everyone is scared stiff of the Russians at the moment because they control gas supplies into Northern Europe. Turkey is going to build a pipeline into southern Europe, which takes away the geopolitical power of the Russians over Europe.

"At the moment 54 per cent of the gas in Turkey is supplied by Russians, 90 per cent of the gas in Turkey comes in externally. What we are sitting on, we could potentially double the national reserves of Turkey. So it's pretty serious stuff, you know?

"That's how Ireland's going to make money again," he continued, "through people like [Tullow Oil boss] Aidan Heavey, people like the guys at Kenmare, and hopefully I'll do it as well. People don't realise that Tullow was a farm machinery company in Carlow and Heavey turned it into an oil company."

Tullow Oil took over 20 years to get there though, and McKeon wants to move much faster. "We're looking at building up a company very, very quickly. We're on a fast track. Circle went from nothing in six years to over £200m."

In Mozambique, McKeon's latest outfit, Pathfinder Minerals, is at work. Valued at €79m, it's licensed to mine for titanium minerals -- valuable resources used in the making of paint, paper, plastic and pharmaceuticals. This region is also where €1bn-valued explorer Kenmare Resources is active.

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This month Pathfinder re-listed on the AIM and shares jumped 16.3 per cent to stg8p following its reverse takeover of IM Minerals. McKeon is chairman and owns a large stake.

"Pathfinder could be another Kenmare. We're two or three years behind them, we'll be in production in three years," he forecast.

McKeon is also shopping for goldmines in Kyrgyzstan on behalf of a former football players' agency called Premier Management. This AIM minnow sold its football business, moving, as McKeon put it "from goal posts to gold posts." Its share price quadrupled on the news of his being on board in October.

"We're in the process of acquiring a few goldmines out there. They've just had democratic elections there that have gone well."

His contacts book is crammed with the names of high-powered government types in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

One of the investors in Niche Group and a director of Oman Resources is Tawfiq Al Suwaidi, whose grandfather was Iraqi Prime Minister prior to Saddam Hussein and whose great-grandfather helped found modern Iraq with King Faisal.

The Pathfinder venture involves Major-General Jacinto Veloso, a well-connected former Minister of Economic Affairs and Intelligence Services boss in Mozambique.

No stranger to dark times, McKeon was a stockbroker in London in the Eighties and lost a rake of money in the 1987 market crash. He's never forgotten it. He thinks the future in Ireland is about keeping things real.

"Ireland is sitting on a huge amount of resources -- oil and gas, lead, zinc, mining assets. And food -- food is going to go up worldwide. Focus on real tangible resources, not balloons anymore. Easy money is gone, cheap money is gone."

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