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Dublin's Eoghan O'Gara. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Dublin's Eoghan O'Gara. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Dublin's Eoghan O'Gara. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

IT'S all in the hands of the juggler. Closing time in Division 1 of the National Football League. Shay Keogh will be watching every move.

He was a classical forward of Dublin football. He played under five county managers – Paddy Cullen, Dr Pat O'Neill, Mickey Whelan, Tommy Carr and Tommy Lyons.

He helped St Sylvester's to a famous Dublin Senior Football Championship victory in 1996. The village streets had never seen scenes quite like it.

Shay had that refined style about him. He could make the yard of space. He never seemed to be hurried. A Malahide maestro.

He still loves to get out and kick ball. Injuries come a calling, but the call to pull on the jersey is louder. He's also a mentor on his son's team, the St Sylvester's U10s.

He enjoyed Dublin against Mayo on Saturday night. "It was a great game of football. The two teams really went at it," Keogh said.

"Dublin had the 14 men, but it looked like they had 15. The fitness is just remarkable. The ground the players cover is unbelievable.

"Dublin's mental strength is brilliant. They never gave up. They just push their bodies to the very limit."

And then there's the strength in depth. "Eoghan O'Gara came off the bench and it's fantastic to have a player like that. He gives you a different option," Keogh added.

"He has such a direct style. He can bulldoze through defences. He has the strength and he played such a valuable role against Mayo. Dublin did so well to get the draw."

The champions will be seeking a win in Omagh's Healy Park. Shay feels Dublin are well capable of getting it. But it won't be a picnic. Far from it.

"That's a hard place to go. You never write off Tyrone. They got a terrific draw in Cork on Sunday. That was another exciting game. The league this season has been so good. And, now coming to the last day, it is all so close," he said. "Tyrone are very formidable, especially at home. They are a hard team to beat. And Mickey Harte is just remarkable.

"They went through a transition in the last couple of years. But they have so much quality in the county that they don't take long to get young fellas into the squad and up to the speed of senior inter-county football."

Cork, Derry, Tyrone, Dublin, Mayo and Kerry represent quite a six-pack as the Division 1 semi-final places come into view.

And Shay feels such a compelling conclusion reflects the way counties now approach the league.

It was a little different when he was playing. "In those days, the league was often used to try out young players before the Championship," he added.

"But it's a different ball game now. The league matches are played at Championship pace. And that was so evident last Saturday night. Croke Park is such a big pitch, but both teams were well able to get around it.

"It really shows how fit these players are at this stage of the year. Before, teams would be building up their fitness now ahead of the Championship, but the likes of Dublin, Mayo and the rest of them are already flying.

"And from Dublin's point of view, it's great to be in the mix coming into the last game. These are the games you want. They are played at such a hectic pace.

INTENSITY

"It's so important for teams to stay in the top division. The intensity of the matches is just brilliant preparation for Championship. And it's the old story – no matter how much training you do, you just can't beat playing games."

One of the best games Shay ever played was in the 1996 Dublin Senior Football Championship final against Erin's Isle.

Syls took the prize for the first and only time. "It was so special. And it was an amazing win because, three or four years before that, we hadn't even won a championship match, never mind a title," he said.

"We beat St Vincent's in the first round and that was the first time we ever got past the first round in the championship. And then to think that a few years later we went on to win the title was unreal.

"There was such a buzz around the town. All the players were local. Lads came into the squad like Niall Guiden, Brian Silke of Galway and Glen O'Neill, but they were all living in Malahide. There was a real parish feel to the achievement and that is what made it so special."

In the final, Shay shot the lights out. He was in the form of his

life. Every time he touched the ball, it turned to gold. He was finding the pocket from every corner of the table. But he is quick to deflect the praise.

"It was the players around me that made my life easier. My job was to put the ball over the bar, but it was team work that provided the openings," he said.

"You were surrounded by such quality footballers. If I made a run, you had the likes of Martin Barnes putting the ball straight onto my chest. And confidence plays such a big part.

"Erin's Isle were such a super team. It was an honour to be on the same pitch as them. They were a great bunch of fellas.

"You had the likes of the Barrs (Eddie, Johnny and Keith), Charlie (Redmond), Deego (Mick Deegan) and the rest of them.

"The funny thing is that I felt they should have beaten us in that '96 final. We met them again in the final the following year. They beat us, but I thought we should have won that one!"

Shay met many of his old pals when he signed up for the Dublin Masters team last year.

"It was very enjoyable. We had the fun and the banter, but the standard is pretty high. The games were competitive. Once you go over the white line, fellas want to perform," he said.

He looks forward to being out with the Syls U10s. "You see football from a different perspective. It is all about the kids going out and enjoying it. Our job is to get them to fall in love with football.

"They can begin to take it more seriously when they get a bit older."

Shay is not going to rush them along. He has no intention of putting the clock forward. These are the magical years. The days that stay in the mind, and in the heart, forever

They mightn't all follow his graceful path into the blue boots, but if they can learn from his modest ways, and the sense of giving something back to the community that gave him so much, their lives will be all the richer.


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