From Leaving Cert student to veteran star: How 'warrior' Conal Keaney became a Dublin legend over 18 years
ON May 20, 2001, a Leaving Cert student with a prodigious reputation at underage, made his senior hurling debut for Dublin against Laois in Nowlan Park.
Dublin, at a deeply low ebb, lost.
The lone bright spark was the authoritative performance by the 18-year-old Conal Keaney at centre-back.
Seven days later, a budding but slight goalkeeper from Parnell’s started his first championship game in Croke Park, promoted from understudy for the injured Davy Byrne as Dublin beat Longford in a routine Leinster SFC opener.
Now, all of 18 years later, they’re being fêted within a week of each other again.
Stephen Cluxton, for his record-setting 100th championship appearance a couple of Sundays back and Keaney, for his Herculean performance in Parnell Park against Galway last Saturday night.
"People talk about Stephen Cluxton being a legend of GAA – and rightfully so – but I think Conal Keaney should be spoken about in the same way," says Dublin hurling captain, Chris Crummey.
"He’s in the same bracket as Stephen Cluxton. What he has done for Dublin GAA – football and hurling – is absolutely unbelievable. He’s an absolute warrior."
In Parnell Park last Saturday evening, Keaney gave an aerial exhibition against the most robust half-back line in hurling.
As a declaration of intent, his fetch over Gearóid McInernery from Alan Nolan’s floated puck-out under the stand in Parnell Park in the first minute of the game was emphatic.
He scored three points from three shots, forced a couple of crowd-lifting turnovers and provided the final pass for at least three more points.
But it was the sheer blunt force of Keaney’s display that lingered.
That flinty physicality has been the first layer of Keaney’s armour since he was a teenager.
Humphrey Kelleher, the man who gave him his debut all those years ago, told a story about one of Keaney’s first training sessions with Dublin in Ballymun Kickhams’ all-weather pitch on Collinstown Lane.
"I remember him going in very aggressively, pulling very hard," Kelleher said.
"It highlighted to me that this guy wanted to win every ball, he wanted to be the winner. He stood out hugely from everybody else.
"He didn’t give a sh**e whether he got hurt or whether he hurt anybody. And if other players didn’t have that attitude, he didn’t want to be involved with them."
Dublin hurling wasn’t ready for Keaney.
And by the time it was, he had found another outlet to accommodate his ambition.
By that stage, Keaney had already starred on the combined Dublin Colleges team that tasted Leinster Schools SHC ‘A’ glory in 2001, beating St Kieran’s of Kilkenny in an epic Leinster semi-final in Parnell Park that went to extra-time.
That victory came before the spate of underage success for county teams in Leinster and is considered the initial breakthrough moment for Dublin hurling at development level.
But for the small, yet passionate, hurling fraternity in the county, his displays for the Dublin Under-21 football team that landed the county’s first All-Ireland at that age group in 2003 precipitated disaster.
After three years of no achievement and little expectation of it, Keaney pitched in with the Dublin senior footballers.
But the deep regret the hurling community felt at his loss wasn’t as much over Keaney’s decision as it was about the fact that, in truth, he didn’t have a decision to make.
Anthony Daly, the man who had coaxed Keaney back across the code divide in late 2010, recalls calling Keaney on the night before the 2011 All-Ireland football final.
"My daughter was in the hospital the night before the All-Ireland football final in 2011 and I just gave him a text and said ‘I’m thinking of you tonight kid’.
"Dublin went on to win and it had to be tinged for him."
By the time Bryan Cullen hoisted Sam Maguire into the September sky, Keaney was nursing an injury that some feared might finish him as a competitive athlete.
On the morning of July 22, he was involved in a road accident at a notoriously dangerous junction close to St Anne’s GAA club in Bohernabreena.
On his motorbike en route to Blessington, where he worked as marketing manager at the Avon Rí resort, Keaney approached a bend at the same time as a van that was turning.
"I was going straight on and he thought he was going to get around before I was coming, but he didn’t," recalled Keaney.
Instinctively, he hit the brakes and jumped from the saddle but trapped his right foot between the bike and the van’s bonnet, eventually landing on his left knee and rupturing his ACL.
Keaney was 28 then and had high mileage but he also had an acute sense of perspective.
"I know I was lucky," he admitted.
"Over the weekend there were a couple of other bike accidents and the people involved in them died. I don’t need to be told I’m more fortunate than unfortunate."
There have been unexpected twists, code-switches and retirement reversals to Keaney’s career. But none came more from the blue than Ballyboden St Enda’s 2016 All-Ireland club football win.
The club hadn’t been in the top five in the betting for the Dublin SFC in 2015 when Andy McEntee took over and Keaney, like the other dual players, only committed to the team after the hurlers had been knocked out.
"He’s somebody I would have liked to have thought was a bit of a p***k, to tell you the truth, before I got to know him," says McEntee now, "because it suited me."
"There’s no doubt that we wouldn’t have achieved what we achieved in Ballyboden without him.
"He’s an exceptional athlete. And he’s an exceptional fella as well."
His inter-county retirement, such as it was, came shortly after that St Patrick’s Day success in 2015.
Whether he soured on Ger Cunningham first or vice versa, it was clear the two hadn’t mixed.
"Off the field," Keaney explained at the time, "things happened last year that I wasn’t really overly comfortable with, and now is probably the right time to step aside."
At 33, it seemed a natural end but Pat Gilroy thought differently last year and Keaney agreed.
Now, his Indian summer is ablaze with possibility.
Keaney has since gone on to inspire Ballyboden to an unexpected county hurling title and Dublin to their biggest championship victory in six years.
"He’s one of those guys that every time he turns up to play, he plays and he performs," McEntee points out.
"He had shoulder reconstruction at Christmas.
"And he’s back playing at 36, nearly 37 years of age – and central to what they’re doing. It’s a mark of the man himself. He really is an exception."
Keaney will turn 37 in September. Like Cluxton, this is his 19th year as an inter-county player which, given the attritional nature of his game and eventful injury history, seems all the more remarkable.
"To be honest with you, words don’t do it. That fella is just an inspiration," says Crummey.
"If there’s a definition of ‘warrior’ it’s Conal Keaney.
"Because when the game is in the melting pot and you need leaders, he just stands up. He’s just an inspiration to everyone around him."