Wednesday 26 June 2019

'The fact he knew I had family and kids, that he didn't want me to be in that hotel alone, I loved him for that'

Richard Keogh is targeting a Premier League return with Derby County when they take on Aston Villa at Wembley in today's Championship play-off final. Photo: GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images
Richard Keogh is targeting a Premier League return with Derby County when they take on Aston Villa at Wembley in today's Championship play-off final. Photo: GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images

David Sneyd

Richard Keogh greeted his guests dressed as a skeleton with a bright, beaming smile. It widened just that little bit more for Leon Best.

This was Halloween, 2014. Keogh and his wife, Charlie, held a Halloween party for his Derby County team-mates. The arrival of the on-loan Blackburn Rovers striker and his partner thrilled the club captain.

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"It felt like he was so happy to see us. He knew how tough it was for me to be away from my family while I was there. The fact he even asked what my situation was told me so much about him," Best says.

"It wouldn't be a thought in the head for most."

Best's wife and four children were based in the north of England, he was staying in a local hotel three nights a week and when Keogh found out about his living situation he made sure to reach out.

"He invited me around for dinner, we would go out together for food too. In different stages of your life, different things mean more to you," Best continues.

"If I was 19 and had no missus and no kids, I wouldn't have thought too much of it. The fact he knew I had family and kids, that he didn't want me to be in that hotel alone, I loved him for that and for inviting me in."

By the time Best came on loan to Derby during the 2014-'15 season, he had already played for Southampton, Queens Park Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday, Bournemouth, Yeovil Town, Coventry City, Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers.

He has since added another four clubs to that list - Brighton & Hove Albion, Rotherham United, Ipswich Town and, most recently, Charlton Athletic. Nobody has made the sort of lasting impression Keogh did.

"He is unique,' the 32-year-old feels. "There aren't many people like him in the game. You know you can trust him. People respect him for the fact he's such a nice, honest guy.

"There are many ways you get respect in life but when someone is a nice, kind person, you should respect him for that alone. And what he has done in the game just adds to the respect people feel for him."

It is just one of the reasons Frank Lampard kept him on as captain for this season. Keogh will lead Derby out in today's Championship play-off final with Aston Villa for his 614th game in English football.

None of them have come in the Premier League but the arduous journey he has negotiated through the lower leagues has not soured him. Those instincts to nurture and protect are as strong as ever.

It is no coincidence that when Mason Mount and Harry Wilson arrived on loan from Chelsea and Liverpool respectively, the powers that be made sure they ended up living next door to Keogh.

"He's taken on a father role with them this season," one club source reveals. "He's struck up a friendship. He cooks for them sometimes and has guided them along."

It is not a one-way relationship, though. "Mason drives him to work every day because Rich doesn't drive," the source laughs.

Which makes you wonder just how he has survived on the road he has taken to this point. Ipswich Town released him at 16. Two years later Stoke City did the same after a brief loan spell with Vikingur in Iceland.

The travels then continued like a scatter gun around the UK - Bristol, Wycombe, Huddersfield, Carlisle, Cheltenham and Carlisle again.

And then to Coventry, where he was player of the year at the end of a season when they suffered relegation from the Championship in 2012. That was 22-year-old Gary Deegan's first year in England after moving from Bohemians.

Now a 31-year-old veteran with Hibernian, Northampton Town, Southend United, Shrewsbury Town and Cambridge United on his CV, the Dubliner is emphatic about Keogh's qualities.

"You are drawn to him, he is inviting and such an infectious character. I wouldn't say I'm like that at all," Deegan laughs.

http://migration-ece4.independent.ie:8085/migrator/ws/publication/independentDublin/resource/binary/448131
Gary Deegan

"He reached out to me by getting our girlfriends to meet up, he was really good like that.

Richard Keogh, left, James McClean and Stephen Ward training with the Ireland squad in Versailles during Euro 2016. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Richard Keogh, left, James McClean and Stephen Ward training with the Ireland squad in Versailles during Euro 2016. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

"What I've found is that footballers are so guarded, they don't let it down to show what's underneath. That can be difficult.

"I don't mean just showing your vulnerable side, I mean showing your true you. Everybody is like an actor, they're afraid to show you who they are, he's not. They will all put a persona up of who they want you to think they are but Keoghy isn't like that at all. What you see is what you get.

"When I first went over, I wouldn't have went to shop in Dior and all these stupid f******g places. They do it to fit into a conversation. There's none of that bullshit with Keoghy.

"You warm to him very quickly because he's so open. He's there with open arms. Then you get invited to his house and you see it's all genuine.

"People behind closed doors and outside are two different people. He's not. You can't help but want to come into his circle."

Stephen Ward knows that feeling. He has been close friends with Keogh since their days as Ireland U-21 internationals 13 years ago.

"The Dublin Bear," Ward beams. "One of the best there is. We've been through so much together in our careers, good times and bad, and that is the stuff that bonds you.

"We will always have Lille, that night was such a proud moment for everyone and to be there alongside him in the Euros to beat Italy, no one can take that from us. He is a leader on the pitch and someone you want to be around off it."

The dancefloor is a home away from home.

"He shakes a leg. He does indeed," Best laughs.

"He's got a bit of rhythm, the lad, he's got a bit about him. I just think he's one of these types, he doesn't need anything to get him going. If someone in the changing room is tapping on their seat or a song comes on he will be up dancing."

Ward can only laugh. "He'll tell you he's better than he is but he's not too bad to be fair. He's got a few moves alright. He's always in the centre of things."

It will be purely business at Wembley today, and while the heartache of the 2014 play-off final defeat to Queens Park Rangers still lingers - it was Keogh's error which led to Bobby Zamora's winning goal - that won't change his outlook.

"Everyone knows the type of player he is. He's constantly on you. He's a really good defender, he's a leader.

"He likes to win and he will always be up for a battle, but he's such a lovely lad, if he fouls you or stands on your feet or does something that's not part of the game he will say sorry," Best continues.

"He'll help you up, tell you he doesn't mean it and say he's just clumsy.

"There are some who say that only when they've done something and see that you're pissed and want to get back, they will turn into a nice guy. He is genuinely a nice guy."

That isn't enough to do what he has in the game.

"Managers want reliability," Deegan adds.

"Everyone can be a great eight or nine out of 10 for one week, think they've cracked it and go missing for 10 games. Let's see you do seven out of 10 for 10, 20, 50 games on the bounce.

"That's what Keoghy is all about, he has heart and soul. He has character. You can see that rub off on this Derby team.

"They have gone right to the wire and it's no surprise that they have because it's only teams that have spirit that can do that.

"I don't want to just say he's a nice guy and this and that, he is, but he's a f*****g good player too."

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