When Declan Fanning called time on his career after last year’s All Ireland final there was a general assumption that David Young would slip seamlessly into his number five jersey. Young had made his championship debut in the qualifiers against Wexford where he announced his arrival with a man-of-the-match display. Again when Fanning had emptied the tank in the final against Kilkenny it was Young who come on, so he seemed the natural successor to the Killenaule man.
Yet a year on and the number five slot is likely to have an entirely different tenant next Sunday. John O’Keeffe from Glenough in Rossmore wasn’t even a panellist last year yet now he looks set for the biggest challenge of his hurling career. It has indeed been a fast-track promotion for one who’s likely to be the only West player on the team – and just one of two on the panel beside his club mate John O’Neill.
Yet John O’Keeffe hasn’t exactly sprung from nowhere. He was part of that surge of talent that saw the county win successive minor All Irelands in ’06 and ’07 and subsequently drive the present resurgence that sees the county in its third final on the trot.
In any player’s career certain games stand out and in John O’Keeffe’s case I take you back to late January in 2005. O’Keeffe was attending Cashel CS and they played Thurles CBS in an extraordinary Harty Cup quarter-final at Boherlahan. While many games are soon forgotten this was one of those rare events that sticks in the memory. Even the match stats sound almost bizarre: Cashel led 1-4 to nil at half time and eventually lost by 1-10 to 1-4 - the umpires at one end never raised a flag. There was only a modest wind blowing and behind the strange score details was a game of incredible quality.
I recall that game now for two reasons: John O’Keeffe’s part in the spectacle and the amazing number of subsequent Tipperary seniors in action that day.
Sixteen-year old O’Keeffe played right corner back and was superb. In a column the following week I wrote, ‘John O’Keeffe produced some of the classiest moments of the day’. My counterpart in the ‘Tipperary Star’ wrote the same week, ‘Cashel’s right flank of defence, O’Keeffe and Heelan (Michael Heelan of Kickhams), dominated that side’.
The other amazing detail from that Harty game is the fact that six of Tipperary’s panel on Sunday next were in action that day in Boherlahan: Padraic Maher, Michael Gleeson, Michael Cahill, John Coghlan and Pa Bourke on the Thurles side – and that’s without mentioning Ryan O’Dwyer who played centre forward for Cashel and Timmy Hammersley who came in as a sub for the CBS. It’s quite a roll call of players who subsequently progressed to higher things.
Out of secondary school John O’Keeffe had probably his finest hurling moment when playing left wing back on the All Ireland winning minor side of ’06. This was Liam Sheedy’s breakthrough year as a manager when Tipperary stopped Galway and Joe Canning in spectacular fashion.
But the story of that All Ireland win contains some extraordinary twists. Tipp lost the Munster final to Cork, lost decisively in fact (2-10 to 1-15), and John O’Keeffe didn’t feature in the provincial defeat. In the olden days that would have been it, but the back door created an opening, which Sheedy exploited to great effect. Clearly he had to remodel and refocus the side for the qualifiers and part of that revision involved the promotion of players like John O’Keeffe and Timmy Dalton from Arravale Rvs.
The new lads impressed, first against Carlow and then Kilkenny in the semi-final. The final produced one of the finest Tipperary minor wins ever as Galway were crushed by 2-18 to 2-7. A Tipperary defence with Brendan Maher in the corner and John O’Keeffe at wing frustrated a Galway attack in which Joe Canning was the media focus, going for three All Ireland medals in the grade.
The record shows that John O’Keeffe spent three years on the county U21 panel, winning a Munster medal in the middle season. That was the year of the controversial Munster final win at Ennis. The Clonoulty man was introduced as a sub in the All Ireland semi-final against Derry and again in the final defeat to Kilkenny.
But I suspect ’09 must rate as John O’Keeffe’s biggest disappointment. He didn’t make the team for the first round against Cork but came on as sub for Donagh Maher in that ill-fated game with Waterford. This was the year when the minors of ’06 were expected to progress to U21 glory but three days after the Munster senior final they fell sensationally to the Deise. Enough said about what was a bleak day for Tipperary’s emerging talent.
And so our story comes up to date with John O’Keeffe’s promotion this year to senior ranks. His league debut was against Waterford back in March and then came the big breakthrough against Cork in the championship in late May. The Munster semi-final against Clare represented a setback where he was placed in an unaccustomed corner back spot, got skinned for an opening goal by Conor McGrath and was replaced at half time. He might have feared for his future that day in the Gaelic Grounds but he survived the fall-out. Restored to wing for the Munster final he did well and again held his own in the semi against Dublin.
In his first year in the top flight of hurling John O’Keeffe has done well in a modest, unspectacular way. There’s evidence that his wing was targeted in the Munster final and again in the All Ireland semi-final, which suggests the hurling world isn’t yet convinced by the newcomer. He hasn’t the swashbuckling appeal of a Padraic Maher, he won’t barge out to loft a seventy yard clearance, but he does the simple basics in a tidy, unfussy manner, reading the game well, picking up breaks and laying off to colleagues.
At this level the game is ruthless and I suppose for John O’Keeffe it’s very much a learning curve on his debut season. Perhaps the most we can say is that the jury is still out on Tipperary’s newest boy on the block.