When the chips are down, Waterford can rely on Stephen O’Keeffe
Goalkeeper’s astute distribution now a key part of the Déise’s well-honed game plan
Stephen O’Keeffe: “Stephen is the quarterback,” says Karl Cooney. “He’s your Tom Brady. You need to be a bit of a freak to handle that responsibility.” Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
The chips. That’s the Stephen O’Keeffe story they tell you. The one about the chips. Derek McGrath knows the Waterford goalkeeper since he was a scrawny 12-year-old in first year in De La Salle college.
He was thin as a pipe cleaner back then, a tent-pole for the marquee he made of every jersey. They couldn’t find one small enough for him to fill so he swam in what they had until time eventually piped in some insulation.
But he was always in goal so that was fine and they left him to come along at his own speed. By the time they won back-to-back Harty Cups in 2007 and 2008, he was getting there. He’d done a couple of years in Waterford development squads and had grown accordingly. Still, they figured it was best to let him be his own self.
Hence, the chips. Those were journeys to a new world for De la Salle and McGrath got them thinking seriously about hurling and life and brotherhood and everything else. He got them pushing on, trying to do the thing right. It seems quaint now but that was the first time they ever ate organised pre-match chicken and pasta.
O’Keeffe, though, not so much.
“Stephen would just have a bowl of chips,” says McGrath. “Loads of salt and vinegar all over them. We decided that whatever made him happy, that’s what we’d go with. We were thinking about servicing players’ individual needs and if he felt he needed a bowl of chips, fair enough, so be it. It went against all nutritional advice and everything else. But you weigh these things up and we basically felt that whatever would suit an individual player’s needs, we would try to facilitate.”
Mark Cooney is the Waterford goalkeeping coach. He and McGrath have been friends since they were eight years old and so he came into the backroom when McGrath took the job. He had known O’Keeffe in those development squads and coached against him at club level all the way up.
“Did Derek tell you about the chips?” Cooney says. “Big bowl of chips with a bowl of red sauce beside them. I’d say the rest of them didn’t even notice. They were so in the zone. But sure they’d know he’d do his own thing anyway.”
The oldest trope in the oldest book, of course. Goalkeepers are different and all that. Well, Stephen O’Keeffe is and he isn’t. He will jump in front of a speeding bullet to keep a clean sheet, sure. But for a day job, he’s in the decidedly staid, sane world of corporate banking.
McGrath has seen a thousand schoolboys live a thousand lives in a thousand different ways. He wouldn’t want to overdo the level to which O’Keeffe followed his own thread because everyone does to some extent. But he found him interesting nonetheless, a study in opposites. Still does.
“Like most goalkeepers, he would have been quite individualised in his thinking and extroverted at times. But very, very calculated in where he wanted to go both in school and with his goalkeeping. Outside obviously the physical progression, you could see he was very invested in his own path in terms of education and in terms of his own life in general. He was a very clever young man.
“But at the same time, the perception of him around the place would always have been that he was a sort of a carefree character. I don’t think he did it deliberately. I don’t think he was ever putting on an act or anything. But he had this way of taking his schoolwork and his hurling very seriously without looking like it.
“Not every kid has the ability to portray a carefree image while being genuinely invested in his own path. This will sound contradictory but he is very relaxed but very focused when it really matters. The bigger the day, the better he is, normally. If I paint a picture of him being extremely extroverted, it’s probably the wrong one. He has a focused kind of chaos to his approach, I guess.”
O’Keeffe was 19 when Davy Fitzgerald brought him into the Waterford squad over the winter of 2010. Though he got a couple of games in the league the following spring, Clinton Hennessy was ahead of him and he’d been an All Star nominee for the previous three years in a row. With Hennessy’s retirement at the end of 2011, the jersey became vacant.
He made his championship debut against Clare in 2012, a game that whipped this way and that like a loosed electric cable. Waterford stayed alive through a jitterbug endgame only because O’Keeffe managed to extend an improbable hurley twice in a matter of minutes. Saves from Conor McGrath and opposing keeper Pa Kelly stole Waterford a march through to a Munster final and O’Keeffe had announced himself.
He became known primarily as shot-stopper. McGrath and Cooney both remark on the length of his arms and the size of his hands, attributes that allow him to extend the final inches to make saves out of certainties. For Clare in 2012, see Offaly in 2013, Cork in 2014 (drawn game), Tipperary in the 2015 league semi-final and more. These were games that Waterford would have lost late on except for his intervention.
Time passed and they needed more from him. The game is the game and shot-stopping is a brick in the wall now but no more than that. Between himself, Cooney and sub-keeper Ian O’Regan, they kept drilling and drilling until his distribution improved. McGrath pushed him to leave his goal more often and more quickly, to always be an option. Nowadays, there isn’t a goalkeeper in the country who spends more away from the front of his posts.
“He’s always there as a help to our full-back line, whether it be taking a handpass or a longer stick pass to shift the direction of the play,” says McGrath. “He can see the whole field from where he is and probably since Donal Óg, it’s vital that goalkeepers are comfortable taking that responsibility. It has superseded their shot-stopping capabilities to a certain extent.
“It’s very important to us that he provides that avenue for our defenders to be able to turn and play it back to him. That’s something that they work on an awful lot, that distribution. He has a huge advantage in being able to see everything that’s in front of him. It’s far better that he takes the ball in that scenario than a guy hitting it blind over his shoulder just to get rid of it.”
For Cooney, the evolution of the sport has been perfectly timed to suit O’Keeffe’s coming of age. More possessions means more responsibility. Which means more thought, which means more calculation. Which demands better, is the point.
“Stephen is the quarterback,” Cooney says. “He’s your Tom Brady. You need to be a bit of a freak to handle that responsibility. Think of the best goalkeepers and what links them? People think it’s a madness but it’s not actually. It’s that they’re calculated when it really matters. People go on about Davy Fitz – “He’s a mad yoke” or whatever. No, Davy is calculated. Donal Óg – calculated. Anthony Nash – calculated. Brendan Cummins – calculated. There’s no fools in goal.
“And to be that calculated takes a certain level of intelligence. You hit a good puck-out and a score comes off it and you’re a hero. Hit a bad puck-out, overcook it or be intercepted for a score and you’re a fool. In that scenario, my thinking would be that you need to be calculated enough to work out why it went wrong.
“You have to be able to say to yourself, ‘That was the right option, it just didn’t work out’. That’s what I see him being very strong on, ignoring what’s going on, what’s coming down from the terraces and making clear-cut decisions each time.
“The analysis now would suggest the game is about possessions. Where does that come from? Well, usually it comes from the goalkeeper. He strikes the ball unchallenged between 30 and 40 times in every game. Nobody else on the field except the other goalkeeper does that.”
You have to be able to putt for dough as well, of course. O’Keeffe first came to the attention of the internet when he sprinted out to jump in front of Anthony Nash’s pile-driver free in 2014. It left him with a bruise the size of a manhole cover and eventually led to the rule change for close-in frees and penalties. Cooney, O’Regan and O’Keeffe cooked up their plan on the Friday before the game but keep it their own little secret. Goalkeeping crews are different, see.
“I’ll be honest, I knew nothing about it,” says McGrath.
“We were taking from the script that Clare had employed in the previous year’s All-Ireland final, putting 12 bodies on the goalline and giving them all goalkeeper’s hurleys. That was what the plan was, as far as I knew it. So I think there was a bit of omerta between the two goalkeepers and the goalkeeping coach with regards to charging it down. Definitely on the day, my initial thought process on it was that what Stephen had done was illegal.
“The prerequisite for a goalkeeper, the first thing you need, is you have to be unbelievably brave. You have to be courageous. You have to have brilliant game-management. And I think, crucially, you have to be able to come outside the norm as well at times.
“You have to be willing to say, ‘I’m not going to go the route that’s expected, I’m going to go beyond it’. So although I didn’t know he was going to do it, it wasn’t something that surprised me. There was no big analysis or break-down of it afterwards.
“It was just, ‘Leave him off.’”
It always has been.
All Star panel
Waterford are the only Liam MacCarthy county never to have won an All Star at goalkeeper.
Kilkenny 11 (Noel Skehan 7, Michael Walsh 2, PJ Ryan 1, Eoin Murphy 1)
Tipperary 9 (Brendan Cummins 5, Pat McLoughney 2, Ken Hogan 1, Darren Gleeson 1)
Cork 8 (Ger Cunningham 4, Donal óg Cusack 2, Anthony Nash 2)
Clare 6 (Seamus Durack 3, Davy Fitzgerald 3)
Limerick 4 (Joe Quaid 2, Tommy Quaid 1, Brian Murray 1)
Galway 3 (John Commins 2, Colm Callanan 1)
Wexford 2 (Damien Fitzhenry 2)
Offaly 2 (Damien Martin, Stephen Byrne)
Dublin 1 (Gary Maguire)