Richard Keogh could feel the pain but at first he did not know where it was coming from. He could hear a voice yet it made no sense. The scene was lit by blue emergency lights and the focal point was a black Range Rover, its front end crumpled around a lamp-post. Keogh began to process. His hand hurt like hell and so did his eye. Then he understood the words. "You've been involved in a crash," the figure in front of him said. "You've been unconscious."
It was Tuesday September 24th 2019 and for Keogh, the Derby captain at the time, it was the start of the nightmare, a fusion of physical and mental torment that would see him abandoned by his club – his contract terminated – and pushed to the brink. Depression would grip and there was a period when he came to hate the game he had always loved, when he was ready to stop the fight to recover fitness, when he considered retirement.
Keogh’s story is heavy on the extremes of emotion, taking in bereavement and betrayal. More latterly, there has been understanding, particularly when he turns the focus inwards; elements of healing. He could celebrate the birth of his second son, Myles, in May – shortly after he had won a lengthy and draining compensation claim against Derby for breach of contract.
Keogh has since had three clubs – MK Dons, Huddersfield and now Blackpool, having rebuilt himself physically after the injuries he suffered. Derby, meanwhile, have become synonymous with crisis – their plunge into administration and a 12-point deduction with potential further sanctions coming after the owner, Mel Morris, found himself in over his head and unable to sell.
It is the psychological aspect of Keogh’s journey that is most complicated and, of all the grim vignettes, one stands out. It comes from his wife, Charlie, without whom he admits he would be bereft.
“There were times when I went to bed with him downstairs thinking that I’ve got to go down and get a glass of water because he could have done something to himself,” she says. “I was going to bed thinking: ‘Oh my God,’ getting that sick feeling. It was awful.”
At this lowest ebb, did Keogh contemplate suicide? “No,” he says firmly. “I’ve had this conversation before. I wasn’t feeling suicidal. I wasn’t. Some days, I was in depression – I genuinely do believe that. But mainly I think I was right on the cusp of it. I was literally on the line for a lot of the time.”
Keogh has had to wait for legal reasons to give this interview and the only place to begin is at the Joiners Arms in Quarndon, where he and his then Derby teammates had gone for dinner and drinks, after a game of 10-pin bowling. The team-bonding day was just what Keogh needed after the devastation of losing his grandmother Iris the previous Friday. She was the matriarch of the family; a day-to-day figure in his upbringing.
Keogh is overcome when he remembers how Iris’s cancer suddenly worsened and he and Charlie could not get to Harlow in Essex, where she lived, in time to see her.
“We got a call to say that she’s going to die, basically,” Keogh says. “Luckily, we managed to get her on the phone. That meant a lot, just to speak to her. I think she knew it was me. Ten minutes after that, she passed away. My family were with her and she was kind of holding on.”
Keogh told nobody at Derby and, the next day, he led the team out for the 1-1 draw at Leeds. This is what Keogh does. He plays. It does not matter if he is carrying a knock or, in this case, dealing with trauma. He plays. In seven-and-a-bit seasons at Derby, he started 316 of 330 Championship matches and all 10 of the club’s play-off ties. Keogh did not want to disrupt the preparations for Elland Road. He decided that he would tell everyone about Iris another time.
At the Joiners Arms, Keogh was part of a group that stayed on until last orders. “I would say I was a bit drunk,” Keogh says. “I wasn’t drinking heavily. I think with my nan passing, it was a combination of emotionally not being in a great place and having a few drinks. It’s probably not a great combination for anyone.”
Then came the ill-fated decision. Keogh had missed his lift home but his teammate Tom Lawrence was in his Range Rover, keys in the ignition, ready to go. Did Keogh want to jump in? There was a Derby player in the passenger seat and another in the back. Keogh does not name them. Everything happened so fast. Keogh believed that Lawrence was sober and, with two others already in the car, he saw no reason not to get into the back.
“I hadn’t spent the evening with Tom,” Keogh says. “I had no reason to believe he was over the limit. Everyone was in there before me so I didn’t think: ‘Hang on a minute.’ It was just: ‘OK. I need to get home. Let’s go.’ The next thing I know I’m waking up and speaking to the paramedics.”
Lawrence had followed another Derby player, Mason Bennett, out of the pub. Bennett drove his Mercedes – with no passengers – and, after a minute or so, when he stopped at a give-way line, Lawrence went into the back of him, before careering into the lamp-post. In the panic that followed, everyone fled the scene. Everyone, apart from Keogh. He had been abandoned by his teammates, left unconscious in the wreckage of Lawrence's car. To all intents, he was left for dead and it was certainly a difficult moment for Keogh when he realised that later on. "I was like: 'Wow. OK,'" he says.
Lawrence and Bennett returned to the scene 45 minutes later, by which time Keogh had headed home. Desperate to avoid being taken to A&E – where he stood to be recognised and, doubtless, caught by cameraphones – he somehow persuaded the paramedics to let him walk. He had set off along the A6, adrenaline battling the disorientation, before a police car picked him up and drove him the short distance back.
Lawrence and Bennett were arrested and they would plead guilty at Derby magistrates court on October 15th 2019 to drink-driving and failing to stop at the scene of an accident. They got community service and driving bans rather than jail. Keogh had always got on well with Lawrence. What of their relationship now?
“I could tell he was very remorseful,” Keogh says. “He came and visited me and we stayed in touch so from my point of view he was genuine. If we could all turn back the clock, we would.”
The morning after the crash, Keogh continued to feel that his hand and eye had borne the brunt of the impact. That would change. The big injury was to his knee; he suffered extensive damage to the medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments – both would require operations – and he will never forget the moment when the surgeon, Sam Church, told him that he was looking at 15 months out. Twelve months was the best case scenario. The sliver of positivity came when Church assured him that he would make a full recovery.
Keogh describes the pain for the two weeks after the first surgery – to the MCL – as “horrific, 12 out of 10, next level”. According to Charlie, he was “nearly passing out every time he stood up”. Yet the psychological agony would be worse, possibly because it involved factors beyond his control – namely, the uncompromising stance of the Derby hierarchy, led by Morris.
The inconsistency at the heart of the saga was that Morris chose to sack Keogh at the end of October 2019 for gross misconduct, having retained the services of Lawrence and Bennett. Morris did fine the latter pair but he essentially stood by them, despite their criminal convictions.
Derby have not wanted to compare their treatment of Keogh with that of Lawrence and Bennett; to them, each case had to be judged on its own merits. But the optics are jarring. To repeat, Keogh was a passenger; the other two drove the cars. “I’ve struggled with this part of it – I think that’s what upset me the most,” the 35-year-old says.
In Keogh’s opinion, it is impossible to overlook the financial context. As a veteran player on a basic £24,000 a week plus bonuses until June 2021, he had no value on the transfer market whereas Lawrence, a former Manchester United trainee, who was 25 at the time, and Bennett, then 23, were saleable assets. Bennett would move to Millwall in January 2020, initially on loan. “I think it’s pretty obvious to most people what happened,” Keogh says.
Derby had first tried to agree a settlement with Keogh’s agent, Cos Toffis – they made an offer to him worth a fraction of the remaining value of Keogh’s contract. They also promised the central defender an unspecified non-playing role. To Keogh, it felt like enforced retirement. There was never any way that he could have accepted it.
“Derby tried to say it was a negotiation but in my view it wasn’t,” Keogh says. “I felt pressured to accept the offer.”
Derby’s gross misconduct case hinged on Keogh’s failure to wear a seatbelt in Lawrence’s car and how his judgment had been impaired by alcohol. They also said in a statement that the players had “ignored the opportunity to be driven home using cars laid on by the club”, although Keogh disputes this particular line. According to him, there were no club cars outside the pub at any point. Instead, there was merely a club employee who had a number to call for a driver.
“The way they put it was as if the club had officially laid on cars and we ignored them, that we walked straight past the chauffeurs to get into our own cars,” Keogh says. “It’s just absolute nonsense. The car thing annoyed me and it annoyed the other lads as well because there were no cars.”
Stripped of his livelihood and mired in an unforgiving rehabilitation, Keogh felt his mental health crash. Friday nights and Saturday afternoons were awful, when he ought to have been preparing or playing, but he reached his lowest point when the first Covid lockdown kicked in at the end of March 2020. He was getting up late and losing his drive – tell-tale signs of depression.
“He had a full-on breakdown one night,” Charlie says. “He was just sobbing, saying: ‘What’s the point?’”
Keogh adds: “I had a 10-day period where I was in a pretty bad place. Everything got on top of me and I didn’t know how to deal with it. What they did to me made me hate football and I did say: ‘That’s it. I can’t be arsed to do it any more.’
“Being the best husband and the best father is more important than being a footballer and if I had to retire to be that, then I would do it. But as Charlie pointed out, if I retired, would I be happy and able to be that person? I had to come out the other side.”
Keogh has come to realise who his friends are and the bond with those who have supported him with words and deeds has deepened. The list is long and the names on it reflect Keogh’s standing in the game.
It includes his Republic of Ireland managers and coaches Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane, Mick McCarthy and Terry Connor, plus Paul Clement and Frank Lampard, who managed him at Derby. Player-wise, Keogh mentions Tom Huddlestone, David McGoldrick, Mason Mount, Bradley Johnson, Craig Forsyth, Martyn Waghorn and Lee Grant. Mount, the Chelsea midfielder, who spent the 2018-19 season on loan at Derby, was at the hospital when Keogh came round after his MCL operation.
Keogh is in a better place now, helped by the success of his injury rehabilitation – he was back on the field for MK Dons after 12 months, having signed for the League One club in August 2020. He returned to the Championship in January of this year with the move to Huddersfield and he remains in the division with Blackpool, whom he joined in July.
Keogh’s decision to employ a life coach from the summer of 2020 has also made a difference. “I’ve learned a lot about myself – why certain things affected me a lot more because of character traits and values that I have,” he says. “I just think I have more clarity.”
One phrase recurs. “Time is a healer,” Keogh says. “And as much as it’s never going to heal everything, it does heal certain wounds.”
Keogh might be expected to have negative feelings towards Derby but the opposite is true. When he played at Pride Park with Huddersfield in February, he felt “all these memories come flooding back … of all the fantastic times”.
Keogh lived the relationship with such passion and intensity that he will always carry a torch for Derby, even if the low point led to such distress. “It’s really affected me to see the club in the state it’s in,” he says. “It’s made me realise that it’s still a massive part of me and always will be.”
What of Morris? “Our relationship has gone but, again, time is a healer,” Keogh says. “I think that’s probably how far I’ve come, mentally, with everything.”
Could Keogh even see himself back at Derby? “If there is an opportunity in the future, then yes,” he replies.
It is easy to imagine that Keogh’s legal victory brought a measure of closure for him. Derby were ordered by the EFL’s Player Related Dispute Commission (upheld on appeal to the League Appeals Committee) to pay up the full value of the remainder of his contract – a sum of about £2.3m. Keogh was also found to have been wrongly dismissed by Derby and not to have committed gross misconduct or brought the club into serious disrepute.
But there is no happy ending here. At least not yet. Keogh may forever wish he could have his time again at the Joiners Arms when a momentary decision changed everything.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org. - Guardian