Waterford’s All-Star goalkeeper, Stephen O’Keeffe. Photo: Inpho.
NHL 2018 Preview – Waterofrd goalkeeper – Stephen O’Keeffe
Two carloads of Waterford hurlers whizz down the M9 for midweek training. All Star goalkeeper and Bank of Ireland man Stephen O’Keeffe is among the passengers.
“There’s six of us up in Dublin so we carpool down. It just makes it easier having a few friends in the car. It makes the journey go quicker.”
An understanding employer also helps. “It might take two and a half hours to get down or a bit longer depending on traffic. Work are very good to me up here. I have a bit of flexibility so that I can get out at four and make up the hours either that morning or the following day. I have that flexibility in my job that allows me to do that.”
Working in the capital has its perks. For one, it offers an element of detachment from the hullabaloo surrounding big matches. “You certainly are shut away from it up in Dublin. I’d go into work and mainly the talk in my office would be around rugby which I have no absolutely no interest in to be honest! I’m very much shut off from chit chat about hurling.”
The 26 year old chose not to revisit events of September 3 over the winter. “I haven’t looked back at it yet to be honest. I will watch it at some stage but I’m not sure right now how much I’ll get out of it. The disappointment is still very raw. For the moment, I’ll leave it lie.”
Despite the final heartache, O’Keeffe could still point to two major wins. “There was a lot of positives. Getting over Kilkenny and then winning the All Ireland semi final; they were two amazing days during the year. Ultimately, it’s the last game of the year that sticks in the memory bank.”
He returned to club action two Sundays later. In Ballygunner’s march to the Munster final, he played nine weekends out of ten. Derek McGrath granted the Gunners’ contingent a well-earned break before re-joining the panel. “We were given a few weeks off which was needed. It was a long year with the county and the club so it was nice to get those few weeks. More than happy to be back involved now and raring to go.”
Waterford’s first All-Star number one has always pushed the boat out. In a recent interview on WLR, McGrath admired O’Keeffe’s sense of adventure. “What I love about Stephen is that he hasn’t been afraid to be himself.” The gaffer even suggested that he could land a score from open play in the near future.
The Déise quarterback takes risks. Whether it’s receiving back passes from defenders or offering himself as an option from sideline balls, he prefers to dream up his own playbook. “It’s something I’ve always tried to do. Maybe as I’ve gotten a few more years’ experience under my belt with Waterford, you get more confidence to go do that. I would’ve always tried that with Ballygunner over the years. It was always part of my game I guess. Maybe last year the backs were using me more often, so it got highlighted a bit more. To be honest with you, I haven’t changed my game a whole lot from what I would have been doing over the last few years.”
Behind the scenes, management urge both keepers to show for possession and play out from the back. “Iggy does the exact same. In training, we’re always told to support the backs whenever we can. Derek would encourage you to play with a bit of freedom as well. It just happened naturally from there.”
After emerging from the minor ranks, Davy Fitzgerald gave O’Keeffe his senior debut during the 2010 Waterford Crystal. A couple of unglamorous outings against CIT and IT Tralee. His first taste of league hurling came a year later away to Wexford.
This latest Division 1A crusade presents five games sandwiched into six weekends. Top four is the initial aim. “We’ve a very tough start with Wexford coming down to Walsh Park and then we’ve go to Tipperary the following week. What you’re looking for is to get a few good performances, build some confidence and hopefully qualify for the knockout stages and see where you go from there.”
He split up league duties with Ian O’Regan in 2017. Cork and Clare for him and Kilkenny, Tipperary, Dublin and Galway for the Mount Sion custodian. McGrath hasn’t dropped any hints about what he has in mind this time around. “No indication yet. I’m sure the majority of the panel will get some game time. We’ve good strength in depth in the squad. We’ve a lot of players who are on a very even level of ability. I’m sure we’ll see a lot of players during the league.”