"It should be a given, at county level, that players can kick off both feet" - Paddy Keenan on retirement and the modern game
Paddy Keenan would love to be playing under Mickey Harte. Not as much as Mickey Harte would love to be managing Paddy Keenan.
To have his left foot and his right, to have his vision, his passing, his speed and the skill that, from 2003 to 2014, nobody in a red and white jersey and very few in his generation could match. The people of Louth would move the Cooley mountains to have him playing this Saturday. And rightly so.
But Paddy Keenan, Louth's one and only All-Star, is a supporter now. And an avid one at that.
For a long time he wasn't, having grown disenchanted with the game after his retirement in 2014 but, as everyone in Louth will tell you, there's something in the air now. Keenan's as excited as the next man.
"It's a long time since we've been up in Croke Park with Louth, it's been ages! But there's a bit of excitement back. We haven't heard of buses going to games in years. There's buses going up today," he tells SportsJOE.
"I'm sickened I'm too old and I never got to play under Mickey Harte," he says with a laugh, "But anything I've heard out of the camp, from day one, has been nothing but positive.
"For the guts of the last ten years really, you know, the tables really turned for Louth and there has been apathy around the county. But if we can just hold this panel, this management with Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin - hopefully there's a chink of light," he adds.
He was one of the most graceful midfielders to kick a ball.
He could field it, he could pass it, he could run and he could score.
He could have walked onto any team in the country 🏐
It's Paddy Keenan appreciation day, Louth's one and only All-Star 🌟 pic.twitter.com/2NV7A0YuiA
— GAA JOE (@GAA__JOE) January 26, 2021
Because for Louth, ever since Keenan retired in 2014, it's been nothing but doom and gloom and false dawns and early summer exits. He says that, with typical humility, it's only a coincidence that things have gone down the glen for the Wee county since but, having lost their best player when he was just 29 years of age, it was always going to be an uphill battle for them.
It might have seemed, from the outside looking in, like a premature retirement but with a full-time job to hold down, with the commuting and the ever-increasing commitment taking its toll, Keenan felt he had no other choice.
"By 2014 I was burnt out. I was sick of it. I was happy enough to just play club football. Something had to give back then. I mean, I couldn't hold down the job I have now while playing county football," says Keenan, who runs Protection & Prosperity Financial Services Limited with his St Pat's Lordship club-mate Barry Oliver.
"In theory, it'd be great to give up work and just play and dedicate all your time to it, but someone has to pay the bills. Maybe in a bigger county, a job might be more flexible for you but for the majority of counties and the majority of players, that luxury just isn't there."
"So to be honest with you, I completely drifted away from county football then, like a lot of people in the county here really. For a good few years after it, I never really looked at a game."
It may be that a clean break was what he needed but as a purist on the pitch, Keenan is a purist off it too. It was the kicking, the catching and the cross-field passing that made him great as a Gaelic footballer and, in recent years, it's the lack of emphasis on those same skills that, as a spectator, has put him off.
"In general, I don't think county football is that enjoyable to watch. It's improved in fairness in the last couple of years and with Louth getting more competitive, I'm looking at it more, but I much prefer watch the club championships or local games here. I think the county game is a bit formulaic, too structured, players are conditioned not to take the chance, not to take on the long pass, just to pass it sideways.
" Teams are gone so professional now that, with all the stats and so on, there are less snap decisions in games and flair players are more restrained. I watched the Hogan Cup final recently, it was Kevin Keegan style stuff, it was unreal and it looked like it was a game played under completely different rules."
That was Keenan's kind of game but those games are few and far between these days and, as far as he can see, that comes back to an over-emphasis on gym-work and an under-emphasis on the skills of the game.
"Even if you meet the players, they're like rugby players now.
"You can see it at club level. Even around our own club here, the amount of times you'd see young fellas kicking balls, practicing frees or skills - it's somewhat few and far between, but you'd have a better chance of popping into lads in the gym.
"And for coaches, not to disparage anybody, this is just my personal opinion - for coaches, almost anybody can get you fit. You put a block of work in and you'll get to a standard and there is a standard, a very high standard you have to get to to play county football but to teach the skills - vision, spatial awareness, kicking, movement, creating space - all of that is a lot harder to coach and train.
It wasn't the gym that made Keenan such a great Gaelic footballer, it was the left foot and the right foot and the hours upon hours he spent working on them out on the field.
"It frustrates me, especially at county level, when a lad has to turn back because he can only kick off one foot. You're supposed to be the cream of the crop. It should be a given at that level, but the thing is it's been neglected for years in the coaching.
"When I was younger, I always considered myself a soccer man. One of the things I thought I needed was being able to kick off both feet. So I worked hugely on that, after training, before training, all the time. For me, the footballer that can kick off both feet is twice the footballer."
Take it from one of the best. To be the only man in Louth with an All-Star is a fair acknowledgement of a great career but Keenan would trade it in for something else.
"It's something you'll always be proud of. My mother said at the time that you won't appreciate this for years into the future. And I didn't. It was just another thing. That was 2010 and I was still pissed off about the way the Leinster final finished up. Like if we had an option between winning that Leinster or this All-Star, you'd be picking Leinster all day long because that Leinster team would be remembered around Louth forever - I'm long forgotten at this stage!"
Not by those who were lucky enough to see him off the left, off the right and at his best.