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Saturday 3 December 2016

For Conal it's all about the Boden

Keaney never saw this coming at the outset ... now he's desperate to make the most of it

Ballyboden St Enda’s forward Conal Keaney.
Ballyboden St Enda’s forward Conal Keaney.

Andy McEntee is a persuasive boss. The type who won't take 'no' for an answer.

Conal Keaney confirms as much. At one point last year, he wasn't sure if he'd commit to the footballers of Ballyboden St Enda's.

He'd put down another long season with the Dublin hurlers. The 'Boden stickmen were intent on reclaiming a county title surrendered the previous year.

Try fitting a typically congested Dublin club football campaign into that - especially when you're 33, with a business to run and two kids at home.

"At the start of the year we said we'd give the hurling a good crack and concentrate fully on it," Keaney explains.

"Andy kept at us and kept at us to come back - 'Just come along to a training session'.

"And when you come along then, he nearly sticks the boots on you himself ... and next thing you know you're playing in a championship match!

"You realise that you do really love it again and the lads are great and you start winning - and look where you are now."

Blocking

And where precisely is that? An AIB All-Ireland club semi-final in Portlaoise this Saturday (4.30) with one more rival, Clonmel Commercials, blocking their path to St Patrick's Day.

Truth is, the failure of the Ballyboden hurlers to realise their ambitions has facilitated this unexpected odyssey. They lost a high-scoring county semi-final to eventual champions Cuala on October 11 - suddenly, big ball was the only gig in town off the Firhouse Road.

At that juncture, 'Boden were awaiting a county quarter-final against St Oliver Plunkett's/Eoghan Ruadh, Keaney having played a significant role in victory over Kilmacud the previous round.

"After we won the county final and even after we won the Leinster final, I said that I didn't see us beating Kilmacud the first day out in the championship," the veteran dual campaigner recalls.

"We were just parachuted back in a week before that, and maybe it wasn't as smooth as we would have liked coming into the championship.

"But it's amazing what a bit of momentum does. When you get a good result like that, it just gels the whole squad immediately.

"Then we just got on a run; one game after another we battled out result after result and we got into a Leinster final," he adds

Horror-show

Keaney accepts that they got "a bit lucky" that day - an obvious reference to Paul Cahillane's horror-show moment when he stood in front of the posts with a late, late free to tie the game for Portlaoise.

"I was preparing for extra-time. I wouldn't expect anyone, at his level anyway, to miss it. It's amazing what pressure can do," he concludes.

Ballyboden's quest for provincial deliverance had finally materialised - in what many perceived as the 'wrong' code.

Six times, in the space of seven seasons, their hurlers had conquered Dublin only to falter in Leinster. The closest they had come was in year one: Keaney looks back on that 2007 decider against Birr, ending in 1-11 to 0-13 defeat, as "one we left behind us, big time."

Whereas this current run has bucked all expectations.

"Who would have thought this team would have been in a Leinster final? You just never know what happens," he muses.

"I think obviously there's a little bit of pressure there because every other team that has come out of Dublin has done well, either won Leinsters or got to the finals as well.

"For us, it was nearly the other way around - other teams were seeing a great opportunity to beat us because we were newly out of Dublin and they thought, 'Maybe they have celebrated for a good while because they haven't won it in so long' (six years).

"But that was one thing we were making sure wasn't going to happen.

"We've learned over the years that you don't get too many bashes at it in Leinster. So when you do get out and get a couple of wins under your belt and when you have been relatively injury-free ... you have to make the most of it."

This is reflected in Ballyboden going away for a training camp ahead of Saturday's semi-final.

The preparation at club level is now "nearly inter-county, everything is magnified."

Which brings us to McEntee - "probably one of the best managers I've ever had," according to Keaney, who lauds his man-management skills, meticulousness on the line, ruthlessness, and "that little bit of a streak in him where you're not sure what he's going to do. So everyone is a little bit fearful of him."

Kicking

The subject of Keaney kicking to touch on his inter-county hurling future has reached almost Shefflin-esque levels, even if the presumption is that he won't be back in Sky Blue this year.

"I haven't really thought about it, to be fair. I said I'd try something different this year, stick with the club and focus fully on the club," he demurs.

"It's very hard, I run my own business (an outdoor adventure centre in Blessington, bike hire in the Phoenix Park) and it's very hard to do your own thing in work and then be home for the kids and then try to get back out to meetings and that.

"It just wasn't going to work for me this year, especially with the club going well.

"So I said, in fairness to Andy (McEntee), I'm going to give him 100 percent and see where it goes and after that ... I'll weigh up everything and see if the circumstances are right."

That can wait. For now, football comes first.

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