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Dual in the Boden crown

Dub ace is almost 38 but doesn't feel his age - or that he's 'done enough'

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Conal Keaney in action for Ballyboden St Enda’s against St Vincent’s during the Dublin SHC quarter-final at Parnell Park

Conal Keaney in action for Ballyboden St Enda’s against St Vincent’s during the Dublin SHC quarter-final at Parnell Park

SPORTSFILE

Conal Keaney in action for Ballyboden St Enda’s against St Vincent’s during the Dublin SHC quarter-final at Parnell Park

Conal Keaney thinks back to one of his earlier incarnations as a Dublin player. Not his first - with the hurlers - but to a time when football called.

He remembers the "so-called older lads", Coman Goggins and Ciarán Whelan, lying on the treatment table, getting strapped. They might have been only 26, 27, 28 - and he gleefully slagged them off: "It's time to give it up!"

In just under three weeks' time, this once-youthful joker in the Sky Blue pack will turn 38.

It has been one of the crazier years in the life and times of Conal Keaney - shoulder surgery; the birth of his third child; a lockdown that wreaked havoc with his work; and a GAA season flipped spectacularly on its head, so much so that he'll aim to make his first Dublin outing of 2020, for Mattie Kenny's hurlers, in the month of October.

But one thing probably hasn't changed too dramatically from that familiar, age-old script: a congested club season that would sap the body and mind of a player ten years his junior.

And yet Keaney, the most remarkable dual player of this millennium in any county, has carried on regardless.

Hectic

In the space of six hectic weeks, from July 19 until last Sunday, August 30, he started eight senior club championship matches for Ballyboden St Enda's, four in either code.

They lost the first - heavily, in hurling - to Kilmacud Crokes. They have won the next seven, with Keaney shooting 0-12 for the hurlers and 1-11 (all bar one point from play) for the footballers.

All of which means that Boden face Na Fianna in a Dublin SHC 'A' semi-finals at Parnell Park on Sunday. And six days later, Keaney will be back in Donnycarney for the footballers' SFC1 semi-final against St Jude's.

Boden can boast two other dual players in Simon Lambert and Stephen O'Connor, but he's the only one who starts every game for both.

What makes Keaney's endurance all the more eye-catching is that he has done all this in the midst of a staggering Dublin career that began with the hurlers in 2001, embraced one dual season (2004), six more years exclusively to football and then almost a decade with the hurlers, interrupted by a two-year 'retirement' in 2016-17 before Pat Gilroy coaxed him back.

"I never thought I'd be anywhere near this," he admits, when asked about the plausibility of still playing 19 years after his Dublin debut.

But then he adds: "I don't feel my age, and I don't feel like I've done enough. I want to do more. I want to win more, and I want to keep winning as long as the body will let me do that.

"And I'm very, very lucky to be still playing inter-county - I get that - after my little break. I was really lucky to get asked back, unbelievably lucky, and I'm just cherishing that as much as I can.

"I'm grateful to Pat for asking me back, and Mattie for hanging onto me. I don't know what's going to happen, but I'll certainly do whatever I can to drive the team forward in both club and county. Wherever that goes, I don't know, but please God it will bring something good at the end."

***

Before the feast came the famine: before this latest onslaught of activity came the lockdown and, even before that, Keaney hadn't pucked a solitary ball for Dublin during the league.

For two compelling reasons: another shoulder operation, this time to remove a screw from previous surgery a year earlier; and the birth of a new baby boy in February.

"To be honest with you, the lockdown nearly suited me," he says. "Gave me a chance to get my fitness some way in shape, because I certainly wasn't ready to go anywhere near inter-county after the shoulder operation and then with the new arrival. It was a bit chaotic around that time.

"Look, that five-six-seven weeks gave me a chance to get a lot of work done. I was working hard every day. Sure, there was nothing much else to do; our businesses were closed. I was pretty much at home, and getting as much work done as I could, fitness-wise and strength-wise."

Keaney's two business ventures - Phoenix Park Bikes and CP Adventure, an outdoor adventure centre in the grounds of Russborough House, Blessington - were both "affected badly".

He explains: "The adventure centre is dependent on schools and corporates, which are pretty much non-existent. And then the bikes - 80-85 percent of that would have been tourists.

"So, yeah, we closed both of them for about six-seven weeks. We're back, we opened up the adventure centre for the summer camps which was pretty good.

"But at this time of the year we would have been absolutely flat out, especially over the summer, in both places. But it was a lot, lot quieter than it should have been and it's still going to be quiet going forward."

Answer

Keaney cannot answer if - in a world without Covid - he would have been fit and available for Dublin's putative Leinster round-robin opener against Kilkenny back in May.

"I don't know really," he demurs. "The previous year I was chasing my tail a bit to get back in time ... I was lucky to get away with it to a degree so I thought this year, if I was doing it, I need to get a good grounding of hurling and fitness before going into an inter-county set-up."

In that sense, the lockdown has helped and now matches have provided that grounding. Nor has he cited dual demands as an excuse for cutting corners at training.

"I've been consciously trying to train fully on the Tuesdays and the Thursdays prior, as much as possible," he says. "I think I'm better coming into the games having done a good week of training, be it football or hurling."

His position, predominantly the full-forward line in both codes, has helped. "I'm not doing as much running - I probably don't do much running anyway!" he quips.

"Yeah, the body's okay ... it's probably better off not thinking about it really, to be honest. If you think about it too much, it probably would tire you even thinking about playing all the games."

***

The first of those games, a 14-point capitulation to the Kilmacud's hurlers, must seem a long time ago. "I knew we weren't that bad. Crokes were playing absolutely out of their skin. We were missing a load of lads," Keaney recalls.

"So that wasn't the end of the world. We knew we were probably going to get through the group if we beat Chiaráins."

So it transpired. But what of last Sunday's SFC quarter-final, and that late burst of Raheny points that forced extra-time (and very nearly defeat) at a time when Keaney had been replaced and was looking on, helpless?

"We were struggling all through the game to get any kind of consistency ... and I think it was probably down to how good Raheny actually were," he surmises.

"It's probably something that's within that football team. Over the years, even when we've gone on to have a successful campaign, we've always struggled in some games - but we've always seemed to come out the right side.

"It's probably just that inner, really deep-down belief that if we stick at it and keep going, we'll get there."

And get there they did in extra-time, with Keaney back in the thick of it.

Story of his summer. Story of a life less ordinary.