PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST Phil Keegan in his Westport United kit. Pic: John Corless
Westport United’s Phil Keegan has had to retire after being diagnosed with a heart condition
Name: Phil Keegan
Club: Westport United
Did you know? Phil played in the League of Ireland for one season with Mervue United.
IT was fitting that Phil Keegan put in a man-of-the-match performance on his last outing for Westport United in the helter-skelter 4-4 draw with their great rivals Castlebar Celtic on August 15 last. And when he hit the ground with five minutes remaining, little did anyone know that not only was his collar-bone broken, but this would be his final football match.
“I thought the shoulder was dislocated because that had happened me before and it felt something similar,” the 31-year-old told The Mayo News last week. (This is something to which your scribe can attest: when you break a bone it isn’t immediately clear what part of the body, exactly, is broken.)
“About three years ago I dislocated my other shoulder, and it kind of felt like it was the same thing again. I even asked the lads around me on the pitch to pop it back in, but they said they couldn’t. Probably just as well.”
He says it was a ‘nothing’ challenge.
“It was just an awkward fall. I’ve had worse many times in the past. That’s the thing with bones, you just don’t know. When I went to the clinic, they told me I had it broken in four places. I had to get a plate and three screws put in.”
Phil is a qualified PE teacher and was back in NUIG doing a masters when the injury occurred. He said it was a strange injury to pick up in soccer.
“That’s usually an injury more associated with rugby, or occasionally Gaelic. It doesn’t happen in soccer that much.”
But the worst was still to come for him. While a broken collar bone would keep him out of football for the rest of this year, the discovery of an unusual heart rhythm had more long-term implications.
“About three weeks after the collar-bone break, I had this weird feeling. I started getting palpitations walking along the street. My stag-do was a few days before and, as I don’t really drink, I thought that maybe I had a bit too much at that. But that had been a few days before, so then my next feeling was that this was related in some way to the break.
“Or maybe a reaction to the medication I was on.
“To be on the safe side, I decided to go to the nurse in college and she sent me to the hospital for tests. The tests discovered I had an irregular heartbeat.
“About a week after that, I had a kind of a heart attack and I spent a month in hospital and had a permanent personal defibrillator fitted,” he continued. “What happened to me is basically the same as what happened to Christian Eriksen in the Euros.
“It’s called ventricular tachycardia. It happened about three weeks after I broke my collar bone. My heart is fine but I am in danger of getting another attack and the defib’ is in there to kick-in, if that happens. The defibrillator is vital really because if it happened again, the chances of survival are slim, if I didn’t have it. It’s only a small thing, it fits under the skin and it has to be replaced every six or seven years.
“I’m retired from playing now, unfortunately. With the defibrillator fitted it’s safer I don’t play football. If I took a knock or if the ball hit me on the chest, it could dislodge the device and I’d have to go to the hospital again and have an operation to have it relocated.
“It’s not an operation you’d want to have too often, so it’s safer I don’t play. It’s been a bad couple of months really.
“When I felt unwell, I rang the ambulance and I started walking towards the hospital and when they met me they were amazed to see me. I was lucky I didn’t pass out, which usually happens.
As a result of all that’s happened, the 31 year-old has deferred his Masters for a year.
“With everything that went on, I missed a lot of the first semester so I decided to take a break to recover properly.”
Phil was born in Westport to a Cavan mother (Dot) and a father (Phil) from Gloucester in the UK. His only sibling, his brother Lee, the Mayo footballer and former ‘Footballer of the Year’ is a year older. (Phil describes them as ‘Irish twins’).
He attended Carrowholly National School and Rice College before heading for University in Galway.
And if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, Phil is due to marry Ciara Gunning, (who is originally from Blackrock, Co Dublin, but has been living in Westport for the past 22 years), at the end of December.
“Yeah, on top of everything else, I was trying to plan a wedding from the hospital bed. Everything at the one time.”
Now that his playing career is over, Phil plans to expand his coaching activities.
“Pre the lockdown, I was doing a bit of strength and conditioning with the Galway United Under-15s and 16s for Johnny Glynn, the Head of Development there, whom I worked with at Mervue United. I did a bit for Westport GAA as well when I was playing, but it was difficult to do the two. But now that I won’t be playing, I’ll be able to concentrate on the coaching side a bit more.”
Phil isn’t bitter about what happened, or the premature end to his playing career.
“I could have died, so when I didn’t that’s a huge bonus,” he smiled. “I could probably have played soccer for a few more years if they wanted me – look at Joe Lawless!”
Westport manager Mickey Feeney, described Phil as a huge loss to the club.
“It’s not that he’s just such a great player,” Mickey told The Mayo News. “He’s a great man to have in the dressing room and on the training pitch. Younger players look up to him. He’ll be missed on the pitch and in the club.”