DOUBLE JOBBING Conor O’Keefe played in two games for Claremorris AFC on Sunday. Pic: John Corless
Claremorris striker Conor O’Keeffe made his Super League debut aged 47
WHEN 47-year-old Claremorris striker Conor O’Keeffe, stepped onto the pitch to replace Oisín Brady at Glenhest on September 4 last year, in all probability he stepped into the record books in the process.
Conor may have set a record that day; that of being the oldest player to make his debut in the Mayo Super League. (The Mayo League has been unable to verify this record, but none of my sources can point to an older debutant.)
He is also one of the oldest players to play in that league.
O’Keeffe had been playing for the ‘B’ team and like many other ‘B’ players in other clubs, was called into the ‘A’ squad when numbers were depleted.
“Paul Burke, the manager, asked me to come along,” he told The Mayo News.
“I didn’t expect to play, but it was great to get on.”
Conor made his full debut this year, when he started in the 2-0 win over Manulla on May 29. On that occasion, he had played for the ‘B’ team in the morning.
So, how is a man of his age playing in the Super League, and how does he manage to play two competitive games in the one day?
“I was always naturally fit,” he said. “I’m of a slim build. I never put weight on. I keep myself in good shape and I watch what I eat. But I’m not a fitness freak. I don’t go running or to the gym or things like that.
“I go training, obviously. But I like a pint of Bulmers and a packet of M&Ms too. Obviously my body is a lot sorer and stiffer now, after matches, than it used to be, but once you do the proper warm-ups and exercises and cool-downs, you have a chance. It’s about managing my body now. On the pitch, I let the ball do more work that when I started years ago.”
Conor said that the manager had asked him at the start of the season to play for the ‘A’ team.
“I suppose it is due to the nature of the team. We have a very young team and he wanted someone with experience.”
He certainly has experience. A native of Arklow, he began his playing career in Wicklow. Arklow have three clubs in the Wicklow and District League – Arklow Town, Arklow United and Arklow Celtic. He played for all three. Then he moved to Dublin.
“I got a job in the bank and I started playing with the bank soccer team,” he said.
“The manager of the bank team, managed a team in the Leinster Senior League (LSL), and he asked me to play for them. My first LSL club was Fairview/Shankhill. It’s a big league with many levels. I played with Bluebell United, St. James’ Gate, Ballyfermot and Pegasus.”
Conor has been back in Mayo for just over six years. He and his partner, Karen (originally from Kiltimagh) have three children: Daniel (aged 13), Chloe (aged 11) and Joshua (aged six). All three play for Claremorris FC at underage level.
“I had played alongside Paul Burke in the ‘B’ team and when he became manager, I think he wanted me to be around, more as a squad player really. The team is very young. There’s only myself and Joe Slevin, the captain, who are over 25. So I think he wanted me to be there to encourage the younger lads. We have lads of 16, 17, 18 and 19 in the team, so it’s just to provide a bit of experience really.
“I got in the team because of the unavailability of other players due to injuries, college, holidays, exams and so on. I started the last couple of games.”
Conor said he was surprised at the talent in the Mayo League.
“The standard is very high. Players are technically very good. In Claremorris, for example, we had Harvey O’Brien in the ‘B’ team. He’s playing in the League of Ireland Premier now with UCD. Ryan Connolly played for Ballyglass – he’s playing with Finn Harps.
“The standard in the Super League is very good, based on my experience of the LSL and the Dublin leagues, and playing with top teams there.”
He said that the coaching, health and nutrition are totally different than when he started playing.
“I know it is a good few years since I started out, but most players take it more seriously now. It’s a big change from being out the night before on the beer. Maybe that still exists in the lower leagues, but most players take fitness seriously now.”
He says that people in general, are living and eating healthier and have a better than ever chance of playing sports competitively for longer.
“I’ve never seen more people cycling or running,” he said.
“The gyms are full. Fitness is a big industry now.”
In his case, he says, he just loves it.
“I love the buzz of playing. I have never given it up since I started. I have been playing somewhere at some level since I was a kid. I love the team sport. I thoroughly enjoy it.
“I have the fire inside me. I hate losing. I have always had a competitive edge. I play golf as well, and I played tennis when I was younger. I never played GAA or rugby. As well as playing for the A and B teams, I play Masters football with Claremorris as well.
“Thankfully, this year I’ve had no injuries. The last couple of years I had a few niggles. I had a calf injury and an Achilles which annoyed me at the end of last season and I was kind of thinking that might be it, but then this season I go on and start for the ‘A’ team in the Super League.”
He says he loves the banter on the pitch too.
“You’d have young lads on the pitch, having a go because of my age, and I just laugh it off.”
How long will he continue to play?
“I’ll keep playing while I feel I can contribute. And when I can’t – I won’t. I wouldn’t be there; I wouldn’t be playing if Paul didn’t think I was good enough.”