John Keenan: ‘We felt we could take them all on’

Fate rarely draws a map. John Keenan knows that if Galway hadn’t spent three weeks in New York for the 1967 league final, they’d have won a fourth consecutive All-Ireland that September.
John Keenan: ‘We felt we could take them all on’

However, he’s also well aware that had the Galway footballers not landed Stateside in May of ’67, he would never have crossed paths with Gabriel Walsh, later to become Mrs Gabriel Keenan.

For five consecutive years during the mid-sixties, the national league was structured in such a fashion that the winners of the ‘home final’ travelled to New York to play the locals in the final proper. Galway, having overcome Dublin in the home final at the end of April, boarded a plane to take them across the Atlantic. The decider against New York was broken into two legs, stretching out their time in the Big Apple. Given the team had covered a fair amount of road during the three previous all-conquering summers, there was “a bit of steam let go”.

New York claimed the league silverware and, within a month of returning home, Galway’s four-in-a-row bid was over - Mayo scoring a 3-13 to 1-8 Connacht semi-final win over football’s dominant force.

“If we didn’t win the home league in ’67, we’d have won the ’67 All-Ireland,” says Keenan, left corner-forward on the three-in-a-row All-Ireland winning team.

“There wasn’t much going to bed early when we were over in New York and there was certainly plenty of dancing. The trip tired us out too much.

“That said, I wouldn’t have met my wife only for that trip. Everything happens for a reason, I guess.”

Gabriel Walsh, no more than Keenan, was steeped in football, her father being the legendary Kerry corner-back and six-time All-Ireland medal-winner, Jack Walsh. As their relationship flourished, the Galway footballer’s sojourns to Asdee in North Kerry became more and more frequent.

“Jack would be telling me all these stories from his time with Kerry in the 1920s and ’30s. He toured America a few times with Kerry and one trip lasted as long as six weeks.

“He liked our Galway team and he’d always say that Seán Purcell was the best player he ever saw.”

Keenan, too, was a fond admirer of ‘The Master’. Indeed, when Keenan made his championship debut for Galway in 1961, he was named in the full-forward line alongside Purcell.

“He was a great footballer and lovely to play with. Cyril Dunne and I had played together on the 1959 Connacht minor championship-winning team and Cyril broke into the Galway attack soon after me. The minor team from 1960 that won the All-Ireland, eight players were there when we won the first All-Ireland in 1964.”

Training was somewhat lax back then and the Dunmore forward says the Tribesmen took it upon themselves to ensure they were at championship pace when summer swung around.

“Unless we got to a league semi-final or final, we wouldn’t begin training until close to the championship. All the lads would do an awful lot of work on their own. I used to start on January 1 and I’d train three times a week. I might run a mile, do some soloing with the ball in the back field and then I’d do 20 sprints back and forth in the field. You’d finish with push-ups.

“After we kicked away the ’63 All-Ireland, football was my life for the next 10 years. All our twenties was spent playing football and we loved it. I wouldn’t change one thing. It was a great time and a great team.”

Two of their final wins came at the Kingdom’s expense and, not since the All-Ireland decider of 1965, have Galway beaten Kerry in the championship.

“We beat them in the 1963 All-Ireland semi-final, the 1964 final, the 1965 league final and All-Ireland final. We didn’t fear Kerry at all. Our team was a team that didn’t fear anyone. We felt we could take them all on and we did for a period.

“In the 1965 league final, Kerry were all out to beat us. Seamus Leydon scored a late, late goal to hand us the win. Johnny Culloty didn’t see it. Kerry were great to play against, great footballers and, in time, became great friends of ours.”

Now 75, the trips to Asdee have become less and less frequent. Gabriel’s sisters recently landed home from the States and so the pair headed south to see them. The club’s juniors were playing Division 5 county league against Churchill at Jack Walsh Park, with Keenan observing from the line. There was, of course, mention of tomorrow’s All-Ireland quarter-final.

“If they could all play well, we’d beat Kerry,” he reckons.

“I went to the Connacht final, but I won’t go to Croker. My daughter wants me to go, but I think I’ll sit at home and watch it. There’s a lot to be said for it, too.”

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