That I can say I feel for Richard Keogh this morning is not the same as saying that he was not guilty of an appalling error of judgment, to put it at its mildest, for his involvement in the events which culminated in the car crash on Tuesday night. One that saw two of his Derby County team mates arrested on drink-driving charges and the club captain and Irish international sustaining a serious knee injury.
That the tabloid headlines have been able to indulge in their familiar penchant for snappy puns and alliteration — ‘Derby Demolition’, ‘Footie Stars Booze Crash Crocks Keogh’ — is only because the consequences of the accident were not as grave as they might easily have been: the accompanying front page photo of a Range Rover crumpled against a signpost is all the evidence you need to appreciate that the occupants were lucky to get away with their lives.
And to know too that it was also only a matter of luck that it was an inanimate object and not another car which bore the brunt of the collision.
So, even though he was a passenger in the car — in fact, he’s a non-driver — Richard Keogh can in no way be defended for his irresponsible behaviour on the night, something which Derby County made clear with their implied suggestion that, as the club captain, he bore a special responsibility for his involvement in the drinking spree which led up to the crash.
“As a club, we cannot, and do not, condone the actions of a small group of players on Tuesday evening,” Derby said in a statement. “The players were out as part of a scheduled team-building dinner with staff and while the majority of them acted responsibly and left at around 8pm and were not involved, a small group, including the team captain Richard Keogh, continued drinking into the night. They should have known when to stop and also ignored the opportunity to be driven home using cars laid on by the club, and chose to stay out.”
Richard Dunne, who had his own issues with alcohol at one stage in his career, wrote a column in the Herald in which, understandably enough, he drew a distinction between irresponsible drinking and drink-driving — even though, it should hardly need to be said, you can’t have one without the other.
“If you are a player and you go out drinking, if you turn up to training or for a match hungover, you are putting your career in danger and it doesn’t affect many people, apart from yourself,” he said.
“But drink-driving is putting lives in danger and that’s what those Derby players did when they got behind the wheel, though Richard wasn’t driving, he was a passenger in the car. Richard isn’t 17 or 18, he’s 33, so he should have had more sense than to get into a car with people who had been drinking.”
Except, of course, that the circumstances of the night were, from what we know, hardly conducive to anyone having any sense at all. But I think Dunne probably also spoke for many in the game when he went on to observe that Keogh’s involvement seemed entirely out of character.
“I was shocked when I heard that he was involved in this,” he said. “I know Richard well, he and his family came to visit me in France and he’s such a sound bloke, you could see why he was club captain, the last person you’d expect to be in a situation like that.”
In so far as journalists can ever really get to know players, that perception would chime with my own admittedly limited experience of Keogh in person. In conversation, he has always come across as humble and sincere, a solid citizen, one of the good guys.
The last time we spoke, before the Euro qualifier against Denmark in June, he was recalling how, ahead of the play-off against Estonia for Euro 2012, Robbie Keane had been passionately stressing to the squad’s inexperienced players the importance of making the most of the opportunity to qualify for a major tournament.
“It was interesting to hear him say that, it was motivating,” said Keogh. “ And I’m kinda saying that now to the newer guys coming in, the younger guys, saying that there’s no better feeling — trust me — than going to play in a major tournament for your country. That’s the pinnacle and that should be the motivation for everyone playing for Ireland, to experience that.The Italy game (at Euro 2016) — I said ‘listen lads, the fans, the pressure on the game, the way we did it, it was the best feeling I’ve ever experienced’.”
And now, suddenly, after one catastrophic night, it feels safe to assume that, as the author of his own downfall, he must be enduring the worst feeling he has ever experienced.
Euro 2020 is gone for him and, indeed, given his veteran status, his entire career now hangs in the balance, even if specialists have assured him, according to latest reports, that he should be fit to play again in a year’s time.
As he comes to terms with all the consequences of his actions, there’s bound to be a huge personal as well as professional cost, as he feels the full weight of the sense of shame and guilt that must inevitably come with the appearance of this ugly stain on an otherwise unblemished character and career.
But, thankfully, fortunately, Richard Keogh’s life is not over. And if he is prepared to draw on his own hard lesson to alert a new generation of ”the younger guys” to the dangers of alcohol abuse, whether occasional or sustained — and the potential horrors that can come in its train — he may yet end up doing some of the most valuable work he has ever done, on or off the football pitch.
It might prove to be a long road to recovery and an even longer one to redemption but I wish him well on the journey.