When Carlow-born John Keogh sits down at a packed Parkhead tomorrow night, he’ll know the circuitous journey taken by his son Richard has all been worth it.
That Keogh has had to wait until his 29th year for a competitive cap is noteworthy enough but doing so against Ireland’s probable rivals for the second automatic European Championship qualifying spot carries added significance.
Marc Wilson’s injury-enforced absence for the battle with Scotland presents Martin O’Neill with a cavity that he’s already filled in his mind, the Ireland manager admitted yesterday.
All the signals point to Derby skipper Keogh assuming the mantle of John O’Shea central-defensive partner, a task he’s had many years to ponder.
Captaining the country of his father’s birthplace at U19, U21 and senior levels — against Oman only two months ago — marked occasions of pride for himself and the family but tomorrow represents a watershed like no other for a player a decade on the thread-mill of regular club football.
“What a great game, brilliant atmosphere and top stadium to play in if I’m called upon,” said Keogh yesterday at the team’s training base in Malahide. “Things are going well at the club, as Derby are top of the Championship, and on a personal level I feel I’m hitting top form. I still feel there’s more to come from me. I’m hopefully in the prime years of my career so I’m in a really good place.
“My Dad is a big Celtic fan and booked the trip to Glasgow well in advance. He’s been to quite a few of my Ireland games and this one should be special.”
All of Keogh’s family, both genetic and football, rallied around him last May in the aftermath of Derby’s Championship play-off defeat at Wembley Stadium. If getting edged out on a Premier League ticket wasn’t bad enough, equally harrowing was the captain’s mistake gifting QPR their last-minute winner.
“The best thing I did after that low was getting back on the training pitch with Ireland,” he confessed.
“Everyone was very supportive — from the players to manager, Roy (Keane), Seamus (McDonagh), Gupps (Steve Guppy) and Wally (Steve Walford).
“It helped that they really picked me up because this season has gone well so and I feel really on top of my game.”
Depending on selections by O’Neill and Gordon Strachan, up to five players from the Rams could grace the Glasgow turf tomorrow.
Keogh could even be deployed with shackling the Championship’s joint-top scorer, club-mate Chris Martin.
“It definitely helps that I train every day with some of Scotland’s players,” he reasons. “Chris and Johnny Russell are brilliant players but I know their strengths and weaknesses.
“Chris is a big focal point of our team at Derby. He’s a really good target man, has good feet, is strong and a good finisher.
“I was actually at a Celtic game last year with Johnny (Russell). A few of us, including Jeff Hendrick, watched the Uefa Champions League tie against Ajax, as we felt it would be a good opportunity to soak up the atmosphere.”
Another player appreciable of the unique experience is Stephen Ward, set to keep his place in the Ireland side after shaking off an ankle injury.
Ward said: “I’ve only played at Parkhead once, and that was a pre-season friendly for Wolves that attracted 29,000, but was there for some of Celtic’s big European nights against Manchester United and Juventus.
“I think any Irish person would tell you they have an affinity to Celtic growing up, so you know it’s going to be a real special occasion for us and one we’re looking forward to. But we won’t let the occasion or venue overshadow how big a game it is.
“We’ve scored late in the last first two qualifiers away against Georgia and Germany. Hopefully we won’t leave it too late but going right to the end definitely shows that there’s a belief in our squad.
“This game could be more like an English league game than an international. It will be fast and frantic but we’ll need to have calm heads there. We’ll need to be wary of the Scottish looking to start fast but we’ll be ready.”
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