When he wasn’t praising the strikers for finding the back of the net or, if the occasion called for it, not so gently reminding them to at least hit the target, Roy Keane was throwing a few compliments — “good hands”, “great save” — in the direction of the young goalkeeper who was being kept busy between the posts at Ireland’s training session here in Belek yesterday.
And for Mancunian Kieran O’Hara, it was music to his ears.
“When I was growing up, Roy was Manchester United captain and a club legend,” the 21-year-old said when the session was over.
“He won pretty much everything with the club, the European Cup, the Premier League. It doesn’t get much better than that in terms of achievement, so to have someone like that watching over you and maybe even as a mentor would be fantastic. You can learn a lot from him.”
O’Hara, who recently signed a new contract with United, has his mother to thank for, somewhat unwittingly, setting him off on his net-minding career.
“My mum was reading through the newspaper and I think she wanted to get me out of her hair one Sunday and the local team’s U6s/U7s needed a goalkeeper,” he related.
“I wasn’t even that tall for my age but she just thought, ‘he’s pretty mad, so throw him in and see how he does’. That was my local club in Manchester and I just fell in love with it from there.”
He must have been a natural too since, as he adds with a smile, “probably about a year or so later I went to Manchester United”.
At Old Trafford, he knows he is following in some famous footsteps. “Over the years the club has been renowned for producing top-quality keepers. For me, it is inspiring. It means that coming from Manchester United stock, people expect great things from you, and I want to live up to that reputation.”
O’Hara qualifies for Ireland through his grandparents on his father’s side. “They were both born in Galway. They are no longer with us but my Dad is delighted that I’ve continued that side of our family. My grandparents moved over when they were about 19. I’ve got Irish aunties, uncles, and cousins who are always over and we spend time there as well, so this feels like a natural fit, I feel at home.”
Now, the Irish U21 keeper is hoping that the step up to senior grade is imminent.
“That would be unbelievable,” he said.
For another uncapped player, Sheffield United wing-back Enda Stevens, this week in Turkey comes as a long-delayed reward for persistence, ever since he left Shamrock Rovers full of hope only to encounter growing disenchantment at Aston Villa after just a handful of Premier League appearances.
“Although I was at Villa and on loan at Doncaster, I didn’t really feel like I was playing the way I wanted to play, my football suffered, I wasn’t fit, I wasn’t enjoying it, my head wasn’t in the right place,” the Dubliner admits.
“When I went down to League Two (to Portsmouth), I got that hunger back for the game. When you come away from it you see how much it’s worth to you, how hard you have to work to get back to where you want to be.
“It [Villa] was a massive step up. It wasn’t that I wasn’t ready, I just didn’t appreciate it, I didn’t work as hard as I could to become an Aston Villa player. I wasn’t good enough at the end of the day.
“I had to come away, down the leagues, to find that out. It got to my head a bit: You think you have made it but you are nowhere near making it.”
Now, six years after he left the League of Ireland, the 27-year-old finds himself playing for a promotion-chasing Championship side and revelling in his first Irish call-up – “the icing on the cake” as he calls it.
“I knew I had to get to that level [Championship] to have a chance of being called up,” he said. “I am just delighted to be here. Hopefully I can do well this week and hang around.”
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