Ballyhegan's McKeever keeping in touch

The Ballyhegan team which beat Clonmore to reach Saturday's final of the Armagh JFC
The Ballyhegan team which beat Clonmore to reach Saturday's final of the Armagh JFC

OVER 4,500 miles from home, Jonny McKeever peeked through his fingers as Ballyhegan battled it out with Lissummon for a place in the final four of the Armagh Junior Football Championship.

McKeever had guarded the goals for Ballyhegan when they last lifted the Sean Quinn Cup back in 2017, for the first time since 1995, but fast forward six seasons and his championship participation has been much different.

Helplessly staring at Armagh TV’s coverage of the big game, McKeever cheered then wilted as Ballyhegan let a three-point led slip late on, only to recover and win in thrilling fashion after extra-time.

“I was in front of the laptop screaming and my wife took the kids out of the house, she said she couldn’t listen to me anymore! I’m not used to watching Ballyhegan in a championship game, so it was tough to watch.”

Just two months before that quarter-final win, the McKeever family had moved to Doha, Qatar for work purposes. McKeever’s wife Helen secured a job and while Jonny is still employed by a company in Ireland, he was able to work remotely.

“My wife has a job out there, she’s a physio working in a sports medicine hospital,” explained McKeever, who won an Ulster title with Armagh as a minor back in 2005.

“It was a good move for the family. I was obviously going to miss the football, but it was on the cards for a while, the management had known that.

“Six or seven games out from the end of the league, I was kind of being phased out essentially. My younger brother (Joe) is actually the sub goalkeeper, so I was backing him up and still training away until I was going.

“He played a couple of games and was doing well and then he unfortunately broke his leg, and he ended up in a moonboot for eight or nine weeks and we struggled then. We’ve had four or five different goalkeepers.”

Captain Jack Rafferty pulled on the goalkeepers’ jersey, but a knee injury ended his championship involvement. Tiernan Power also stood between the sticks, but again, injury robbed Ballyhegan of a netminder.

Midfielder Conor Williamson was the next choice and having proven a success during the group stages, he lined out in goals for that quarter-final clash with Lissummon. 

But, for the semi-final win over neighbours Clonmore, McKeever was back in the number one shirt.

A James McCormack goal midway through the second period secured Ballyhegan’s place in the decider, although Caolan Donaghy raised a green flag for Brendan Donaghy’s Clonmore late on to ensure a nervy finish.

McKeever’s skills may have been a bit sticky, but he had done some training while in Doha that kept him sharp on his goal-line as he was fired in at the deep end. McKeever was just glad to grip that blue and navy jersey once again.

“I was going out with the full expectation to not play football and maybe take up golf or something like that but there is a good GAA community out there,” explained McKeever.

“So, I started training with Qatar GAA and there’s lots of lads from Armagh out there.

“It’s enjoyable. Obviously, the weather is a bit different, you’re out slogging on a Tuesday night in 30-degree heat with the sweat dripping off you, it’s not really my scene!

“But it’s good to get out from a social aspect and it’s good that I was training away and keeping my eye in because coming back into the cauldron of championship football, having not played, probably would have been tough.”

Since overcoming Clonmore, Ballyhegan have had a two-week build up to concentrate on Clann Eireann IIs, their final opponents this Saturday.

The Lurgan side entered a junior team for the first time in a decade this season and won promotion from Division 3B.

McKeever recalled the buzz that surrounded the Ballyhegan club the last time they competed in the decider and instead of completing a couple of plane journeys back and forth from his new home, he’s content to stay in the country and soak up the excitement.

“The build-up is a big thing,” added the experienced netminder.

“Back in 2017, I think there was a week between the semi-final and final and it was a really enjoyable week. There’s a good buzz around the club and it’s good to be there.

“I’m lucky with my employer, I’m working remotely with a company still based here while over in Doha and they’re very flexible so I’m back over here now working in the office.

“I took my youngest girl Aida; I took her back on the plane with me, so I only left the wife with two kids and I’m very thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity to come back here.”