Jimmy Keohane celebrates scoring for Cork City against Drogheda United at Turners Cross. It was a memorable season for the Kilkennyman, who helped the club secure a league and cup double
A new season of League of Ireland football is just around the corner. For footballers, this is their Christmas Eve, and Jimmy Keohane is just one of the many who is counting down the hours until the big day kicks off.
The Kilkennyman will be hoping that the new campaign, which starts on February 16, comes with as many gifts as last season delivered.
Having swapped Sligo Rovers for life by the Lee, he was part of John Caulfield’s Cork City side who lifted the Premier Division title for the first time in 12 years, then made it a double when they landed the FAI Cup a few weeks later.
Memories of that 2017 season, which also included a run in the Europa League qualifiers, are still fresh in his mind but with his batteries fully charged Keohane is raring to make some new ones.
“The holidays are definitely over,” he said, “but it’s good to be back.”
The midfielder is one of a number of Cats who have played with Cork in recent seasons (that group has included Davy Mulcahy, Gavan Holohan and Seanie Maguire) but he has enjoyed the most success with the club.
“Coming down to Cork I knew it was going to be competitive with Dundalk,” he said. “I always felt we’d have a shot at winning the title, maybe the FAI Cup or League Cup as well, but I never expected to do the Double in my first season here. It’s a terrific achievement for all the players - and great for the city too.”
Delivering on the promise of previous campaigns, where they had run Dundalk close, was the main goal for the Rebel Army.
“Cork had finished second in the three seasons prior to winning the title last season,” Keohane reflected. “The team was constantly knocking on the door, trying to improve on something they hadn’t done well the season before.
“Every year they used the previous one as a foundation to move forward. The team I came into was very competitive at the time - there were some very talented players there - but we gelled as a group.”
And how Cork City gelled!
“We took off from the start of the season,” he said, reviewing the start of the campaign in which Cork put together an unbeaten run of 22 games. “Everyone was playing really well and we went into every game with the belief that the three points were ours to take - we knew that we’d win the game.
“It sounds arrogant, I know, but that’s the attitude you have to have to challenge for the title,” he added. “There are three points at stake in every game, whether it’s Dundalk away or Finn Harps at home. We just felt ‘those are our three points, that’s what we need’.”
That attitude was vital for the Rebel Army, considering they had a Goliath in the form of Dundalk to contend with.
“We had to have that mindset as Dundalk had set the bar with their performances in the last few years,” Keohane said. “It was about getting up with them. If we were going to drop points we knew they would be hot on our heels, but that’s the way things are when you’re going for a league title. You have to grind out every result you can, even if you’re having an off day.”
That winning mentality was something which flowed through the entire squad. The goal of winning the league title drove them all on.
“I’ve been at a lot of clubs before where people have thought ‘yeah, it would be great to be up there challenging’ but I’ve never been in a group where you could sense that winning mentality,” he said of his team-mates. “It was a great group to be in last year. We were really challenging on all fronts and knew we would be there or thereabouts come the season end.”
Keohane was loud in his praise for his colleagues, and their winning attitude.
“There are a lot of different characters in every dressing-room but, collectively, this group seemed to buy into the idea that we had to have a winning mentality to be up there with Dundalk and to challenge for silverware,” he said. “It was a constant driving force every week.”
The need for that mentality was vital, especially as teams can’t afford to slip up.
“In England you have something like 46 games every season,” he said by way of explanation. “When I was with Exeter you constantly had little runs of form. We could have won three or four games on the bounce and then lost a few; it was just like that.
“With long seasons there is a lot of time to put things right within the campaign. With Cork we knew that Dundalk would set a pace if they were allowed to. We had to do the same, to get that consistency every week.
“When you’re up there challenging you have to constantly do it every week. It’s that consistency, that mentality that gets you there.”
Having cut his League of Ireland teeth with Wexford Youths, Keohane crossed the Irish Sea and spent some time with Bristol City, Exeter and Woking. Now back in Ireland he has noticed a change in the game, with clubs like Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers raising the bar. They may be rivals, but he is full of respect for how they have brought the game on.
“That rivalry is what you need in a league to bring it forward,” he said. “I know sometimes people can play on the rivalry that Cork and Dundalk have had in recent years, picking out something a player might have said or building up a cup final, but that’s what it’s all about.
“You have rivalries in the game and that’s what drives you forward,” he said. “You want to be the best, so that’s what brings teams on.”
And with Cork snapping at Dundalk’s heels for that league title in recent years, the players used the cauldron of expectation that bubbled through Turners Cross to spur themselves on even higher.
“People may have spoken about the pressure on us to win but John (Caulfield, Cork City manager) has high expectations and we’re all aware of that,” said Keohane. “He’s lived in the city almost all of his life so he knows the place inside out and what people expected of the team.
“It was great to have that experience, someone who could tap into the city,” he said. “He was great to me as he made me aware of what winning the league would mean to Cork.
“When I signed for the club they had just won the FAI Cup the season before (a certain Seanie Maguire settled the 2016 final with the only goal in a 1-0 win over Dundalk at the Aviva Stadium) and a lot was made of that success. John told us what adding a league title to that Cup win would mean to the city.”
The scene was set for a great Cork charge, but even the players were surprised at how quickly they took off and blazed ahead in the league race.
“It felt like every game we went into we believed we could get the win and kick on,” he said. “We knew Dundalk were ready to pounce if we slipped up, but we had the belief to continue on.
With Seanie Maguire in scoring form Cork City turned the title race into a procession. Nabbing a haul of 20 goals along the way, it was easy to see why Preston North End pounced for Keohane’s fellow Cat.
“Seanie worked really hard last season,” he said. “The way we played throughout the campaign you just knew that all you had to do was get the ball up to Seanie and he’d make something happen - even if you were playing badly he’d make you look a good player!
“That’s the type of player Seanie is,” he added. “His workrate was really high. Along with that he had so much quality you could see towards the end that he was on a different level to the rest of the league. He definitely deserved his crack at Championship football with Preston North End.”
Maguire had that single-mindedness to succeed. That was something Keohane could relate to, especially as Cork had pursued winning the league with the same fervour.
“Seanie is very driven, but very unassuming,” he said of his former team-mate. “He really takes every game as it comes - I don’t think he paid too much attention to things like scoring records but he was on fire for us, scoring for us and creating chances for others in every game. He was a joy to play with.”
Maguire left Cork midway through the season - incredibly he still finished as the League’s top scorer - but while City felt his absence they didn’t dwell on it.
“There was a huge reliance on Seanie’s goals at the start of the season,” he said. “He was exceptional, but everyone else chipped in with the goals and chances too.
“When Seanie and Kevin O’Connor left the dynamics of the team changed,” he admitted. “If you take players of the quality of Seanie and Kevin out of a team any side will struggle, but we had to adapt.
“Maybe we didn’t get into that rhythm midseason but we focused on staying strong and being hard to beat.”
Watching as Dundalk whittled the 17-point gap down to six, Keohane admits it was something of a relief when City finally got their hands on the trophy.
“Yeah, it was a relief,” he said with a smile. “We were struggling a little to put the League to bed, but we knew that as long as we were hard to beat that we could pick up a point here and there to get us over the line. We just wanted to win the title, to get it done for the city, then concentrate on rebuilding for next year and give it another crack.”
After that came the small matter of beating Dundalk in the FAI Cup final to complete the double. That was a tough game - it went all the way to penalties after the sides finished level - but Keohane is already expecting more bruising encounters with a greater number of challengers in the new season.
“Dundalk and Cork have been up there the last number of years, but the clubs are trying to close the gap,” he said. “Sides have done well in the offseason, with the likes of Shamrock Rovers steadily improving year on year. They have invested a lot and have some solid foundations in the club so we know they’ll be there or thereabouts again, with other teams up there also.”
It was good to see clubs build wisely for the future, he said. Stability is key to bringing the League of Ireland on to the next level.
“That’s what clubs need,” he said. “They have to build on solid foundations, to be sustainable and moving forward in order that they don’t just reach a level and go bust.
“We saw it in the League of Ireland a number of years ago how an adventure in Europe could potentially cost a club financially. Now they’re building from the ground up, going into the game at grassroots and community levels to try and have solid foundations that will drive the level of the League up.”
Security for the clubs can only mean security for players. Such a move saw Keohane agree a new contract for 2018 with Cork before the end of the 2017 campaign.
“It’s nice to have that consistency,” he said. “I’ve had a full season with Cork now and I feel like I’m a lot more settled, so I can build on what I did last season. It’s definitely a good thing to get the deal done early - John (Caulfield) likes to have his business done as early as possible, whether it’s agreeing deals with players or bringing new players in when the window opens at the end of the year. It’s good to have a settled group going into the start of the new season.”
And with the new season brings new goals. Keohane has some straightforward targets for the 2018 campaign.
“I just want to keep improving my game,” he said. “I haven’t set myself any major targets; I just want to see if we can be as competitive at the top end of the table and keep challenging for honours. Nobody wants to have a season where we’re finished early - to bring some silverware back to the club again would be great.”