THE name Jack Keaney has long been on the radar of sports coaches throughout Donegal.
Blessed with two great feet, wonderful balance and the maturity to succeed, Jack (18) has been turning heads at The Hospital Field, home to Donegal Town FC, for much of the past decade.
Equally talented as a GAA player, Jack had been tipped to follow in the footsteps of older siblings Luke and Kate in wearing the senior Donegal GAA jersey.
Two years ago though he took the decision to concentrate his efforts on soccer and linked up with Sligo Rovers where he has impressed in both the Under-17 and Under-19 grades.
Last season he joined the first team squad, making six appearances, as well as representing Ireland on four occasions at the Slovakia Cup.
A former pupil at the Abbey Vocational School in Donegal Town, Jack signed his first professional contract with the Bit O’ Red while still awaiting his Leaving Cert results last summer.
Speaking to the Donegal News this week, Jack recalled those early years, the commitment of his parents Paddy and Deirdre Dillon, together with the help, support and guidance offered by his coaches. He also looked forward to the latest chapter in his young career.
Armed with his first CAO choice – General Science in UCD – Jack was happy to defer his course when Sligo came calling.
“The Leaving went well but I had already taken the decision to concentrate on the football side of things for the time being. Who knows, I may never have to take up the college offer,” he said.
Earlier this month he was part of the Sligo Rovers squad that played a friendly in the Netherlands. The Bit O’ Red took on RKSV Leonidas in Rotterdam while they travelled to Belfast to play Irish League club Linfield on Monday night as part of their pre-season schedule.
Next up is a game against the Mayo League tomorrow (Saturday), while Rovers have also confirmed friendlies away to Galway United on January 26 as well as Finn Harps in The Showgrounds on February 1 as Gerard Lyttle’s men prepare for the new campaign.
“The manager says there are places up for grabs and it’s up to me now to put my name forward,” he said.
Jack continues to live at home in Drummenny Lower and travels to training each day with Killybegs man Brian ‘Dinky’ Dorrian who is a member of the coaching staff at Sligo Rovers.
Jack’s team-mates at Sligo also include goalkeeper Edward McGinty, whose father, Joe, originally from Lough Eske, now living in Ballyshannon, and Ramelton’s Kyle McFadden.
“Everything is gearing towards the opening game of the new season, at home to Limerick on February 17, and I’m giving it everything I’ve got,” he said.
“I’m living the dream. Last year I had to concentrate a bit more on the school books but it’s nice to be able to give football everything this year,” he added.
Jack, who celebrated is nineteenth birthday yesterday (Thursday)has set himself a few targets ahead of the new season.
“I want to establish a regular place in the team. I made six appearances last year, starting two games, and I want to improve on those figures next season. I also want to become the best player I possibly can,” he said.
“The manager showed faith in me last year. He played me in the big games towards the end of last season (Jack came on at half time in the crucial 2-1 away to Finn Harps). He was brave enough to make those calls and I want to repay that faith now,” he added.
Having watched older brother Luke undergo major hip surgery, which has effectively ended his own sporting career, over the past year Jack is acutely aware at how fickle sport can be at times.
“It’s been very tough watching Luke but he’s now helping me along, giving me great advice and now I want to do what I can to make him proud of me.
“ It’s been a tough 18 months or so for the family with Kate’s cruciate injury too but she’s on the way back now hopefully,” he said.
“Luke was my hero growing up.
“He was the one I looked up to but now that I’ve changed sports I’m not so sure what he thinks of me,” he laughed.
Two important men in Jack’s early career were his mentors at Donegal Town, namely Marty Byrne and Paul McHugh.
“They were with me the whole way up.
“I trusted them and they taught me so much. I owe them everything,” he said.
Former Letterkenny Rovers players Niall Harrison, Danny O’Leary and Brian Dorrian who were all involved with the Sligo under-age teams, also get honourable mentions.
“I’ve no regrets. I fully intend to make the most of this season and see where it takes me,” he said.
Shane Blaney, a team-mate on the Donegal Schoolboys team down through the years, signed a long-term contract with Doncaster Rovers earlier this week.
The pair played alongside one another in the U13 All-Ireland Inter League final in Tipperary while, more recently, they were part of the U18 Ulster squad that won the Inter-Provincials.
“I’m delighted for Shane that he’s got the chance to play in England. Now that really would be great if that dream came true,” he smiled.
To do that, he has to force his way into Gerard Lyttle’s plans throughout the new League of Ireland Premier Division season, starting with a game against Limerick at the Showgrounds on February 17.
There’s no doubt that Jack Keaney has the talent and application to go much further in the sport. Now for that little bit of luck.
Posted: 9:00 am January 20, 2018
DECLAN BONNER will look to collect the first piece of silverware from his second tenure in charge of Donegal.