One of Derry’s most famous GAA sons, Jim McKeever, is featured in John Scally’s new book The GAA Immortals: 100 Gaelic Games Legends published by Black and White Publishing.
Scally’s previous books include the best-selling biographies of Dermot Earley, Pat Spillane and Ger Loughnane.
His latest work recalls those historic events in 1958 when the GAA world witnessed a shock of seismic proportions as Derry defeated Kerry by 2-6 to 2-5 in the All-Ireland semi-final.
The Oak Leafers were led to the promised land by a prince of midfielders, Jim McKeever. McKeever’s ability to jump and catch the ball were the hallmarks of his play. He could jump so tidily, that he would be almost like a gymnast in the air, toes extended and fingers outstretched as he grabbed the ball, way above the heads of anybody else and then he would hit the ground, turn and play. McKeever’s mastery of his position was recognised in 1984 when he was chosen at centre-field on the Centenary team of greatest players never to have won an All-Ireland, partnering the legendary Tommy ‘The Boy Wonder’ Murphy of Laois.
Born in Ballymaguigan in 1930, McKeever’s love of football was nurtured as a boy when his father brought him to games on the bar of his bike. The bonus when talking to The Derry legend is the quiet, self-effacing warmth with which McKeever talks matter-of-factly about a glittering career. At the age of 17 McKeever made his senior debut for Derry.
“I remember listening to the famous All-Ireland final in the Polo Grounds in 1947. I didn’t think then that a year later I’d be playing in a challenge game for the county against Antrim,” explains McKeever.
“It wasn’t until the following year though that I made my championship debut. When I was in my teens Derry used to play in the junior championship. We didn’t have a senior team then. At that stage there was a tremendous gap between Cavan and Antrim and the other seven counties in Ulster. We played in the Lagan Cup at the time which featured the eight counties in Ulster apart from Cavan.’
The high point of McKeever’s career came against Kerry in 1958.
“I have no recollection of great excitement when we won the Ulster final,” he adds, “However, when we beat Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final the response was sensational. I remember the great John Joe Sheehy saying to me, “That’s a rattling good team you have there.”
Dublin defeated Derry by 2-12 to 1-9 in the All-Ireland final despite an imperious display from McKeever in midfield.
“I have no great recollection of great disappointment when we lost the final to Dublin. We were happy just to be there. If someone told us a few years before that we would play in All-Ireland final we would have been absolutely delighted.’
McKeever was chosen as footballer of the year much to the chagrin of some Dublin supporters who felt that the honour should have gone to one of their stars like Kevin Heffernan.
In the following years McKeever led Derry to National League finals, which they lost to Kerry, in 1959 and 1961 before his retirement in 1963.
It is a measure of the man that when listening to a player of McKeever’s stature, it’s not his own achievements that ignite his passion. Rather it’s a vivid description of the juvenile club match he watched the evening before that brings the enthusiasm.
Derry’s first All-Ireland win in 1993 was a source of great pride to McKeever.
“It was very emotional when the full-time whistle went. The fact that all the years of disappointment have been wiped out with the 1993 side gave me a certain amount of pleasure. It was a unique occasion. The first time that something great happens is special, because there can never be another first time.”
'GAA Immortals' is available now from Easons and all good book stores.