Seeing Vince O’Keefe at Edgar Street when we played Hereford this season was a nice treat. Seeing his son, who plays in midfield for The Bulls, hit the bar, was less pleasant, but let’s focus on the positives. O’Keefe was an interesting keeper: you couldn’t really say he was an unqualified success, but he was between the sticks for one of our finest hours!
O’Keefe arrived in 1989 with a big reputation. After all, he’d just been playing for Blackburn, where he’d been viewed with affection, and had certainly played a lot of good football at a considerably higher level than that he was about to experience. Of course, alarm bells ought to have been ringing at that: he wasn’t about to drop down a few leagues unless something was wrong.
In this case, illness and a bad leg break had had a significant effect on his game. He might have brought a vast amount of experience and leadership to the club, but he could no longer bring his “A” game.
Odd as it might seem, I clearly recall his first ever appearance for Wrexham, in a pre-season friendly against Shrewsbury. Or more to the point, I clearly recall his warm-up before that match. It was a rare moment of public insight on my part (my greatest ever moment being when I declared to the press box at Kenilworth Road in October 2000, with forty minutes gone and Luton winning 3-0, that Wrexham would come back and win the match. When we hit the winner in a 4-3 victory, I looked like a God, and was never going to let anyone forget it!).
I was standing with my mates at the back of the Kop, watching the side warm-up, and as I was a teenage smart-alec goalkeeper then (rather than the middle-aged ex-goalkeeper smart-alec I’ve become) I decided to watch O’Keefe closely, following the rather dubious logic that as poacher turned gamekeeper I could apply my understanding of goalkeeping technique to judge what he was like. As he fielded shots from his team mates, his stuttering footwork bothered me, and I grandly declared to my pals that he wasn’t going to be much good. My friends scoffed, but an uncomfortable performance by the keeper led to a 3-0 defeat, and things didn’t pick up massively in the following weeks.
There were some strange errors in that first season too. The most famous one is a rare Wrexham incident which burst through the surface water of anonymous mediocrity and found its way onto the plethora of “Own Goals and Gaffes” DVDs, and would undoubtedly have gone viral had it happened today.
Ironically, it happened at the site of our most recent youtube calamity: Mansfield. In the days when goalkeepers could pick up backpasses, a free kick to your own side on the edge of your own area was rarely a cause for concern. Hell, even in the days when goalkeepers can’t pick up backpasses, I wouldn’t say a free kick to your own side on the edge of your own area is exactly fraught with danger! But on this occasion, as Phil Hardy tapped the ball two yards to the nearby O’Keefe, the goalkeeper decided to look away and point at an opponent whom he felt was less than ten yards away. The result? A goalkeeper standing statuesque, complaining, unaware that at that moment the ball is rolling between his legs and into the unattended goalmouth, about to be tapped in by the gleeful encroaching striker!
That incident was only the headline grabber though: there was plenty more weirdness where that came from. Sometimes it was downright bizarre, like when the ball was booted clear by an opposing defender, deep into a Wrexham half which was empty save for O’Keefe, so the goalkeeper waited patiently for it to roll to him in his box until, I can only assume through impatience, he stepped out of the area, picked the ball up, and stepped back into the box. His fury at the referee for giving handball against him was strangely, bewilderingly fascinating.
Sometimes his aberrations were weirdly poignant. When we played John Beck’s infamously Route One Cambridge United the goalkeeper was always under pressure. United forced a corner, which always meant the same routine: a phalanx of giants would lurk at the near post, where the set piece would be delivered in the hope that one of them would get a flick on. On this occasion, the delivery was overhit, soaring over the near post targets and straight to O’Keefe, who had enough time, unchallenged, to catch the ball to his chest. And then slowly, like a felled redwood, fall backwards into his own net, still grimly clutching onto the ball as if somehow that meant it wouldn’t be a goal.
But being error-prone is not what earns you the status of a cult hero, of course. O’Keefe was capable of performing as well. In his second season he lost his place to Mark Morris, who was named player of the season as Wrexham collapsed to finish bottom of the Fourth Division.
O’Keefe claimed his place back the following campaign, though, to the surprise of many, and enjoyed a memorable season. His keeping was sometimes scruffy, but always determined, and he enjoyed his zenith in the FA Cup. By repelling Arsenal he earned himself a place in our folklore. He was a leader, always looking to direct his often green defenders and use his experience if he couldn’t always play at the level he once had. And although he’d left by the time those youngsters matured into a promotion-winning side, there’s no doubt that his influence had had something to do with their development into a successful unit.