McKeever, Jim

15 May 2002

Derry legend Jim McKeever picks up another award.
In 1958, Derry captain Jim McKeever became the first ever recipient of the prestigious Texaco Footballer of the Year award. A regular on the brilliant Ulster Railway Cup team of the fifties, the man from Ballymaguigan will always be recognised as one of the Oak Leaf Countys greatest ever exponents of the national code.
The genesis of Jim McKeever occured in Ballymaguigan in south Derry, along the north west shores of Lough Neagh. Jim was born into a family that carried an interest in the GAA, but gaelic football was relatively new in the south of the county at the time . . . in other words, it was a time for leaders not followers.

It was the early ’thirties and Derry had yet to contest a provincial final, never mind win an Ulster championship. All that would change forever while McKeever was on the team. For the first time, the Oak Leafers emerged as a force to be reckoned with - a status they still hold today. The inspirational role played by Ballymaguigan’s favourite son in putting Derry GAA on the map should not be under-estimated.

Growing up in a county barren of success, where did the young Jim get his motivation from? “Gaelic football was just something you heard everybody else talking about and you wanted to play yourself,” he reflects. “Ballymaguigan didn’t have a team of its own but was part of the Newbridge area. The local team [Newbridge] were one of the top sides in the county and they provided us with all our role models. Even though the county team wasn’t that prominent, Newbridge had a large representation - at least a half-dozen players - and those were the lads we looked up to.”

Jim recalls playing quite a bit of football at primary school level, although underage fare in the county wasn’t particularly well organised at the time. It wasn’t until he went to St Malachy’s in Belfast as a boarder that his career started to take off in earnest.

At St Malachy’s (still a prominent nursery today, even though it no longer takes boarders), the young Derryman played football to his heart’s content, rising to the fore and making the Ulster intercolleges team for two seasons.

Indeed, for his final two years at St Malachy’s, Jim was captain of the school team, leading them to two McRory Cup finals. He says that being selected for the Ulster colleges team was a huge honour: “I was on the team for two years and making that side really lifted my aspirations a lot. The intercolleges competition was a very big one at the time and I felt privileged to be there.”

St Malachy’s wasn’t exactly over-ran with Derry lads at the time, as Jim explains: “Where I lived was also equidistant from St Pat’s of Armagh and St Columb’s in Derry, so a lot of lads would’ve chosen to go to one of those two schools.”

Ironically, the first county jersey Jim McKeever wore was the saffron of Antrim: “Organised minor football was only really getting started in Derry at the time and the first experience I had of playing intercounty football was with the Antrim minors. The following year [1948] I played for the Derry minors and we had a very good team. Tyrone beat us in an Ulster semi-final and went on to win the All-Ireland.”

Meanwhile, Jim had been asked to play in a “key game” for the Newbridge minor team and (even though Ballymaguigan had started up in the meantime, while he was boarding at St Malachy’s) he subsequently decided to stay with the Newbridge club for the time being.

In the colours of Newbridge, he collected two county SFCs, in 1948 and 1950.
After finishing at St Malachy’s, Jim moved on to St Mary’s Training College in Belfast (where he would also spend most of his teaching career) and played with them in the Antrim leagues. He completed his studies at Loughborough College in the English midlands, lining out for Leicester Young Irelands while there.

On returning, the Derry footballer taught PE along with other subjects in Downpatrick, lining out with the local club for three seasons, 1953-56. He returned to St Mary’s (Belfast) to teach in ’57 and would spend the rest of his club days with Ballymaguigan.

All along, he had been busy forging a reputation for himself as one of the finest footballers in the land with a number of towering displays in the senior county jersey.
Jim first appeared for the Oak Leaf County seniors in a friendly in 1948. By the following year, he had established himself as a first-team regular. He went on to play right through the ’fifties and into the early ’sixties.

During his intercounty career, Jim McKeever played in virtually every position for Derry, with the exception of wing back and goalkeeper. He started out as a half forward, however, and is mostly remembered as either a half-forward or midfielder.

Despite only hooking up with them at a relatively late stage in his career, Jim was to have quite an innings with his hometown club of Ballymaguigan and was a member of the 1969 junior football championship-winning side, even though he was in his late thirties by then.

He featured prominently in 1962 when Ballymaguigan won their first and only senior football championship. Ballymaguigan also collected a number of leagues, including the title that gave them a famous double in ’62.

Jim was joined by three brothers - Dennis, Eddie and Frank - on that team, while another brother, Sean, also played for Ballymaguigan. Dennis featured alongside Jim (at left half forward) on Derry’s 1958 All-Ireland final team.

Without doubt the most remarkable aspect of Jim McKeever’s gaelic football career was the dramatic improvement made by Derry at senior level during his tenure on the team. What was the catalyst for the sudden turn-about in Oak Leaf fortunes? “I think Derry football had been spluttering and stopping and starting for a long time but then began to show a big improvement in the 1940s, when we had some quite good teams.

“There was an upward trend there and the minor team of ’48 was a good side and contributed some good players to the seniors. We got to the All-Ireland junior final in 1950 with a very good team that was a bit unlucky to lose [to Mayo by 4-3 t0 2-7].

“That was a decent team as well and we all stayed together and started to win Lagan Cups and reaching national league quarter-finals.”

Then in 1955, Derry made a significant breakthrough when reaching their first ever Ulster final, losing narrowly to Cavan, 0-11 to 0-8. Two years later, they were back on the province’s big stage again, going even closer as Tyrone edged them out by just two points, 1-9 to 0-10.
The Derrymen made no mistake twelve months later. They cruised through to another Ulster final, this time seeing off Down by 1-11 to 2-4.

At Croke Park on August 24th, Derry caused a sensation by toppling Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final, 2-6 to 2-5.

Five weeks later, Jim McKeever led his county out onto the hallowed turf of Croker. But the dream died when Dublin prevailed in the national decider by six points to win their only All-Ireland of the 20-season era spanning 1943-62 inclusive.

Unfortunately for Derry, they never quite managed to keep that team together. They reached the 1958/59 and 1960/61 national league finals, losing both to Kerry. “The team just started to break up because of one thing or the other. Sean O’Connell, for example, was handed a big suspension for playing soccer and he missed both league finals over that.

“With a bit more craft and experience, we should definitely have came through in 1959, but we were caught on the hop and lost in the first round of the championship to Armagh, without having prepared properly.”
Derry didn’t win another Ulster championship until 1970.

But for a disappointing pattern of refereeing decisions and the denial of what seemed a definite penalty, Derry could have been much closer to the Dubs in ’58 and Jim might have preceded Down’s Kevin Mussen by two years in becoming the first man from the so-called “six counties” to lift Sam Maguire.
However, the man himself - by far and away the outstanding player on view at Headquarters on September 28th 1958 - offers no excuses:

“It was an exceptionally good Dublin team and that was the only All-Ireland they won. In the ’50s, there was a very high standard of play all over the country, with a lot of very good teams. If you look at the teams that won All-Irelands in that decade - Mayo, Galway, Kerry, Louth, Cavan, Meath, Dublin - they were all really good teams and it was a very difficult period to win All-Irelands.”

As the first recipient of the Texaco Footballer of the Year award, Jim carved a unique niche for himself in the annals of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Up until 1991 (when Meath’s Colm O’Rourke emulated the feat), he stood out as the only Texaco Footballer of the Year not to have been chosen from that year’s All-Ireland winning team.

Jim played for Ulster for 11 consecutive years. He was centre half forward on the team that beat Munster in the 1960 Railway Cup final and starred at midfield when the same opposition was overcome in the ’56 decider.

He was a sub at the age of 19 on the Ireland team to take on the Combined Universities in Croke Park and was subsequently selected for five of the next six years - and the competition wasn’t even held on the other occasion!. It was a huge honour as selection on that side was the closest thing to an All Star award on offer at the time.

After hanging up his boots, Jim was involved in coaching for many long years and he is also a former Central Council delegate. He became a lecturer in St Mary’s, Belfast in 1957 and remained there until his retirement in 1992, coaching the team throughout and playing a big part in improving the general standard of football in the college.

Jim McKeever also managed the Derry senior footballers on three separate occasions and was selected on the Team of the Century comprising players who never won All-Irelands.

The highlight of Jim’s career? “It has to be getting to the All-Ireland final. Derry had never won the Ulster championship before and to go on to the All-Ireland final was a huge bonus.
“I was delighted to be part of an era when Derry football came to the top and I think it’s fair to say we’ve remained at the top ever since.

“Derry wouldn’t be the biggest GAA county population-wise and we’ve always struggled to find that little bit extra that would make us an exceptional team. But we do tremendously well and continue to produce classy footballers. If you can get enough of those and blend them in with the fairly good players, then you’ll have a great team.”

Derry have had many great teams over the years . . . and numerous great players too. But - perhaps with the exception of a certain Mr Tohill - the Oak Leaf County has produced few of the same calibre as Jim McKeever from Ballymaguigan.

Taken from Hogan Stand magazine May 2002