Rory McKeown: West Belfast to Wellington

Rory McKeown has had a fascinating career.

Moving from Belfast as a teenager to further his footballing ambitions, the fullback enjoyed successful spells in England, Scotland and a brief stint in Poland before making a surprise move to New Zealand, where last week he was part of the Team Wellington side that bowed out of the final ever ISPS Handa Premiership season as champions.

With the country’s restructured competitions kicking off this week, I sat down with Rory for an exclusive interview to look back at the journey that brought him to Aotearoa New Zealand…

You started your career as a youngster at Ipswich Town. How did your move to the Tractor Boys come about?

“We used to have the scouts that would come and watch the games if you played at a half decent level, as you would… and when I first started to go across Jim Magilton was the manager. Jim is from the same part of Belfast as I am, he’s from West Belfast, and there seemed to be an affiliation with Ipswich based in and around Belfast.

The year that I signed there was me, and two other fellas from my area that moved across, and there just seemed to be an Irish link. Obviously, the next manager that came in was Roy Keane, so there were quite a few of us there at the time.”

What was it like continuing your football education at a club of that size?

“Moving away from home was obviously a big thing but it was only an hours flight away. And there were direct flights three or four times a day between Stanstead and Belfast, and one of the boys I moved across with was one of my good friends that I grew up with so that made the transition a little bit easier.

Going in to a club of that size was a challenge, ya know, but a good challenge. They had some big players, there was Ivan Campo that came who had played at Real Madrid and the Champions League and the Premier League, there was Gareth McCauley who was Northern Irish and had played in the Premier League, so some of the players I was coming across were class. It gave you an idea of the standard and to see what those players were doing day in and day out in training really set the standard of where I needed to be if I wanted to be playing at a higher level.”

You were released after the expiration of your academy contract. How hard is it to bounce back from something like that at that age?

“It was tough. I still remember going in for the meeting… I’d actually been in conversation with Roy Keane about signing and we had sat down and he had said we were going to get something sorted, and then in January or February he got sacked.

Then it was Paul Jewell who came in, and I’d been training with the reserves and in and around the first team, and I absolutely smashed the club captain Grant Leadbitter on one of the first days that Jewell was the manager. I was just this 17,18 year old kid and it didn’t really sit too well with him…

But yeah, it was tough. Moving away from home at 16 and all your mates are like, ‘he’s going to be a professional footballer, he’s going to be famous and make all the money’, then two years down the line you’re sat there thinking “I’ve got to go back and kinda start again”. Your mates have gone and they’ve finished school, gone to University, and you’re sitting there thinking you’ve got two years to catch up on here. It was embarrassing at the same time. There was an embarrassment factor there too, but lucky enough the Kilmarnock thing materialised for me.

I was one of the lucky ones though. Some of the boys I played with went back to their home towns and might not have kicked a football since, so I really was one of the lucky ones.”

As you mention, you kick started your career in Scotland, earning your first pro contract at Kilmarnock under Kenny Shiels. You’d come across Kenny as a youngster, is that how the move came about?

Yeah, my youth team manager at the time was Russ Osman the famous England centre half, and one of his best mates was Terry Butcher who was the Inverness manager at the time. I’d actually been offered a deal with Inverness to sign for six months, see how it went… and it was my Dad actually, he phoned up Kenny Shiels and was like, ‘look, Rory’s been released by Ipswich, do you fancy giving him a look?’

Luckily Ipswich were good enough at the time, I still had two months left on my YT contract, they let me fly up to Kilmarnock and go on trial for a week. Kenny, I think, rated me as a player and I think he just wanted to kick the tyres on me and see how I’d progressed in the couple of years they hadn’t seen me. He obviously liked what he saw and I did a pre-season, then not long after, I signed a three year extension. It was all thanks to my Dad making that football that I made it as a professional footballer!”

You obviously spent a large part of your career in the Scottish game, and judging by the outpouring of tweets and support you received from fans here ahead of the Grand Final, you’re very well remembered here.  What are your memories of your time in Scotland?

I really, really enjoyed it. I didn’t enjoy the weather, but I enjoyed playing there! It got me great exposure and the opportunity to play against some really great players. The first year I was there, we (Kilmarnock) won the League Cup and I was involved in the squad all the way up, though unfortunately, I didn’t play in the final… and the Celtic and Rangers teams that we used to play against! Van Dijk was playing, Wanyama was playing, Jelavic… you got to play against these players who went on to bigger and better things. It was class, and a great learning curve. It got me the exposure that helped me internationally as well. I ended up being U21s Northern Ireland captain, I got called up to the full squad.

It was a great footballing education, and took me to some great places and left me with some great friends, so great, great memories.”

You rejoined Ray McKinnon at Morton, but he left not long after your arrival for Falkirk in fairly controversial fashion. As “his player”, how did that impact on you and your time in Greenock?

“That was a funny story… I’d kept in touch with Ray and Darren Taylor, who was his assistant, and I still speak to them to this day, they are a comedy duo, the pair of them! But, I’d gone part time down in England and started my own business… the part time money was good, and I had the opportunity to focus on things away from football, then I got a phone call from Darren at the start of the July saying they needed a left back and I was just like, ‘No. No chance, I’ve no interest.’ And he phoned me up again a week later, so I just threw out a silly number that I never would have expected a Championship club to be able to pay and said, “Look, this is what it would take to get me back up.”

Next minute, he phones me back up an hour later and tells me it’s sorted. So, I was like, “Shit. I can’t really say no now…” so I ended up signing and moving up there. I hadn’t had a pre-season, so I was kinda playing catch up and was really enjoying it. There was a really good feeling around the club, and the players were all enjoying themselves and taking the mick saying I’d signed for my Uncle Ray again as you do, then I was sitting in my house one day and Darren rang me up and was like “we’re gone.”

I didn’t ask the ins and out of it, and I didn’t want to know what went on behind the scenes at Morton… but it was like, so, you’ve moved me up here, made me sign a years contract and a month later you leave?

Then Jonaton Johansson came in. He was a really nice guy but the Scandanavian way was very much straight to the point, and Peter Houston came in with him… and there was a really different feeling about the place from the get go. It was quite serious and there wasn’t much toing and froing. We had a good squad and lots of really funny guys and it went from Darren and Ray playing around and joining in the trainings and having a laugh to JJ and Peter coming in, creating a really different feeling around the squad. They knew I was one of Ray’s players, in fact, JJ actually had that conversation with me but said he’d give me a chance.

I played the next couple of games and then I picked up an injury one day in training. I’d been in and out of the squad, and we’d had some patchy results, then in January I got kicked in training and my leg didn’t feel right. Went through some rehab, was running on it and we thought it was a bit of a calf injury and JJ was being quite strange with me and I got the impression that he thought I was kinda faking the injury, ya know?

A month later it still wasn’t right, I could hardly get in and out of my bed… went and got x-rayed and it turned out I’d got a double fracture across my fib that I’d been running on for a good month without knowing. I did pull JJ after that and said I’d felt that I’d been judged as if I was faking an injury, and then there wasn’t really much communication after that… even at the end of the season when I left Morton, I didn’t even get a phone call to say they weren’t going to renew my contract. It was just thanks, see ya later.

Your next opportunity, quite literally, have been any further from Greenock! I know you’d never been to New Zealand before, so just how did the move to Team Wellington come about?

One of my good mates from Belfast is a guy called Paul Munster. He was coaching in the I League in India and is now in Indonesia, but he’s a Pro License coach and was also the Vanuatu national team manager. Don’t ask me how, but he used to FaceTime me from Vanuatu and show me his pool and his beach and I’m sat there in Scotland!

But he was leading the coaching course that the manager of Team Wellington (Scotty Hales) was on. He’d been trying to get me to come out to Indonesia to play, but for whatever reason it didn’t materialise, but he phoned me up one day and asked if I’d fancy playing in New Zealand. At that point, I was like, ‘Yeah, I kinda do. I fancy a change.’ I’d heard New Zealand was pretty and I just thought I’ll go out here for a year and see how it goes… I moved out here and it is a bit of a change, but at least they speak the same language!

I played in Poland for four months and couldn’t speak a word of Polish and that was awful, so at least I can understand them, though they can’t understand me all the time!

What were your expectations or preconceptions going in to the ISPS Handa Prem, and how have you found the level and quality of the football out there?

Yeah, it’s not bad! There are some really good players, that I think if they were in England or Scotland, would probably be in professional set ups for sure! We had a few players here who I know could play in Scotland easily, the wee right back we’ve got called Jack Henry Sinclair is really, really high quality. Hamish Watson, who finished top scorer in the league, he was at Grimsby for a couple of years… some really, really good players, I was pleasantly surprised!

My only complaint is the amount of artificial pitches they’ve got here. The weather here is actually quite good, so I don’t know why we can’t all have just really nice grass pitches!

I didn’t really have any pre-conceived ideas heading here, because I didn’t know enough about it but they sold me on the successes they had had in winning the league and playing in the OFC Champions League where they travel to all the amazing islands and that they’d got through to the Club World Cup and played in Qatar against the side that went on to play Real Madrid in the final! I’d lived in Liverpool, I’d lived in Glasgow, I’d lived in Dunfermline and I was like that sounds like a bit of a nice change!”

Your first season was obviously cut short because of the pandemic, what was it like being in New Zealand and looking back at things at home?

 “It’s madness. People here just seemed to respect stuff… The government here say we’re going to have a lockdown, stay in your homes. The first lockdown, you could hear a pin drop given how quiet the streets were in Wellington.

People were very much like, ok this is what it’s gonna take and they got control of it, closed the borders right away and put quarantine in place. I speak to my family and they’ve been in lockdown pretty much on and off for a year now. They all live in different houses and haven’t been able to see each other or have their Christmas dinner together or visit my grandparents, and I almost feel guilty that I’m living life freely.

I can go to a nightclub and dance with strangers, and do my shopping without a mask… it almost seems like a thing of the past here! We get the odd community case as a reminder, but they move them in to isolation and lock us down then five days later, we’re back to normal. Then I speak to my Mum and she’ll be like “that’s nice, ten people died here today.”

It’s just a different world all together.

Your second season at the club proved to be the last ever ISPS Handa Premiership season. How did it feel to play in that historic final and lift the trophy at the end of it?

It was good. 17 years, I think, this league has been going for. We started off the season not too great, but we just had that quality in the squad. Even on our average days we were beating teams and nicking games one-nil, us and Auckland just had that little bit more, in terms of quality.

We should have beaten them the first time we played them this season, they had a man sent off, but they organised really well and got a draw. Then they beat us the second time to kill the league off and finish top… But coming up to the Final, we seemed to hit a bit of a run of form after they beat us up there 3 – 1. We beat Eastern Suburbs like 7 – 0 or something, then we picked up another 4 – 1 win and things just started clicking and we were hitting form at the right time.

When the Grand Final came along it was weird, ya know, people sometimes talk about having a feeling… after the warm up we had last Sunday, we went back in to the changing rooms and were all looking around at each other like, we’re going to win this today. Even when we went two up then they brought it back to two all at half time, no one was going off at each other. We still fancied ourselves.

It also helped that we’ve got a Scottish fella called Brendan McIntyre who was the assistant manager, and he came in and just went off his head. He was swearing and effing and blinding and he was right.

We came out in the second half, and other than the missed penalty, they didn’t get a kick. We just seemed that little bit sharper, we picked up second balls, we were running that little bit more… It was nice to finish off that historic final season with a win. We’re going to be the last ever winners of the Premiership in New Zealand, and that’s kinda cool, a nice bit of history.

Published by James Rhys

Welshman in Scotland dreaming of Down Under. Experienced freelance football writer, media and comms professional. Aston Villa fan, so used to disappointment.

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