The scene is a concrete pathway at the rear of Wangaratta’s main thoroughfare. It’s mid-winter. Two boys, still clad in school uniform, are absorbed in kick-to-kick.
Night after night they drill the footy at one another, leather-on-leather, mostly hitting the target, but occasionally forcing an unwitting passer-by to duck for cover. Only the rapidly gathering dusk disturbs their routine. That, and the fact that their parents have shut their respective shops and declared that it’s time to head home.
Years later, the left-footer of the duo is on a plane to Sydney to make his AFL debut……….
Sean O’Keeffe is one of the ‘good guys’ you meet in football. Quiet and unassuming, he has achieved much in his 16 -odd years in the game. He’s a ‘coach’s dream’, as any of the dozen-or more blokes who have guided him throughout his career, would testify.
He is the son of Vicki and Greg (a former star Hawk winger-turned sprinter). The family’s Rovers’ genes extend back to his great-grandfather, Martin Shelley, who had been a footballer of note in the 1920’s and threw in his lot with the club when it was formed in 1945.
And his great-uncles John and Kevin played in the 50’s. Kevin,so highly-rated by coach Bob Rose that he was thrust into a key defensive post at the age of 16, showed touches of rare class. Tragically, coming home from a Rovers Ball at the end of that 1956 season, he was killed in a car accident.
So young Sean was destined to be a Hawk. He started with Centrals, graduated to the Thirds and played in their 1998 premiership side.
He had been identified by Murray Bushrangers chief John Byrne as an elite talent. But Byrne had to press the issue with the youngster before finally persuading him to train with them.
“I paid him two-or three visits.He wasn’t convinced he was good enough, but I rated him highly. He was excellent overhead, had footy smarts and had a good foot on him”, Byrne recalls.
He played in the Victorian Country U.16 and U.18 teams and in 1999 represented the Australian Under 16’s in an International rules match against Ireland. In late 2000,after a good couple, of years with the Bushies, he was drafted to Carlton.
Sean spent all of 2001 in the VFL and wouldn’t make his debut in the big-time until Round 17 of the following year, against the Swans at the SCG.
He recalls getting a phone call soon after the Carlton side had been announced. “I bet you’re glad you went to the Bushies”.
It was John Byrne.
The early 2000’s were a period of upheaval at Princes Park and probably not the ideal scenario for a youngster to be making his way in League footy.There had been considerable blood-letting after Carlton had been penalised for compromising the salary cap. And nobody was happy when they plunged to the bottom of the ladder.
After a fair performance in his first game, Sean was chopped when Collingwood belted the Blues the following week. And, at the end of the season, with the arrival of a new coach, Denis Pagan, he was delisted.
Continued good form in the VFL the following year saw him reinstated and he was selected in the Carlton side for another four games, before he was again delisted, this time for good.
His move to Sandringham in 2004 proved a winner. The Zebras took out the VFL flag and Sean, now playing with plenty of confidence and very comfortable in the environment, had a fine year.
He toyed with the idea of returning to the Rovers in 2005 and was, in fact, selected in the Hawks’ opening-round line-up. But Sandy held firm and convinced him he was a required player.
Fortuitously, he played in another premiership team and won Sandy’s best and fairest award. During the year he had represented the VFL against South Australia and he was named in the ‘VFL Team of the Year’ at season’s end.
Sean had completed a teaching degree, but had a gut feeling he would like to have a crack at being an electrician. He’d done a bit of fill-in work with a Sandringham committeemen during the holidays and really enjoyed it.
So, in a bold career move, he headed to Adelaide to start an apprenticeship and joined Sturt. His form was patchy at times, but in his second season he finished fourth in the best and fairest for the SANFL club.
In 2008, with a sense of adventure in his nostrils, he and partner Kerrie shifted to Kalgoorlie, the historic old mining city across the Nullarbor. Besides boasting more than 30 pubs to service its thirsty population of 30,000 and a reputation as a rollicking frontier destination, it has a serious football competition.
The Goldfields Football League has a rich history and most clubs bolster their ranks by flying star players in from Perth.The realisation that a former AFL player was in their midst created a flurry among recruiters.
Sean signed with Railways, who had been a bottom-runger the previous year. He was a star in his two seasons in the west and won the League’s Mitchell Medal in 2009.
It was a nostalgic homecoming when he returned to the Findlay Oval on the eve of the 2010 season. Having completed his apprenticeship and secured a job as an electrician in Mulwala, he and Kerrie were freshly betrothed and he was eager to throw himself into his career renaissance with the Rovers.
It had been 11 years since he had played the last of his 6 senior games in Brown and Gold, but he has an outstanding return season, winning the Best and Fairest in style. His ability to read the play and set things up was uncanny and he quickly became an O & M star. He garnered an impressive 23 possessions when the Hawks bowed out in the Elimination Final.
In the past five seasons he has been a model of consistency. He is rated as a superb player at stoppages and, thus, absolutely vital at the centre bounce. Yet he is a past-master playing as a ‘sweeper’ across half back.
‘Okey’ is a finals specialist. His best-afield performance in last year’s Elimination Final steered his side to a tight win over North Albury. And, who could forget that beautifully-weighted kick in the dying stages of the 2012 Second-Semi, that allowed Barry Hall to run onto the pass that should have guided the Rovers to a Grand Final.
He averages 21 possessions in the six finals he has played with the Hawks. On Sunday, in his 100th senior game with the Club, the now-seasoned assistant-coach will again shoulder much responsibility.