Aidan Keena, right, of Sligo Rovers, celebrates with teammate Patrick Kirk after scoring his side's goal during the UEFA Europa Conference League 2022/23 First Qualifying Round First Leg match against Bala Town last summer. Photo: Chris Fairweather/Sportsfile

Aidan’s Keen’ to ‘hit the ground running’

When you arrive in Sligo by train and the carriages creak towards Seán Mac Diarmada Station, one of the first sights that will greet you is the home of Sligo Rovers, the Showgrounds.

If you’re on the westbound locomotive at the right time of day, you might even catch a glimpse of the Bit O’Red’s senior squad having a kickabout on the training ground. Among their number is, of course, their talented centre forward, Mullingar’s own Aidan Keena.

Speaking of trains, the railway connection between Mullingar and Sligo is apparently a big reason why Sligo Rovers has such a cult following in Mullingar. During the 1970s and 1980s, when the club achieved League of Ireland and FAI Cup success, local support – many of them CIÉ railway workers and their families – took advantage of the rail link to take in games at The Showgrounds.

Fast forward forty years, and the Mullingar contingent has another reason to head west.

“I only found out when I got here that we get a good few Mullingar heads coming up to watch the games,” Keena – top scorer in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division last year with 18 goals – told the Westmeath Examiner last Thursday. “You bump into them at the odd game, and it’s great to see them. You’ll always have people around Sligo town as well, supporters, asking if you know such a one and such a one.”

Aidan (23) is a happy man in Sligo, not least because home is just a train away. It’s the first time in a long time that he has felt settled, and at ease with life on the field. Since being brought back to Ireland by his former mentor at St Patrick’s Athletic, Liam Buckley, the Mullingar native has become a cult hero in Sligo. Twice named the League of Ireland player of the month, he was also named on on the league’s team of the year. Last year, he had a strong input into Rovers’ best European performance in many years.

Topping the scoring charts in Ireland has naturally led to interest from abroad, with rumoured offers coming from Sweden and England, while even League of Ireland kingpins Shamrock Rovers – who Sligo face in their league opener next month – have also been linked to a move for the no. 9.

But Aidan – now a dad to Aoife (2) – is enjoying life on the banks of the Garavogue. “I love it here, and my girlfriend Leah and our daughter love it here too. If we were to move, we’d only have to settle again.

“I’m enjoying my football as well. There was a couple of years before Sligo where I got to the point that I didn’t enjoy my football at all.”

On his broad shoulders sits a mature head, a grounding that comes from his formative years in Mullingar.

Mullingar memories

It all began for Aidan at Gainstown, where, incidentally, he also went to school. With Mullingar Athletic, he came up through the ranks, winning leagues and cups as well as the Kells Blackwater Tourmament in 2014. The same year, he was selected for the Midlands’ Kennedy Cup team. ‘Player of the tournament’ awards were the norm for the talented youngster, who could play as an attacking midfielder or a striker.

Aidan Keena (back row, extreme left) with his Mullingar Athletic teammates after they won the prestigious Kells Blackwater FC tournament in 2013. Aidan, then 13 years old, was player of the tournament.

“Those were the most enjoyable days – going out playing football with your pals from school,” Keena said, looking back fondly. “We had a half good team there for a few years. Philip McKeown was the manager, and we won a few leagues.

“I would have started around eight or nine years of age with seven-a-side games, and then went up through the grades. We had Philip all the way, and Mick Daly took over for a while.”

Confident and often audacious as a striker, Aidan attributes his penchant for scoring spectacular goals to his days at Gainstown. “I think it goes back to my Mullingar days where you kind of had licence to enjoy yourself, and go out and shoot from anywhere,” he remarked.

At U16 level, Aidan made the move to Shelbourne and his involvement with Athletic’s underage setup came to an end. That age was a crossroads where many young players opt to become involved with GAA. Aidan’s Athletic teammates included the likes of Fola Ayorinde and Mattie Rowden, who went on to play Gaelic for St Loman’s, Mullingar and St Mary’s, Rochfortbridge respectively, as well as representing Westmeath at various levels.

Aidan himself was a rising star on the GAA front. Like John Heslin did for Loughnavalley NS many moons ago, he shot the lights out for his school (St Colmcille’s NS, Gainstown) in Cumann na mBunscol competition, before going on to excel for both Coláiste Mhuire, Mullingar and Mullingar Shamrocks. Highly-rated, he was tipped to go far with Shamrocks and Westmeath, and had he kept going, it’s likely he would have been among Westmeath’s Tailteann Cup medallists last year. But soccer won out.

“I loved Gaelic, but soccer has always been my first preference,” said the Liverpool fan, whose hero was the former Reds striker Fernando Torres. “I have no regrets at all. The lads who won the Tailteann Cup have been working towards that since I left GAA, since they were 15 or 16. I have my own goals in my own sport and I’m working towards those.

“But I’ll always be a Shamrocks man, and I keep in touch with them. My brothers [Darren and Trevor] are still involved down there.”

Dublin to Edinburgh

The fork in the road at 16 took him to Dublin, and to Shelbourne. “We’ve had brilliant young footballers in Mullingar over the years, but there’s a choice at some stage where they need to go to Dublin, or go with the GAA,” he said. “If you’re looking to make it, you don’t necessarily need to be in Dublin, but you need to be playing somewhere at that level.”

Shelbourne was a brief stint but one in which he learned a lot, but it was at his subsequent club, St Patrick’s Athletic (2016), where he made a real breakthrough. “I moved up a year, and was part of a very strong U19 team,” Aidan recalled. “A lot of the lads in the team have moved on to good careers. Ciaran Kelly is at Bradford City, and Conor Kane is at Shelbourne.”

Liam Buckley, his future manager at Sligo, was sufficiently impressed by Keena’s progress to hand him a senior debut in 2017. It was a debut to remember for contrasting reasons – Keena came off the bench and set up a goal, before being sent off for robust tackle on Bray Wanderers’ Dylan Connolly.

“I didn’t get bawled out of it afterwards,” he said, laughing. “A fight started afterwards and Bray had someone sent off as well, so that took the harm out of it.

“Liam wasn’t too bad about it. He came into the dressing room and told me not to worry about it. He remembered my name and brought me back a few years later, so he mustn’t have minded too much!”

While at St Pat’s and as he moved to the U19 ranks with the Republic of Ireland, Aidan got a dream move to Scottish Premier League side Hearts. He got off to a flying start for the reserves, banging in goals before earning his senior debut for the Edinburgh club.

Successful loan moves to Queen’s Park (where he scored eight goals in fourteen games) and Dunfermline Athletic followed, with Keena garnering a reputation for scoring spectacular goals – including an audacious 50-metre lob for Queen’s Park which was nominated for the SPFL Goal of the Year award.

But on returning to Hearts, he found a club in crisis, and the step-up just didn’t happen for him. Manager Craig Levein got the sack, and was replaced by former Barnsley boss Daniel Stendel.

“He [Stendel] only had a short time with us, and he needed to change as much as he could quickly. But you can’t really fault him for getting rid of a few guys when things weren’t going well. He made a decision, and that’s it – that’s football,” Keena reflected.

“You have to be mature enough to take the knocks. It’s not as if I lit the world alight at Hearts, either. I could have got more chances, but the club wasn’t really in a position to be giving young lads chances. They needed experience to get them out of the hole they were in.”

Wanting to try “something different” and feeling Scotland had “run its race”, Keena left for Hartlepool United in January 2020, the club whose president is Sky Sports presenter Jeff Stelling. “I managed to meet Jeff, he’s a nice man!” Aidan said. However, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic put Hartlepool under financial pressure. In addition, Aidan’s girlfriend Leah was expecting a baby, so he made the decision to head north again.

At Scottish League One side Falkirk, however, the Mullingar man endured a frustrating spell. He scored on his debut, but a spell of injuries – as well as the ongoing Covid restrictions – led to a “disastrous” first season.

Aidan Keena winning a goal of the month award during his time at Falkirk.

“In the second season, I scored a few goals but I don’t think the new manager [Paul Sheerin] was too keen on me. He came from Aberdeen, and brought their academy striker with him. He took my number off me, and before long I thought I needed to get out of there,” Keena recalled.

“They told me I couldn’t go for the first while, then they told me I could go and then they changed their minds again. I knew by the time January came around it was time to go.”

The season ahead

Aidan’s return to Ireland with Sligo Rovers was, like Falkirk, marred by an early injury, but he didn’t let this get in his way. Taking the league by storm, he netted a memorable hat-trick against Finn Harps and went on to net 21 goals in all competitions for the Bit O’Red.

“I think I came back into the League of Ireland a bit blind. I didn’t know where I was going to be, standard wise, compared to the rest of the league. But I came back and hit the ground running, and after that, everything fell into place.

“At 17, you’re just a young lad trying to get a chance, but when I came back I was 22, had a daughter. I was older and more mature, and had my goals and worked towards them.”

There was some turmoil in midseason when Aidan’s old mentor Liam Buckley parted ways with the club, and was replaced by John Russell.

“I’ve had it a few times before when managers got sacked during the season. I don’t have a bad word to say about Liam Buckley. He gave me my chance at football twice, and I’ll always be indebted to him,” he said.

“That’s the sport we’re in; that’s the business of it, if you don’t get the results. Unfortunately even if it’s us that’s not playing well, it’s the manager who gets the bullet.

“John Russell come in though, and took to it unbelievably. We picked up and got some good results, and Europe went well as well. Hopefully we can hit the ground running again this season.”

On the continent last year, Sligo reached the third round of the Europa Conference League Qualifiers, due in no small part to Keena’s input. He scored a crucial goal against Welsh side Bala Town, which earned them a tie against Scottish side Motherwell. In the away leg, Aidan’s experience in Scotland shone through, and he scored the winning goal as Sligo claimed a major European scalp. He signed a new contract with Rovers soon afterwards.

“When I was in Scotland at first, I hadn’t really a clue of what I was going into. It was different going in this time as well. We’d had half a season already where I was doing alright, and personally I was full of confidence going over,” he said.

“Even though people had us written off, we knew we had a chance and could have a right go at them. Thank God, we got the two wins.”

Despite Keena’s prolific goalscoring, Norwegian side Viking Stavanger put paid to Sligo’s Euro dream. Results went against them in the league, meaning that they missed out on Europe for 2023. But the Mullingar man sees an opportunity here.

“There’s two ways of looking at it. Maybe last season with Europe, we didn’t have a big enough squad for all the games coming so close together. But we did well anyway. In between the [European] games, we had a few bad results. So maybe this year we’ll have the time to put those right.

“One result last year was getting knocked out of the cup to Wexford, so maybe this year we can have a right stab at the cup, stay in it and maybe win it. That might help us in the league as well.”

Capped for Ireland between U15 and U21 level, Aidan hopes that another solid season of goalscoring might one day improve his chances of a senior cap, and with Stephen Kenny – whose League of Ireland connections are well documented – in charge, who knows what might lie in store.

– Sligo Rovers’ SSE Airtricity League Premier Division season kicks off with a home clash against Shamrock Rovers at The Showgrounds on Saturday February 18 (7.45pm)