Only briefly acquainted with England until three years ago, Ruairí Keating has been to just about the ends of the country in his two club spells since. The former Torquay United forward bid farewell to Devon and embarked upon the near-400-mile journey north to Tyneside in late-January, taking just six minutes of his Gateshead debut to score. The Irishman's header from Greg Olley's corner put the seal on an extremely impressive 2-0 home win over fellow National League North promotion contenders Chester, firmly announcing him to the Heed Army
The 24-year-old had played a part for Torquay in the National League this season, but the early knockings of 2020 saw the curtain come down on a spell that was both testing and terrific. He joined his new side initially until the end of the season, and the Heed sit two points outside the play-offs with at least a game in hand on every team above them, with 11 of their fixtures remaining.
Match-winning goalscorer at Curzon Ashton last month, it remains to be seen when the ex-Sligo Rovers youngster will get his chance to step back into the action, as the season suspension and all its accompanying uncertainty rumbles on for now. The return of footballing normality will of course mean a much wider and impactful revert to type has taken place in the world, though it would also give Gateshead fans a chance to see plenty more of a player who ticks a multitude of boxes for player-boss Mike Williamson.
Although his last name and family connection is an easy one for clickbait accounts and the like, a great deal more goes with the Westport native, who joined here for this in-depth one-on-one, before the 2019/20 season came to its halt...
We'll start with the move up here, how has it been overall for you to get to grips with in these first few weeks?
Yeah, it’s been great so far. I was really happy with the move. It’s a long way for me to come, but after speaking with Mike and Ian (Watson) and finding out what the club is all about, their philosophy and things like that, I didn’t even hesitate, I was straight in. So far so good, I’ve gelled well with the boys and everyone’s made me feel really welcome. Just looking forward to seeing how we get on for the rest of the season.
What’s the set-up for you away from the club?
I’m living with one of the players at the minute in Sunderland; it’s grand. I’ve been very grateful for the support and the help from a couple of the boys, just getting me settled. It’s definitely helped me a lot, there’s no pressure on trying to find somewhere to stay as of yet, and it’s just made it a little bit easier for me to settle in and concentrate on my football.
Leaving Torquay, was it the classic scene of packing everything into the car and embarking on that big journey to the 'next chapter’? Or was it a little bit different?
It was pretty much pack up and go, yeah. I had a place at Torquay, me and my partner and my little baby girl, we had a place down there, and we were settled, we were happy, but you know how football goes, it can all change in the blink of an eye. The move came about and it was the right fit for me at the time. That was it, we just kind of got out, I shook hands with Torquay and left it at that. Packed up my car and headed up north.
Introducing Tyneside's worst kept secret 😅
Welcome to the Heed, @RuairiKeating! 🤝
➡️ https://t.co/aGAQd03Uyq#HeedArmy ⚪️⚫️ pic.twitter.com/ZOPL4X1Hui
— Gateshead FC (@GatesheadFC) January 24, 2020
Playing back in Ireland, where you earned that professional deal at Sligo, spent time with Galway United and had that impressive spell at Finn Harps, do you remember when you first felt you were starting to thrive, and feeling like 'yeah, I can mix it at senior level'?
I was coming through as a kid at Sligo; I joined when I was, I’m gonna say 16. Just had a really good first year with the youths, finished top goalscorer and we won our league at the time. I was called in the next year to train with the first team. I think I just fitted in, I didn’t look out of place, and the management at the time of my youth team and the first team kind of liked everything about me. They thought I had potential and a couple of attributes that not a lot of others had. For instance, I was tall, I was quick, I was good in the air, stronger than a lot of other boys. It just worked,
They sent me out on loan that season to Finn Harps to get some senior experience; I think I scored seven goals in 14 games or something like that. I was really enjoying my football and I was quite excited. Even though I wasn’t a full-time professional, I was a bit youth team/semi-pro if you like, but I was pretty excited. I was like ‘this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, if I can.’ I ended up signing a new deal with Sligo after my loan, they brought me back in and I stayed with the first team for the remainder of the season. As it happened, a couple of injuries and things like that and I ended up on the bench for the Europa League qualifier, twice actually. I was involved in training every day and that was when I started to become a full-time professional. I ended up making my league debut and it just went from there. As I said, I found myself on the bench in the Europa League, against Rosenborg home and away.
Growing up in Westport, what were the surroundings like, in football and in life in general?
Yeah, I grew up in Westport, County Mayo. Lovely little place in the west of Ireland; peaceful, countryside, mix of the sea and the country. It was a really, really good upbringing for me. I’ve got a family who supported me really well. I was born in Dublin and it was a big city, totally different to where I was brought up, but my mum and dad just wanted a kind of better life for us as kids. Small little town, good people, loads of facilities; everything was kind of all in one in this little place. It was a good change for my family and us, and we were brought up in a better environment; there was some troubles at the time in the city and things like that. Just started playing football, went to school, and it all happened from there, all fell into one.
Is there an American side as well to your family?
Yeah, my grandmother was born and raised in Queens, New York. My mum and dad were in America for years; they left when they were 19/20 and headed for the States for five/six/seven years. It has kind of always stayed with me, listening to my grandmother’s stories and my mum and dad’s stories about when they were in America. It just really fascinates me, the country.
Making the move to Torquay, even before the football side comes into it, how did you find life down there? How different or even similar to what you’d known back home was it?
I had no idea about anything. I got a phone call, I think it was on a Friday night, I spoke to the manager Kevin Nicholson. They were in a hotel getting ready to play an away game the next day and I was at home in my living room with my family. We had arranged that I would come in for training on a Monday morning. I followed their game on the Saturday afternoon while I was sitting at home, I started booking some flights and mapping out how I’d get there. I knew nothing about the place. I wasn’t really familiar with the UK; I’d only visited a couple of times, just to go to a Man United game with my dad or something like that. Certainly down at Torquay, I didn’t know anything about it. I got myself over there Sunday evening, I literally arrived at the train station Sunday morning, me and my dad, and all I had was a backpack and a pair of boots. I suppose I never returned home since. It was quite crazy how it all happened and how it all fared, everything went so well for me. I suppose I haven’t had a lucky run, as such, but I suppose it’s a bit of fortune, and hard work as well. I have always worked hard. I suppose I have been given opportunities for working hard and making sacrifices, not going out with my friends when everyone else was doing that growing up. I always wanted to play football, so ever since leaving school I was just focused on becoming a footballer.
You saw both sides of the club - struggling and eventually on the way down from the National League, and then the whole place reignited last season with the title win. For you to be around, as players, how different was the place between the struggle and the turnaround? Was it as simple as Gary Johnson arrives and the whole picture changes?
Yeah, Gary Johnson came in and completely turned things around. It was Kevin Nicholson who brought me in and he was still player-manager and new to management. I really enjoyed my time with Nicho, he looked after me really well and he brought me into English football. I was grateful for that and him believing in me, especially when the club was in a relegation battle. We were really under pressure, if you like, to get results and to be winning games, but obviously it wasn’t that easy. We were down there, it was a scrap. Unfortunately, Nicho didn’t stay on, they got rid of him and then Gary Owers came in. That was a completely different experience for me from what I had. I was new in the country with Nicho, away from home and playing football professionally in the UK. I felt a million dollars. I was playing every week, I scored a couple of important goals, and as you have it, we stayed up that year. It was an unbelievable feeling, it was such a high, and then the next year, it was like an ultimate low. We were struggling, I wasn’t playing as much, but it really made me feel as though I’d learn from this and it was all part of my experience, learning the game and going through the highs and lows of football. It was definitely a massive difference between Nicho and Owers, but it taught me a lot. I stayed strong and I just took everything in my stride, so I just made the most of it. Then Gary Johnson came in and it just went sky high again.
— Ruairí Keating (@RuairiKeating) April 26, 2019
The feeling of being 14 points off the top in September and then come the end of April, you win the league by ten points, it was just unbelievable. To answer your question, it was so different. The fans weren’t happy and there wasn’t many turning up to the games, they’d kind of lost all hope, and Gary came in and turned things around and the numbers just sky-rocketed. I think we had 5000/6000 people when we won the league and it was just surreal, as opposed to having maybe 600-800 when we got relegated. It was a massive difference and the club just came from being deep, deep down there and in the midst of depression, so much expectation and manager after manager. To come from that and be sky-high again, it was just unbelievable.
Leaving Torquay this year, how did it come into play?
It all kind of happened really quickly. I got a phone call from the gaffer and he said to me ‘I’ve had a phone call from a couple of clubs, there’s a little bit of interest in you.’ He had said to me previously that he wasn’t gonna keep me on for the following season; he said he believed that I wasn’t good enough to play at that level. That was his opinion, so that was fine. I’d been at the club for a number of years and scored a couple of important goals, I had been through highs, I had been through lows, and I’d become part of the furniture there, I was appreciated by most of the fans. So it came as a bit of a wake-up call, I think; I was getting a little bit too comfortable maybe. I was getting used to being there and being part of the furniture, and I didn’t end up playing too much this year. I guess when they realised they weren’t gonna win the league he just started planning for next year, and I think once he made up his mind that I wasn’t gonna be here next year, maybe he just decided not to play me, because what was the point? I did play a number of games and scored some goals before I left, but that was just down to injuries and a bit of luck on my behalf. He told me I wouldn’t be a part of it next year and he told me it was best to move on. He put my name out there, a couple of offers didn’t interest me, a couple did, but I felt Gateshead was the right fit for me.
Yellow Army, thank you all for 3 wonderful years of support. What a journey it’s been! For now it’s time to say goodbye. I hope to see you all again someday. Once a yellow always a yellow! 💛💛
— Ruairí Keating (@RuairiKeating) January 23, 2020
You've mentioned before the goals that stand out as your personal favourites, but behind the scenes, what would be the celebrations, a night out, a coach trip back with the team etc. that sticks in your mind most?
Definitely when we won the league. When that was it and we couldn’t be caught. Everyone was on the sideline saying ‘that’s it, that’s it,’ Woking were beaten or they drew 1-1, and they’d had to win all the games to keep in touch. We were on the pitch towards the end of the game and they were saying ‘that’s it, we’ve won, we’ve won,’ and everybody just went into raptures and it was announced in the stadium we were champions. Everyone just went crazy, fans around the pitch, there was boxes of champagne. Through the game they were saying over the Tannoy like ‘please remain off the pitch,’ but as soon as the final whistle went that was it. There was all stewards and security, they were told to get us off the pitch as soon as possible, so we all flew into the dressing room and just came to terms with what had happened. Then all the bottles of champagne came in, the t-shirts saying ‘champions’, and then we went back out onto the pitch. We had a night out on the town, all of us together, and it was just unbelievable. There was champagne being sprayed everywhere, the people in the town were congratulating us and buzzing for us. We had a great night, everyone was really happy for us and respectful. It was just really, really good.
Back to Gateshead, how did the conversations with Mike Williamson go when he first spoke to you about joining?
He told me that he had watched some footage of me, he’d seen some of the games that I was involved in. He said he liked my style of play and he thought I’d be a perfect fit for the guys; honest, determined to do well, everything I’m all about really. He kind of sold me what the club was all about, what he expected from his players, and even for the future, because it’s only a short deal until the end of the season, but depending on how it goes he told me what he wanted going forward. He told me about where he wanted to see the club, so I was delighted to get going. Everything he said really, really appealed to me, and it was exactly the right fit for me after such a downer coming to the end of my Torquay career. This is exactly the up and the boost and the support I needed from a manager. He’s been unbelievable for me, on and off the pitch, and I’m really grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to be here.
In terms of the group of lads at the club now, how would you describe what you've got?
Definitely just an honest, hard-working, decent bunch of lads. There’s no bad eggs, there’s no big-time Charlies, we’re all in the same boat. We’re like a bunch of mates at school. Everybody’s here to enjoy it, play football and just be happy. There’s a bit of craic but there’s no messing around. We’re given the platform to just go and be happy and give all you can and showcase what you’ve got. It’s a great group of lads and coaching staff.
In terms of management, what sort of approach do you think gets the best from you?
I definitely need a bit of loving, that’s for sure. I’m a homebird, I’m really, really close with my family, I’m a bit of a mummy’s boy. I need that love and support, I guess 80 percent of the time, but I’ve definitely found over my career that you’re not gonna get that from everybody. Every manager’s different, everybody has their own ways, their own views, so sometimes you just need to find that from within and just believe in yourself, stay positive and work really, really hard. I’ve definitely found out the hard way the difference in managers, what it takes to be successful and to really keep going. I’m just desperate to do well and I believe I can play a lot higher. I never really believed in myself as much as I should have, maybe in the past, and it’s kind of gone against me. With different managers, sometimes it doesn’t even matter how well you do; if you’re scoring goals, working hard every day in training, it doesn’t even get you in the team. I definitely found that out the hard way and sometimes I struggled with that also. I guess you’ve just got to do it for yourself and when you do find the right fit, it does take the right person to get the most out of you, and that’s how you’ll progress.
Aside from football and family, what else do you like in your life, for interests, wider ambitions, whatever it may be?
I like golf and I like NFL. I follow both with real interest, and the Irish Gaelic Games; I grew up playing Gaelic so I follow that from over here every year. I like playing golf myself, I play the odd time and I’m trying to get better at that and kind of use that as a tool to switch off. It’s good for me mentally to try and improve in golf, and when you have the time off to do something productive. Then on a Sunday throughout the winter time, I like to sit on the couch with my daughter and my partner and just watch the NFL; we’re big fans of that.
Just to gauge your feelings on it, because plenty of people have been drawn to who your uncle is, but how has that been for you, to carry that along with you?
I guess it’s just something I’m used to at this stage. It doesn’t put me up or down. The only thing I’d say really is hopefully, someday, Ronan will be my uncle and I won’t be his nephew! People will be saying to Ronan ‘oh yeah, you’re Ruairí Keating’s uncle!’ Maybe after years of people oohing and ahhing about it, I guess I’ve just got used to it, but I hope someday that roles will be reversed, please God, and I can have the last laugh.
Finally, as we speak now, on to this second spell in a new place in England, what have you learned most so far from your early career? How has it changed you, for example?
It’s definitely helped me become stronger, mentally. Still kind of working on that side of it; it can be a tough game and be really cutthroat at times, this industry. It’s definitely taught me to have an extra layer of thick skin and take everything on the chin, When you’re up, you’re up, when you’re down, you’re down, so take it as it comes, keep believing in yourself, keep working hard. It’s definitely made me a better man, stronger person in my day-to-day, and I take that into fatherhood now.
Interview by @chris_brookes