Conor O’Keefe is reflecting on a year of his life that he will never forget. The 22-year-old student goalkeeper has spent the past year studying and playing in Spain and he has no plans to return home any time soon.
“I’ve loved my experience of Spanish football this year,” says the Macclesfield-born goalkeeper. “I know I can be successful here if I keep working hard and improving. I believe I have the ability and the skill set to perform well here. My aim is to continue playing in Spain next year but this time of the season is difficult for every player, when you aren’t sure where you will be for pre-season.”
O’Keefe captured the attention of British football fans last year when it was revealed he had sent letters to dozens of Spanish clubs in golden envelopes in the hope of earning the chance to spend his university year in industry in Spanish football. In the end, he flew out to Madrid and visited the clubs himself, going door to door until he found a team who would finally take a gamble. It was third-tier side Fuenlabrada who eventually let the ‘keeper in.
Now nearly a year on, O’Keefe has had to endure a frustrating time off the pitch due to paperwork issues but it has no dampened his experience at all.
“Frustrating moments are a part of football, and especially goalkeeping, but this has been probably the most successful season of my career so far,” he says.
“When I arrived in Madrid in July last year, I arrived in a foreign country and a foreign game, without being able to speak the language and without a team.
“I’ve finished the season with incredible experiences, a strong grasp of Spanish and huge improvements in my game, which was my main focus for this year.”
The former Macclesfield Town goalkeeper has taken full advantage of his international business studies degree at Loughborough University, diving head first into Spanish life and surrounding himself in the culture.
“When I arrived here I could say hello and that was it. But I love the language and I’ve been very determined to learn it, not only for football but for life here in general. I think it’s respectful to the country and the people that you try to learn.
“I’ve taken classes throughout the year and that helps to organise and structure the language that I hear daily.”
It was even more important for O’Keefe to improve his Spanish skills so that his game on the pitch was not affected. A strong communicator at home, the 22-year-old didn’t want to have his game weakened.
“Back home, one of my skills was my communication and I would talk constantly in games and training. So when I arrived here and I couldn’t do the same, it almost felt like a goalkeeping identity crisis.
“I couldn’t vocalise my personality, on or off the pitch, and I struggled. But the key was just going for it. Be brave enough to try and that’s how you learn. As time went by I gained confidence with it and now I’m just as loud in Spanish- unfortunately for my defenders!”
With the business student firmly integrating himself into the culture in Madrid off the pitch, it seemed only right that he did the same on the pitch as well. Spanish football of course has a reputation for its possession based technical style of play and that was something O’Keefe was more than happy to engage himself in.
“Personally, I really enjoy being able to play out from the back and manipulate play with the ball at my feet,” he says. “It’s true that there is a greater technical focus here, for all players. The coaching focus is to primarily master technical and tactical skills, before looking at athletic aspects of the game”
“I’ve worked very hard for several years on improving my distribution with both feet with the aim of becoming a ‘symmetrical’ goalkeeper. My focus is on being able to hit any area of the pitch with either foot, with any distributive technique.
“If you limit yourself to one foot, or one technique of distributing the ball you restrict the areas of the pitch you can access and therefore your impact on the game.”
Now playing for fifth-tier side Móstoles Balompié after leaving Fuenlabrada in order to get more time out on the pitch, O’Keefe is finally starting to play regular first team football after his spell as the third-tier club was marred by paperwork issues. During his time with Fuenlabrada, the Segunda B side draw Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey and held their illustrious opponents to a 2-2 draw at the Bernabéu.
“The standard has been very high,” says the goalkeeper. “That’s obviously helped me to improve my own game. Fuenlabrada stand out because of the players and coaches there. I was training everyday with ex-LaLiga and international players, alongside younger players who will play at that level in the future.
“I experienced the expectations and could see what it takes to make it to the top. The quality of the players and staff at the club was reflected in the results against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey, alongside their qualification for the playoffs.”
Speaking of the coaching O’Keefe has had since his move to Spain, he counts himself as lucky to have worked with such experienced coaches and ranks one in particular as one of the best he has ever worked with, not that he was stranger to high class coaching from his time at home.
“Manolo Rubio has had a huge influence on me here in Spain. He is the goalkeeping coach for Fuenlabrada and he has helped to adapt me to the Spanish game.
“I needed to develop technically and we have worked together all year to achieve that. He is a brilliant coach and I have improved so much due to working with him.”
“I was also lucky enough to work with Fuzz Caan while I was studying at Loughborough University as well. He is the British Athletics High Jump coach, and his impact on how I move, alongside developing the mindset of an elite athlete, has been huge for me. His knowledge is incredible and I’m very grateful to be able to work with him.”
As well as improving his skills between the sticks, the 22-year-old has also been sharing his adventure by creating and sharing YouTube videos. His series ‘Keeping Goals’ has documented his past year and is a great insight into the life of a goalkeeper with a professional mindset.
“Starting the Keeping Goals vlog on YouTube was an idea I had with my friend Jonny Wong, who is a brilliant videographer,” he says. “We decided to start the project together in August last year.
“I always thought that as a football fan growing up – and it’s the same today – I only got to see the success stories. We see content all the time from our footballing heroes but we know how the story ends. It’s great to see what they went through but it’s always in hindsight.”
“So we decided to start the series to document the journey of an aspiring professional goalkeeper. The ending isn’t written so we get to share the ups and downs with the audience.
“It’s a bit unusual and I wasn’t sure how people would react but the feedback we’ve received has blown me away. I’m really proud of the content we’re producing but the best bit has been the people who have got in touch to say how it’s impacted and motivated them in their own lives. That’s invaluable.”
The Loughborough student says he definitely intends to continue the series into next season but what will he be doing then?
“I’d love to be playing Segunda B (third tier) next year, after experiencing that environment for so long with CF Fuenlabrada.
“This time last year, I had no contacts or leads and still managed to make it happen so this summer it should hopefully be a bit less unorthodox!
“Regular game time is something I will be aiming for. I needed this year to improve and adapt my game to the demands on Spanish football but I believe I can now demonstrate what I’ve learnt, week in week out. ”
His placement year in Spain is coming to an end but it doesn’t look like this European adventure will be reaching its conclusion anytime soon. The goalkeeper has gone from strength to strength in his new home and that is reflected in his pragmatic response to whether he would change anything about his experience overseas so far.
“I’m blessed to have experienced some amazing moments and met some brilliant people in and out of football.
“I wouldn’t change anything because everything has helped to improve me in one way or another. I prefer to take those experiences and look forward, rather than consider how things might have gone differently.”
It’s true there have been some difficult moments for O’Keefe but he has never shied away from a challenge and his overall positive experience of his time abroad has seen him become a great advocate of English players abroad.
“We’re seeing more young English players moving abroad each year and I believe that will beneficial for the standard of our national team.
“You learn when you are out of your comfort zone both in football and in life and players that move abroad will tell you how much it has developed them as a player and as a person.
“I’ve loved living in Madrid; I love the city and the people and the lack of rain is a plus! The lifestyle is very laid back and experiencing the culture here is something I am very grateful for.”
It’s clear that O’Keefe is a young man who defies his age when it comes to his intelligence and experience. He has already been interviewed by Sid Lowe and was a guest on BBC Radio 5 Live’s World Football Phone-in alongside Tim Vickery. This story is far from over.