Published: 06:00, 18 October 2019
Stuart O’Keefe has come a long way from the kid who was released from Ipswich Town over concerns he wouldn’t be able to compete physically in the game.
The former Cardiff City player was a key man for Gillingham last Saturday as they battled hard for a goalless draw at his old club Portsmouth.
He’s shown he can scrap when needed and has also shown he has a bit of class, too, with a super strike the week before in a 3-1 win over another of
his former teams, Southend United.
It was Southend who picked O’Keefe up and handed him a scholarship opportunity when his hometown team cast him aside as a young teenager.
Bringing that bite to his game has been key to establishing himself as a professional footballer.
“I won’t shy away from a physical game because there are plenty of them at this level,” said the 28-year-old.
“I got told I wasn’t physically up to it, potentially, because I wasn’t the biggest; I was a late developer. You grow up and you mature.
“At 13-14 everyone is still developing and finding their way in life, let alone on the football pitch.
“As I have grown up and realised that I am never going to be the biggest player, I have had to adapt my game. I needed to show that aggression and that tenacity to be able to compete on the professional stage.
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“It is a big part of my game now and to take that away would be a big loss for me.”
O’Keefe hasn’t lost any of his technique, however, as fans witnessed a fortnight ago when his precision finish put Gills two goals up against Southend.
“It was good to score against my old club,” said the Essex-based midfielder.
Not his best, however. That will take some beating after finding the top corner on his Premier League debut for Crystal Palace in a live game on Sky Sports against Sunderland.
O’Keefe would end up heading to Cardiff, where he spent the last four-and-a-half years. A move closer to the south east was always his preferred option once his time with the Bluebirds was up in the summer.
He’s been in and out of the Gills team of late, but is becoming a pivotal part of the midfield, none more so than last weekend when the side earned their point at Portsmouth.
There wasn’t a lot of attacking play on show that day but O’Keefe and the team were solid at the back in what manager Steve Evans described as a masterclass performance.
“I enjoyed going back,” he said, having played 27 times for Pompey during a season-long loan in 2017/18.
“It is always one of the best places to go at this level, there is always an atmosphere at Fratton and the fans turn up in their numbers. A few fans said hello and I got quite a good reception.
“It was a good test and we did all right. You know at some stage you are going to be under the cosh there, whether they are top of the league or at the bottom. We rode our luck when they hit the post but other than that they had a couple of long shots that Jack Bonham saved quite comfortably.
“As a unit we were very solid and it felt comfortable in the middle. I didn’t feel stretched or that I was chasing anything.
“Maybe they were lacking a bit of confidence and in the second half you could see that, when they couldn’t get through us, they had nobody to create a spark. They went backwards, sidewards and the crowd were getting frustrated.
“They ran out of ideas and on another day, if we were a little more patient maybe in our own build-up play and took a bit more care, we could have caused them more problems which was the only disappointing thing.”
The Gills may be tested more this weekend, against a Peterborough team excelling in attack.
They will want to show more attacking intent themselves, more than against Portsmouth, but know they must be wary.
O’Keefe said: “They are going well at the moment and we can’t be too over-committed. We have to have that unit again, we have to be solid and we will see.
“We don’t want to be too gung-ho and play into their hands, it needs to be an assured performance.”
More by this authorLuke Cawdell