Eamonn O’Keefe: a journey to Saudi Arabia

Eamonn O’Keefe: a journey to Saudi Arabia

WITH MORE THAN ITS FAIR SHARE OF HIGHS AND LOWS, the football career of English-born Irishman Eamonn Gerard O’Keefe saw him segue in and out of a variety of playing positions, on the pitch, and an array of extraordinary escapades, off of it.

O’Keefe’s playing days, which stretched across three decades, almost ended before they had even begun, when a tackle during a regional schoolboys game, from David Allison – son of famed manager Malcolm Allison – broke O’Keefe’s leg, putting an end to the ex-Old Trafford ball boy’s chances of an anticipated link-up with the Manchester United youth academy.

Instead, O’Keefe began his senior career at non-league Stalybridge Celtic, before spending much of the 1980s slaloming through the divisions of English football, with spells at a host of British teams including Everton, of the First Division; who snapped up O’Keefe from Northern Premier League club Mossley, having witnessed the player’s instrumental role in their unprecedented League and Cup double; Wigan Athletic, who bought O’Keefe for a then-club record fee of £65,000; and Blackpool, where he was at his most prolific, scoring a handsome 23 goals in 36 appearances, which later saw him inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame. He even found time to represent both England and Republic of Ireland at international level, albeit the Three Lions O’Keefe turned out for was the semi-professional C team, which saw him get into a spot of bother with football’s international governing body.

However, a near-ruinous broken leg, a short-lived, FIFA-imposed international ban, and an unanticipated non-league inauguration weren’t the only hurdles placed before O’Keefe on his remarkable journey. As detailed in his aptly titled memoir I Only Wanted To Play Football, one of his most memorable periods came in western Asia, where he had been invited to star in a footballing revolution. But not all was as it seemed, as an unexpected and unwanted romantic approach sent his fortunes fluctuating and threw a spanner in the works of his Saudi sojourn of ‘75.

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FOLLOWING SUCCESSFUL REHABILITATION O’Keefe quickly put behind him the horrors of his leg-break and the disappointment of missed opportunities and joined Stalybridge Celtic in the Cheshire County League. It took no time at all for O’Keefe to exhibit his great potential, even while playing in an unfavoured right-back position, and was named as the club’s Player of the Year in his debut season. His performances hadn’t gone unnoticed outside of the Cheshire County League either, as Crystal Palace and Plymouth Argyle soon came a-knocking.

O’Keefe turned down The Eagles, who had recently been relegated to the Second Division, in favour of Third Division Plymouth, as they appeared to provide the greater likelihood of first team football. Ironically though, shortly after joining Plymouth, manager Tony Waiters informed O’Keefe he couldn’t see him ever making a name for himself at this level and subsequently allowed him to leave for nothing, without a single senior appearance for the Devonshire club.

O’Keefe headed home to Manchester, where he signed for his old team Stalybridge’s local rivals Hyde United, and set about once again making waves in the Cheshire County League. But he wasn’t to be back home for long, as in November of 1975 O’Keefe received a surprise call from George Smith, the manager under whom he had flourished at Stalybridge Celtic, inquiring as to whether O’Keefe fancied joining him in Saudi Arabia.

Smith himself had been brought to the Arab state by the owners of ambitious Saudi club Al-Hilal, in preparation for the conception of the Saudi Arabian Premier League, in that hope that the experienced English manager would bring with him a number of his capable compatriots whose superior skills would guide the club to the summit of Asian football. Such was the disparity in quality between the continents though, that even with the tantalising offer of a tax-free stay and a guaranteed tan, George was only able to convince one player to join him in Saudi Arabia: the ever-eager Eamonn O’Keefe.

O’Keefe rightly understood that his current club, Hyde United, were unlikely to be jumping for joy at the prospect of losing a player they had only recently acquired from the Third Division. But the chance to fly to Saudi Arabia was, in his own words, “an opportunity [he] really couldn’t let pass by” and, in knowing this, Hyde reluctantly let him go.

So O’Keefe said his goodbyes to his family and friends, took a deep breath, braced himself for the impending culture shock, and boarded a flight on course for the Saudi capital, Riyadh. There, when he arrived, at the foot of the airport’s departure steps, he was greeted by a smiling George Smith, who was awaiting O’Keefe’s arrival while casually leaning against the flashy American Buick in which he had arrived; complete with chauffeur in the driver’s seat, who quickly exited the vehicle, opened the door for O’Keefe to enter and carefully placed his luggage in the car’s spacious rear. Though initially shocked by the fuss made over his arrival, the car and chauffeur was to be the first of many grandiose displays, equal in both nonchalance and extravagance, to be put on by the princes O’Keefe would soon be making the acquaintance of.

The Saudi club had initially organised for O’Keefe to stay for a month; a trial period, during which time he would train with the Al-Hilal squad with the aim of earning a permanent contract by catching the eye, and winning the affections, of the men in charge. Little did he know just how affectionate they could be.

* * * *

AT HIS FIRST TRAINING SESSION FOR AL-ZAEEM (the club’s nickname, meaning The Boss) O’Keefe was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming his new team-mates were, as they greeted him with warm smiles and firm handshakes. What’s more, a couple members of the team were adept English speakers and with these O’Keefe became friends almost immediately.

The ability of the Al-Hilal players also impressed O’Keefe; many appeared to be more than capable on the ball, but he wasn’t to be out-classed on his first day. Having been informed by George Smith that the fellow riding shotgun in the large, blue motor, sat observing the training session from the car park, was none other than His Royal Highness, Prince Abdullah Bin Nasser Bin Abdullahziz Al Saud, the president of Al-Hilal, O’Keefe now had every reason to show those in attendance just what this Manchester lad was made of.

Having been instructed by Smith to occupy the false 9 position, though that particular job title was most likely known by a name rather less Byzantine back then, O’Keefe gratefully made the most of any opportunity to get forward in the training match. Within minutes O’Keefe had met two whipped crosses with all the ferocity and precision of a man eager to impress, sending both spinning from his forehead straight into either of the goal’s top corners. Two for two. So slick were the finishes, O’Keefe almost surprised himself. “I felt like I was on drugs. The lads thought I was Pelé!”

* * * *

EOKSAO’Keefe at a local function (far left)

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Powerful as the headers were, they hadn’t shook the sense from his head, as he remained grounded and for a moment thought, “I hope they don’t think that I can do this every match …” As O’Keefe trotted back to the halfway line having bagged his brace, he passed his manager, Smith, with whom he shared a giant grin, before being cheekily informed, “Whatever [wage] you were thinking of before, add another fucking nought!”

Following the training game, Smith introduced O’Keefe to Prince Abdullah, who was eager to meet his new star player and ensure that his stay in Saudi Arabia had lived up to expectations thus far. After the Prince left, content his countrymen had been treating O’Keefe well, the two Brits headed back to their hotel where they drafted the player’s contract, which was typed up by Smith’s wife, Margaret. This contract included a more than tidy weekly wage, trophy bonuses, private medical care for O’Keefe and his family, a car, an apartment, and two sets of return flights to the UK, each year, to allow O’Keefe regular visits with his family who would be remaining in England.

All of this was agreed to without question and, with weeks of pre-season still remaining, Prince Abdullah generously insisted O’Keefe return to England for a short stay, to celebrate his signing with his loved ones back home, which he did; whilst George negotiated a compensation fee with the recently deprived Hyde United. The prince, unhappy with O’Keefe’s five day wait for a flight, even phoned Saudi Airlines himself to personally rearrange the flight for a sooner date, and it was done: he would depart at 5.45pm that evening.

O’Keefe remained in England for only a few days before flying back to Riyadh where, over the following weeks, he was regularly invited to Prince Abdullah’s home, to mingle with him and his brothers, with whom he became good friends. Time passed quickly as O’Keefe got to grips with his rapidly evolving circumstances, helped no-less by the prince’s willingness to meet his every demand, though in testament to O’Keefe’s humble nature he demanded little.

There was one ‘demand’ that O’Keefe was particularly pleased to have pulled off, though it wasn’t an idea entirely of his own making. Chuffed to have been afforded the opportunity to substitute the weathered old Morris Mini Estate, which he had happily left behind in Manchester, for something slightly more up-market, O’Keefe initially had every intention of honouring the Prince’s suggestion that he find something “not too expensive” to get him from A to B. But having been chaperoned on his car search by Al-Hilal’s charismatic, English-speaking centre-back, Bashir, O’Keefe was never likely to be going home with a modest vehicle in tow.

Despite his fears of appearing to be exploiting the prince’s generosity, all it took was a little peer-pressure from Bashir for O’Keefe to reluctantly acquiesce and sign off on a stunning new silver Pontiac Ventura. Bashir was called upon to exercise a few of the same efficacious persuasion techniques on the prince, having returned home in said Pontiac to be greeted by a raised royal eyebrow, but his bartering skills weren’t to be lost on the prince, and one turn behind the wheel was all it took for O’Keefe to be delighted he’d allowed Bashir to twist his arm too.

* * * *

AS THE WEEKS PASSED O’Keefe became more settled in Saudi Arabia, and was able to once again focus on his fortunes on the pitch, as opposed to his growing fortune off it. His team had made it through the first three rounds of the King’s Cup without fuss, but the semi-final draw had orchestrated a meeting between Al-Hilal and their fiercest of rivals, fellow Riyad-based club, Al-Nassr.

On the day, the teams couldn’t be split, even with the aid of extra time, and so a penalty shoot-out would part them. Following the game’s final kick, the shrill tone of the referee’s whistle brought an end to O’Keefe’s first Riyadh derby and signalled the beginning of a cataclysmic city-wide ripple of emotion; one half euphoric, the other distraught. Despite the best efforts of O’Keefe and his teammates, they found themselves on the wrong side of the divide. Al-Hilal had been denied their passage to the cup final.

Not only had O’Keefe been sickened by his first bitter taste of defeat in Western Asia, a frenetic and absorbing 120 minutes in the Saudi heat had taken it out of him and, now back in his apartment, O’Keefe was looking forward to his next two-month break in England. Fortunately for him, with Jimmy Hill and his company World Sports Academy heading to Saudi Arabia under orders to restructure the Saudi League during the close season and assume control of the Saudi Arabia National Team, O’Keefe’s holidays were fast approaching.

* * * *

BEFORE HEADING BACK EAST, O’Keefe was informed by the prince that he and his family also intended to visit England and requested the telephone number of O’Keefe’s parents so that the two clans could meet up and enjoy their time in England together. O’Keefe happily concurred and set sail for the UK once more.

Though he was glad to be going home for a while, O’Keefe had settled well in his new surroundings. In his own words, “I felt that all those different knocks [the leg-break, the release from Plymouth] had happened, ultimately, in order to steer me in the direction of Saudi Arabia.”

After three weeks of home comforts the O’Keefe residence received a call from the Carlton Towers Hotel in London. The prince wished to meet with Eamonn and informed him that if he could travel from Manchester to London, as soon as possible, he would have a chauffeur waiting for him. Despite his protests and general feeling of unease towards the jet-setting lifestyle that he was still somewhat unaccustomed to, O’Keefe did have a chauffeur waiting for him, standing beside a limousine parked on the road outside of Euston Station, ready to drive him to the private residence the Al Saud’s were renting for the duration of their stay.

Upon arrival, O’Keefe was treated to a delicious lunch, prepared by the prince’s personal chef, and enjoyed in the dining room of the elegant, Georgian-style, three-storey house that had O’Keefe’s eyes perpetually widened in awe, before conversation turned to the subject of travels. O’Keefe was informed that the prince and his wife intended to go on a tour of Europe before their scheduled return to Saudi Arabia, and had planned to visit Paris, Cannes and Rome before heading home. The following evening, during dinner at the illustrious Barracuda Restaurant, the prince invited O’Keefe to join them on their European excursion. Feigning reluctance for all of about two seconds, O’Keefe pondered, before complying emphatically.

Busy preparing the team for the new season, back at Al-Hilal headquarters, was manager George Smith, who wasn’t best pleased to hear that his star player would be ditching pre-season in favour of a jaunt abroad with the club’s president. But the prince made sure to smooth things over, and promised that O’Keefe would be back long before the season’s opening fixture.

* * * *

EOKEO’Keefe (c) in action for England C

* * * *

The first duty of the following day was to head to the airport, once more in a limousine, to fly direct to Paris; which they did, though not before a quick drink in Heathrow’s V.I.P lounge. In France the group did likewise, stopping for coffee in another V.I.P lounge, this time with French Saudi embassy officials in the Charles de Gaulle airport, before setting about doing typical tourist-type activities like gawping at the stunning Paris skyline from their hotel balconies and eating dinner aboard the glass boats that sail the River Seine – as one does.

After a couple more days of sightseeing in the French capital, the group were ready to head to Cannes for the next leg of their holiday, where they would be staying at the lavish Grand Hôtel de Cannes; a typically 5-star hotel situated on the famous Boulevard de la Croisette, overlooking the French Riviera.

Upon arrival, the prince left his entourage to unpack his belongings while he accompanied his wife and Eamonn to dinner, after which the prince’s wife headed back to the hotel and left the gents to venture in the direction of the Palm Beach Casino. The two of them journeyed by taxi and, after climbing the casino’s steps, were greeted eagerly by its manager and an attentive-looking, white-gloved assistant. It was to be the latter’s pleasure to shadow the duo for the duration of the evening, ready with a silver tray in hand, equipped in order to carry the prince’s Red Label Johnny Walker whiskey, and O’Keefe’s beer, so as not to trouble their special guests by making them hold their own beverages.

For most of the night O’Keefe sat in muted attendance at the roulette table as His Royal Highness rattled through, what O’Keefe called, a “ludicrously large amount of cash”, treating it as though it were Monopoly money, repeatedly exchanging his Francs into chips and placing them on whichever number happened to tickle his fancy that particular spin, only to care little as to where they eventually ended up. Gambling wasn’t O’Keefe’s game, football was, so the setting and its atmosphere did little to enamour O’Keefe, though he did occasionally humour the prince whenever prompted to choose a number for him.

The two of them eventually made their way back to the hotel, where the Prince expressed his delight at the wonderful evening the two of them had shared and insisted they return to the casino the following night. Eamonn politely agreed, though he jokingly urged the Prince to pick his own numbers next time. Moments before exiting the lift, the prince hugged Eamonn and thanked him once more. “No sweat!” he replied, instinctively, shocked by the impromptu embrace. “That was a bit girly,” he thought, “but if that’s what they do …” and he shrugged it off.

The following day began as many did when in the company of the prince with a slap-up hotel breakfast, which the entire group polished off with ease before readying themselves for a day on the beach. The beach in question, on this occasion, was situated on the paradisiacal private cove owned by the Grand Hôtel de Cannes. The plan for the evening was to mimic the previous night’s activities, so Eamonn joined the group in devouring a delicious picnic lunch on the sand, sunned himself to within an inch of his true ethnicity, and readied himself for another night at the casino, which, this time, he found himself genuinely looking forward to.

As planned, the evening followed the exact trajectory of the preceding night. Dinner at the hotel was followed by a trip to the casino, where the two of them drank; Prince Abdullah whimsically bet obscene amounts of money at the roulette table, and Eamonn watched on in astonishment.

Just as they had done 24 hours earlier, after sampling all the delights of the casino, Eamonn and the prince returned to the hotel, made their way through the lobby to the lifts, and pressed the call button. Rome awaited them in the morning, so attempting to grasp at anything that resembled an early night was a wise move.

As they waited, the prince turned to Eamonn and spoke. “I have been wanting to tell you something for a long time now – since you came to London, in fact, but I have found it very difficult to speak out.” Confused and concerned, Eamonn tentatively replied, “Fire away.” The two of them stepped into the lift and faced each other, so as to continue what was becoming a surprisingly candid conversation. The prince placed his palms on Eamonn’s shoulders and gazed intently at him. “I have found that I love you.” Stunned, Eamonn’s words stumbled out of his mouth. “You mean like a brother…?” The walls of the lift suddenly seemed far closer than they had moments before, and the next words uttered by the Prince were chased by a musky, breathy aroma of cigarettes and whiskey. An almost unfathomable reality, that Eamonn did not even know he should have feared, in an instant came true. “No. I do not mean in the same way that I love my brothers.” Eamonn’s stomach fell.

In the following moments Eamonn’s dazed though definitive retorts fell on deaf ears, as Prince Abdullah attempted to persuade his lift-partner of the benefits of becoming his life-partner. “Forget football, forget work,” he exclaimed, pleading almost. “I shall look after you. You will not have to worry about anything. You can have everything you want.” But there would be no persuading Eamonn. “Please take a step back, you are making me nervous,” Eamonn implored. “You’re a great guy and you have a lovely family, but I could never feel that way about a man.” He yearned for time to rewind; to wake from this absurd nightmare.

* * * *

4532809158Eamonn O’Keefe (left)

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Instead he would have to settle for ending this conversation as soon as he could. “I would like to continue playing for Al-Hilal and have a professional relationship with you, and forget that this conversation ever took place.” The prince nodded his head thoughtfully in reply, and exited the lift once the doors had re-opened moments later. As the doors closed again, the strength fell from Eamonn’s legs and he found himself helplessly sliding to the floor. Shaking uncontrollably, Eamonn could do nothing but take a relief-filled breath and wonder if the last five minutes had really just unfolded the way he remembered them. Finally, after exiting the lift, he reached his room. He fumbled the door open, locked and double-locked the door, once on the other side, and went to his balcony to sit in darkness in the open air. That night he would barely sleep a wink.

The next morning Eamonn’s mind would allow him little room to think of anything other than the previous night’s debacle, and his eyes were unwilling to meet the prince’s for fear of sending him the wrong message, or any message at all. The group promptly arrived in Rome, where Eamonn was informed by the prince that they would all be returning to Saudi Arabia the very next day. Understandably, the news provided some solace to him. The sooner he was in the company of somebody, anybody, other than the prince or his entourage, the better. Eamonn’s sanity depended on it.

Shortly after the plane touched down in Riyadh the next day, Eamonn was chauffeur driven back to his apartment. He wasted no time unpacking, as he threw his bags into the hallway and set off for the club, where his Pontiac was parked. He then drove as quickly as he could to the first and only safe place he could think of: the home of manager George Smith.

Once there, Eamonn revealed all to George and his wife, abstaining from no detail. For the duration of his anecdote both George and Margaret looked on in horror as the unbelievable story tumbled out of Eamonn’s mouth. After his tale’s regrettably amorous ending, Eamonn proposed, in hope more than expectation, that the prince may simply forget the whole thing, and allow him to go about his footballing responsibilities in Saudi Arabia, hassle free. But the almost patronising look his comments were met by all but confirmed to Eamonn the reality he already knew. They agreed the best course of action was for Eamonn to sleep on their couch that night, while the three of them gave some time to concocting an appropriate exit strategy.

Eventually, a plan was made. Eamonn would attempt to leave Saudi Arabia under the pretence that his ill father required his immediate attention, due to on-going issues with his heart, which was, essentially, the truth. Besides, Eamonn did have it in his contract that he would be granted regular flights back to England, and the domestic football season in Saudi Arabia was still yet to begin. George would travel to Prince Abdullah’s house to ask him directly, though it was of the utmost importance that the prince be given no reason at all to suspect George was aware of his intimate endeavours, else there would be no convincing him of allowing Eamonn’s hasty departure.

That afternoon George did just as he said he would. He travelled to the home of Prince Abdullah and requested that his player be allowed to return home briefly, to attend to his ailing father, to set his mind at ease in preparation for the new season. Predictably, the prince replied with an emphatic “no” but after George rebuttled with a string of ripostes; the clause, the importance of happy players, the speedy return Eamonn wouldn’t be making, the prince said that he wished to see Eamonn and hear his request personally before making any decision.

In the morning Eamonn drove to the prince’s home and met with him, though the encounter lasted just a few minutes as the prince informed him he would talk business with him the following day, at the club. As seemingly needless as that meeting had been, it went some way to calming Eamonn’s nerves, as the prince behaved in a very business-like manner, providing Eamonn with some hope that he may be willing to remedy their situation amicably. The next day Eamonn drove to the club and entered the large meeting room. Shortly after, the prince entered, having instructed the club’s staff not to disrupt the meeting under any circumstances.

The meeting kicked off exactly as Eamonn had feared. “I believe you want to go home?” the Prince began, “I understand that you wish to leave because of what was said in France.” This comment set in motion a game of back and forth, as Eamonn attempted to extinguish the prince’s fears, assuring him that his desire to leave had nothing to do with their kerfuffle in Cannes, but the Prince persisted. Fortunately George entered, relieving the room of some of its palpable tension, but he was instructed to exit shortly after, as the prince wished to bring the conversation to a swift conclusion.

He reached for his pad and pen and began writing in Arabic. As he wrote, he dictated: “I will write this agreement for you to sign. It says that you will return to Saudi within one week and that you promise to return.” If Eamonn thought that he was nervous before, there was simply no describing what was going through his mind at that point. As he stared down at the Arabic script, without the faintest idea what it read, his consciousness was flooded with visions of extreme Sharia punishments: beheadings, floggings, and stonings. But he had no other choice.

“So, you don’t trust me to return?” He asked, “Yet you expect me to trust that this Arabic writing really says what you say it does? Well, alright then … I trust that you are telling me the truth.” But before Eamonn could sign the agreement, Prince Abdullah lurched forward, grabbed the paper, and tore it into bits. He then reached for his telephone and dialled, before turning to Eamonn and saying, “I will arrange a flight for you tomorrow, to return in one week. I believe you.” Eamonn wasn’t home and dry yet, but he could breathe a little easier now. His bluff had worked, and he appeared to be on the final stretch.

After leaving the club, Eamonn could barely contain his excitement and relief, but George remained a pillar of stony professionalism. He parted yet more wisdom to Eamonn, telling him that he would have to remember only to take a week’s worth of clothes with him, and to leave everything of any real worth at the apartment. Otherwise, should the prince enter and be met by an empty room, he would discover the truth immediately. “Oh, and no prolonged public goodbyes.”

When the next morning came, Eamonn bid George’s wife farewell at their home, hugging her and thanking her for everything. He then shook George’s hand and told him, “Thanks for everything, George, and good luck for the future. I guess this just wasn’t meant to be for me.” He and George then left for the airport. Though this was a common journey for Eamonn, he made sure to drink it all in this time: the sights, the sounds, the smells. After all, should it all go to plan, he’d never be making the same journey again.

It hurt Eamonn that he was unable to thank the people that had been so kind to him during his stay – everybody from the players to the ground’s cleaners had given him a warm welcome and offered genuine friendship. He couldn’t even speak ill of the prince, or how he had treated him, and he knew not how the prince would treat him going forward. But, in Eamonn’s eyes, the situation didn’t allow the luxury of staying in Saudi Arabia to find out, or allow for the truth to surface, either.

During the wait for his plane, George and Eamonn both became tipsy with paranoia, feeling as though all eyes were on them, imagining terrifying scenarios in which the two of them were dragged, kicking and screaming, back to see the prince. But no such scenarios played out and eventually Eamonn was able to board his jumbo jet. The paranoia wasn’t entirely diluted by his being on the plane, as the jolting of the plane’s ascent into the air began another fit of delusion. “He’s done it. The prince has instructed the pilot to turn back!” he panicked. Alas, the prince had done nothing of the sort. He was still in his home, hoping that Eamonn would be returning in seven day’s time.

* * * *

UPON RETURNING TO HIS PARENTS’ HOME IN MANCHESTER, Eamonn and his father set about clearing the air, conversing back and forth with the English FA and, on occasion, the Saudi equivalent, in order to clear up the mess that was Eamonn’s final days in the company of Prince Abdullah. It wasn’t easy; a drawn-out conclusion followed, during which many reports and letters had to be written, many accounts told, and contracts nullified, but eventually Eamonn could rest easy, knowing his Middle Eastern adventure had met its uncompromisingly ugly end.

So much had happened in the space of just one year, and all within just two years of turning professional, that Eamonn could barely be convinced that it was anything other than a dream. Though now he could finally return to doing what he loved most: playing football.

Despite the extraordinary nature of Eamonn O’Keefe’s formative years, he wasn’t the sort to settle down to an easy life, especially not at just 22 years of age. He would go on to play for Mossley in the Northern Premier League, whilst working part-time as a van driver for the Manchester Evening News, followed by a famous spell at Everton where he would receive a red card in his very first Merseyside derby, tour Japan and the United States with the club, and even break his leg again in an FA Cup quarter-final versus Manchester United.

Wigan Athletic, Port Vale, Blackpool, Cork City, St. Patrick’s Athletic, Chester City, and Bangor City would all sell shirts with O’Keefe’s name displayed proudly on the back, and Eamonn would even go on to play for his country; all two of them. Yet nothing would truly compare to the time he spent in Saudi Arabia.

By Will Sharp. Follow @shillwarp

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