There were echoes of a Roy of the Rovers comic strip fantasy in Eamon O’Keefe’s ascent from the Northern Premier League to the international stage in the space of two years. O’Keefe was a 25 year-old amateur midfielder who combined playing for Mossley – then managed by future Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson – and driving a van for the Manchester Guardian by day when, in the summer of 1979, Gordon Lee paid £25,000 to bring him to Goodison. A boyhood Manchester United fan who had once cheered Brian Kidd from the Old Trafford terraces, O’Keefe suddenly found himself playing alongside him for Everton.
O’Keefe had, as a youngster, been on Plymouth Argyle’s books but left without making an appearance. He developed a formidable reputation in non-league circles, appearing for England’s semi professional team, and even spent a period playing in Saudi Arabia. But league football was something he resisted until Everton came along. Even when they did, such was the nature of 1970s football that he was at first better financially rewarded driving his van and playing non-league.
Standing just 5ft 7inches tall, he was quick and aggressive, a tenacious addition to Lee’s quota of forwards. Chances were difficult to come by during the 1979/80 season, but Kidd’s departure and injuries to Bob Latchford meant he got more chances the following term. His transformation from non-league into a top class professional was complete when he made his Republic of Ireland debut against Wales in Dublin in February 1981.
Later, he credited Colin Harvey with aiding his ascent into the big time. ‘He was always pulling me up to one side, advising me and being firm when it was necessary,’ he told the matchday programme in 1981. ‘The first year went as well as I could have hoped. I had three first team appearances and I felt confident that I could be a First Division player if I could bring myself out a little more.’
When Howard Kendall became manager the following summer, O’Keefe initially found favour with the new manager. But as Kendall sought to instil his own vision upon the club, he found himself surplus to requirements. In January 1982 Everton accepted a £65,000 bid from Wigan Athletic and a well travelled and successful lower league career followed.