The Athlone Town team which defeated Limerick in the League Cup in August 1996. Back row (left to right): Niall Keogh, Peter Eccles, Dave Collins, Anthony Keenan, Barry Murphy, Niall Shanley. Front row, l-r: Mick Byrne, Tommy Hewitt, John Morris-Burke, Ray McLoughlin, Val Keenan. Mascots: Padraig Hegarty, John Francis and Kevin Hogan.

Former Athlone player on learning lessons from Dermot Keely

During his time as an Athlone Town player, one of the managers Tommy Hewitt played under was the straight talking Dermot Keely.

And Hewitt vividly remembers a conversation with Keely before a League Cup match against Dundalk at Oriel Park in 1996.

Tommy had scored the winner in Athlone’s 1-0 victory over Tranmere Rovers in a pre-season friendly. It was Keely’s first game as Athlone manager, with John Aldridge then in charge of Tranmere as player/manager. And Hewitt carried on his impressive form in the League Cup, in which Athlone advanced to meet Dundalk in the quarter-finals.

“I remember before the game, he called me on the pitch and said to me ‘I’m not playing you tonight’. I was a young kid at the time. I said ‘okay’ and started to walk away from him,” recalled Tommy.

In Tommy’s recollection, the rest of the conversation went along the following lines.

Keely (in his distinctive, raspy voice): ‘What the hell are you doing?’

Hewitt: ‘I’m going inside.’

Keely (forcibly): ‘Are you not going to fight for your place?’

Hewitt: ‘Sure, you’re the manager.’

Keely: ‘One lesson I’ll teach you is that if someone says you’re not playing after you’ve been playing so well, you should always question why you’re not playing.’

Tommy continued: “He was playing mind games with me. He was trying to reach me a lesson to stand up for myself. On the pitch I was kind of aggressive but off the pitch I would have been quiet.”

Mind games or not, Keely’s approach had the desired effect. Tommy started the game and scored the winning goal. As Tommy recalled: “I scored probably one of the best goals I ever scored that night and we won 1-0. I remember meeting Dermot a good while afterwards and he said to me, ‘Did you ever learn that lesson I taught you?’.”

As things transpired, Keely departed as Athlone manager shortly after the Dundalk match (with the league campaign yet to begin), having served just over a month at the helm.

Tommy, the current Athlone Town women's team manager, also played under Liam Buckley, hailing him as “absolutely brilliant” and “ahead of his time”.

As a youngster, Tommy said be benefitted from “good coaching” from Pauric Nicholson and Jimmy Greene among others. But when he broke into the Athlone Town first team, he said Buckley was able to quickly pinpoint “simple stuff” he needed to work on.

Tommy also praised Buckley’s man management skills. “He was such a nice man. I don’t think I ever heard Liam Buckley raise his voice during his time with Athlone. He was just so placid; he was a thinking man.”

Of the players Tommy played with, Andy Myler is someone who really stands out. Tommy describes him as “one of the best strikers in the league” at the time, and somebody he learned “an awful lot” from. Tommy still keeps in touch with Myler, who is now the UCD manager.

Other past Athlone players Tommy mentions are goalkeeper John Connolly (“he was brilliant to me”), Trevor Molloy (“he had a bit of divilment in him, but he was some player”), Alan Kelly and Conor Frawley.

Competing with the likes of Myler and Trevor Molloy for a place up front, Tommy was sometimes played elsewhere, such as the right side of midfield.

“My game was all based on fitness, I was quick. I didn’t have much skill to be honest. In the First Division, it was all about fitness. There wasn’t much ball being played then anyway! There would be no fancy combinations or trying to build it up from the back. You wouldn’t get the keeper putting it down and playing it left or right,” added Tommy.

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