Oly-Whites Keeper O'Keeffe redeems himself
Marlborough goalkeeper Michael O'Keeffe banished his Belarus nightmare to play a starring role in the New Zealand Oly-Whites' 1-1 draw with Egypt in the Olympic Games football tournament today.
O'Keeffe made a string of superb saves against Belarus but was at fault for the only goal at a set-piece in Coventry on Friday (NZ time).
But the 21-year-old left Old Trafford today with Manchester United fans' cheers ringing in his ears after making half-a-dozen smart saves, some brave blocks and a world-class tip-over to frustrate the North Africans.
He told Fairfax he had tried to put the Belarus blunder behind him, as soon as it happened.
"You've just got to forget about it. I suppose it was still in my mind coming into this game but I was just like, 'nah, block it out and really focus on the basics', just like Nellie [captain Ryan Nelsen] said.
"I got a lot of motivation out of that.''
O'Keeffe also drew confidence from the best wishes of friends, particularly from "back home'' in Blenheim to pick his spirits up.
"Whether it was a message on Facebook, an email or a short text, they've all been fantastic. Particularly, after the disappointment of the Belarus game, it makes it a lot easier to know you've got all that support from people back home, supporting you.''
O'Keeffe was at his absolute best in the first half with Saleh Gomma bearing down on goal. But the keeper kept his cool at his near post, opened his stance, stayed big and let Gomma's point-blank shot cannon off his chest.
His best save came in the 58th minute when he leapt high to brilliantly tip Emad Meteab's powerful drive over the crossbar.
O'Keeffe was quickly off his line in the second spell to deny Meteab and Egypt's first-half goal scorer Mohammed Salah in the second half.
He was so assured that he must have had any scouts in the stands scribbling O'Keeffe - with two fs - into their notebooks.
New Zealand coach Neil Emblen hailed O'Keeffe, saying the young keeper had "bounced back brilliantly from the second half against Belarus''.
He said O'Keeffe was "such a calm lad''. "He's got a great attribute [for] a coach, when the ball goes back to him, you feel safe.''
"I had no qualms about picking him again, with Jake Gleeson still not quite right. I didn't want to risk him and I didn't want to hang Michael out to dry.''
But O'Keeffe was still keeping his feet on the ground, disappointed New Zealand had conceded a goal _ though he could do nothing about Saleh's strike from a marginally on-side position.
"But I'm happy with the performance, particularly after the disappointment of the Belarus game.''
He felt Nelsen, Tommy Smith, Ian Hogg and Adam Thomas in the New Zealand back-four had "defended really well'' but there "were only a couple of five or 10-minute spells when we were really under the pump, but we dealt with them and stuck in there and tried to create opportunities ourselves. ''
O'Keeffe was pleased to have his mother and father, and their partners, in the Old Trafford stands, and he said the crowd _ many wearing Manchester United jerseys _ seemed to be on New Zealand's side in the final stages.
The 21-year-old _ now a student at Fairfield University in Connecticut _ is sure to retain his place for New Zealand's final game against a Brazil team boasting players from Europe's top professional leagues.
"At the end of the game, the place looked packed. Playing at Old Trafford, against Egypt at the Olympics, is just mind blowing. It's a really cool feeling.''
Asked if he ever dreamed, as a junior footballer in Blenheim, that he would play Brazil at the Olympic Games for a place in the quarterfinals, O'Keeffe shrugged and said: "No chance''.