TWO years ago, Doncaster Rovers were propelling towards League One and Paul Keegan could do little about it.
The man who shares his surname with the South Yorkshire town’s most famous sporting son was a bit-part player as Rovers ended their four-season tenure in the Championship with barely a whimper in 2011-12 – winning just three league matches from mid-December to the season’s end.
Seriously hampered by a long-term knee injury, Keegan made just one start and two substitute appearances in a season when Rovers were a largely disparate bunch both on and off the pitch with relegation looking inevitable long before mid-Spring.
The Irishman is busy making up for lost time this term and insists the present-day Rovers squad have plenty more in their armoury when it comes to survival skills this time around.
As a team, Rovers are clearly greater than the sum of their parts, in stark contrast to an eminently forgettable 2011-12, when they relied heavily on the individual skills of El-Hadji Diouf and Billy Sharp – until he left in late January – with their other weapons somewhat limited, including team spirit and togetherness.
Anyone needing further proof of that need only look back at the post-season comments of ex-manager Dean Saunders, who cited a lack of leadership, fight and ‘warriors’ on the park as the main reasons for Rovers’ relegation.
Not too many fans would have disagreed with him.
Those charges certainly can not be thrown at the present-day Rovers, a tight unit on and off the pitch, where newcomers are embraced and everyone is battling for the collective good to realise their survival mission.
A player who personifies that more than anyone is Keegan and just as he proved an unsung hero in the League One title-winning season of 2012-13, so he is doing that again and proving a key man shielding the back four.
Keegan, who will play in midfield in this afternoon’s important derby against Barnsley, said: “Two years ago, I was coming back from injuries and it was very difficult to watch and not be involved.
“Comparing that team to this one, we can beat anyone and we have the ability to beat the top teams and those around us. Everyone is very confident going into games, whereas before we were just going into them thinking ‘it’s just another game’ and there wasn’t a lot of confidence in the team at the time.
“It’s a great bunch of lads and we’ve kept the core from last year where the team spirit took us through. The new lads have been brilliant and there’s no big egos to mess the balance of the team. You also look at Richie (Wellens) and Billy (Sharp) who have been here before and know the place and see they have slotted in really well.”
Last season, Rovers showed an unerring ability to get the job done, taking points when often not at their best.
They proved to be the right men from August right through to a crazy late denouement at Griffin Park and Keegan feels their experiences of last season will stand them in good stead for the business end of the season.
Games will not come much bigger than their next two assignments against the Reds and Yeovil, both in the relegation zone.
Keegan said: “You want to get results and play well. But last year, we played quite badly at times, but just kept winning games. We’ll take that this year.
“It’s a different type of pressure. Last year, we were trying to win League One and now we are trying to survive. But we have that experience in the dressing room and know what our jobs are and what we need to do to stay up.
“You find out a lot about yourselves as a team when the pressure is on. You find out who will stand up for the cause and do everything to get results.
“I saw that last year, when we got there in the end. Experience gets you through – look at the Brentford game when we didn’t crumble under pressure.
“We have a lot of players who have done a lot of things in the game and it’s about being organised and right on the day.
“Every player needs to play a different part in a team and my job is just to sit there and make things simple and let others go and play and go and express themselves.
“I think it’s working well. It’s a team game and I am happy as long as we are getting the results.”
Keegan could well line up today against an opponent whom he knows not just from his time at Rovers but from his days when they were together at the start of their career at Leeds United in Martin Woods, who recently joined the Tykes for the rest of the season after training with his old club.
Friendships will be put on hold if that’s the case for 90 minutes, according to Keegan, who might just give his good friend a special welcome.
The 29-year-old, who joined Rovers from Dublin-based Bohemians in early 2011, said: “I’m delighted he got the move and Martin is a good player. Unfortunately with injuries and stuff, it just didn’t work out for him here.
“If I am playing against him, we’ll have a good little battle. I grew up with him at Leeds and we used to kick lumps out of each other in training anyway; so it will be the same again basically.
“He knows I will be going to kick him and I will just say ‘hello’ to him in the first five minutes!”