Yesterday brought the confirmation that Stuart O’Keefe had left Crystal Palace FC on a permanent basis, joining Russell Slade at Cardiff City, in a move which should secure him regular first-team football once again. Although unlikely to have ever made it into the Eagles’ Premier League starting eleven on a regular basis, his tenacity in the centre of midfield will certainly be missed.
Never the most technically dazzling of players, Stuart earned respect through hard graft and a high work-rate. Brought to the club by Dougie Freedman, who had seen potential in his game when the two were together at Southend United, O’Keefe arrived at Palace as a fresh-faced and enthusiastic 19-year-old; given the chance to make his mark on a club who were undergoing a rebuilding process following the devastating impact of 2010’s administration blighted campaign.
Far from an instant hit, O’Keefe’s game took a while to mature, with his no-nonsense style of midfield play proving to be well suited to the cut and thrust of the Championship, particularly in the early stages of his time at the club. Always a favourite of Freedman’s, Stuart waited patiently for the odd opportunity to arise, never moaning, but always providing dependable performances in the middle of the park when called upon. The epitome of the steady if not spectacular utility man.
Following Freedman’s shock departure, O’Keefe found another manager who took a shine to him in Ian Holloway. No doubt impressed with his application and willingness to learn, Ollie used the midfielder as and when the time was right, with his happiness to do the simple things right rather than reach for the spectacular serving him well in our promotion campaign on 2013.
Perhaps Stuart’s best moment in a Palace shirt came in that year’s play-off final, when, brought into the game as a 17th minute replacement for the injured Kagisho Dikgacoi, the youngster had the game of his life. Attacking the play like a new-born puppy allowed off the lead for the first time, he was all over the pitch, hurrying Watford players into mistakes and chasing down every lost cause.
He nearly struck the decisive goal of the tie, when a hard hit low drive from the edge of the penalty area was cleared away at the final moment, causing him to curse his luck; not that he needed to worry, given Kevin Phillips’ penchant for penalty taking, but that’s another story entirely.
Soon after our promotion, O’Keefe would be hitting the headlines, when after coming off the bench in the 83rd minute for what would be his first appearance as a Premier League player, he smashed a curling effort off the crossbar and in against Sunderland to give Palace their first top flight victory in nine years.
Sadly, it was one of very few bright spots in Ian Holloway’s brief second crack at the big time, with the Bristolian leaving his post soon after, not that it would stop O’Keefe from getting playing time under the guidance of baseball-capped Welshman Tony Pulis.
Stuart would go on to make another nine appearances in the 2013/14 campaign after Holloway’s departure, never quite forcing his way into consideration for a starting role, but far from an outcast in a squad that had more than enough quality to embarrass some of their more “illustrious” opponents.
This term however, O’Keefe has seen himself drop further down the pecking order, not aided by the arrival of Scotland international James McArthur for a club record fee, he managed two appearances at the start of the league season before being loaned out to Blackpool in a bid to stay match fit.
Since then, a solitary appearance in the FA Cup against Dover Athletic would prove to be the last time the 23-year-old pulled on a Palace shirt, after what has clearly been a real period of growth for him as a player.
There is every chance that Stuart will be a success with the Bluebirds, thanks to his feverish desire for hard work. No one would claim that he was up there with the game’s best creative minds, but as a midfield engine who would never shy away from a challenge, there are few more committed personalities than him.
We wish him all the best in the future.