“It was kind of a two-footed jump into the unknown,” says Jozsef Keaveny over a crackling phone line from Cambodia. “But I’m glad I’ve done it.” The 22-year-old is enjoying a day off at the beginning of the week in which Angkor Tiger resume their Premier League campaign and reflecting on the path to Siem Reap, where the humidity remains stifling seven months into his stay, it quickly becomes clear that Keaveny carries no regrets.
Turning out in the Cambodian top flight, set to resume Saturday following more than two months off to accommodate various international competitions, may be a long way from his teenage dreams of becoming a Premier League star at Leicester City.
But Keaveny is embracing a path few have taken. He is familiar with when to bow or give the customary lotus hand gesture, aware that it is frowned upon not to be fully clothed on the street and public displays of affection can be seen as disrespectful by the more conservative locals. He is even learning to accept that, in a country where the cost of living is so low, purchasing a punnet of strawberries can feel like extortion.
“I was prepared for things being different,” he says, recalling a warning from his mother to read up on the cultural differences before travelling. “It’s made me have that normal part of growing up, learning how to manage things by myself.
“There’s a lot to like about the lifestyle over here. The calmness of everything, which you don’t get too much in professional football, because it’s a high stress environment to be involved in. I still feel pressure on matchdays but the climate you’re in, the way people are here, makes it very easy to unwind between training and games and refocus.
“I was expecting there to be a lot less in terms of materialistic stuff and food but more or less everything I’d want back home I can get. Although, actually, certain fruits are absurdly expensive. The majority of products are much cheaper than at home but strawberries are $12 plus for something that’s a couple of quid back home.”
The invitation to Siem Reap came from Alistair Heath, the former Leicester underage coach who was named the Tigers’ manager at the turn of the year. It was a straightforward decision, no second thoughts required.
Yet the forward’s route here has been anything but; a career of familiar promise derailed by serious injuries, several surgeries and more than one moment where it appeared that his playing days might have come to an end.
A highly-rated member of Leicester’s academy, Keaveny came through the same age group as Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall and Calvin Bassey and, at 16, he stepped into senior training on occasion during the 2016 title win.
Then he tore a cruciate ligament and severed his meniscus during a training session. The same day he was set to receive a call up to the Ireland Under-17 squad (three of his grandparents are from there, the other from Hungary – explaining his name and why he represented both as a youth) but the recovery was arduous.
Eighteen months later, strength and flexibility returned to his rehabilitated joint, he broke his shin within two weeks of returning to training. Another prolonged spell of inaction ensued and, inevitably, the end of his time at Leicester. More than three and a half years had passed since his last competitive game.
Keaveny is sanguine about it now, grateful to be given an opportunity to simply appreciate playing pain free. “With everything in life, some things don’t go your way but you have to keep going,” he adds. “I had some rough times but I’m enjoying my football again. There’s no point getting wound up over ifs, buts and maybes when I’m doing the best I can do right now. And I’m enjoying it.”
He was determined not to become another hard luck story that you can hear in any pub up and down the country. After being released in the summer of 2019, he moved to Cyprus for a moderately successful year at AEK Larnaca until the pandemic arrived, he returned home and – at the time – planned to retire from playing professionally.
There was some work with Leicester’s community foundation as a mentor, visiting schools and speaking to the next crop of hopefuls, and there was a flirtation with Derry City, whose sporting director at the time was former Celtic winger Paddy McCourt, a childhood hero of Keaveny, only for a move to collapse.
He spent time playing for Anstey Nomads, of the United Counties League Premier Division North. Then Heath’s invitation arrived, coaxing Keaveny back to the professional game.
Cyprus had put him in good stead for the move farther east, though he had expected the pace of the action to be slow because of the weather. The reality was very different. “It’s absurdly fast paced,” he says. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
All of the Tigers’ home games take place in mid-afternoon because their stadium does not have any floodlights. But that is not enough to slow the tempo in a league that is improving rapidly, in part thanks to significant investment from Japan.
“It’s not long ball but it’s end to end, fast paced,” Keaveny, who scored four goals in his first six games, adds. “That took some adjusting to. From what I understand, Cambodian football improves year on year. Even look at highlights from last year compared to this year on YouTube and you can see how much it is coming along.
“That reflects on the young local players. The ones in my team, seeing how much they’ve come on in six months, the rate of development is rapid. Having Alistair come from a club like Leicester is brilliant for both parties because he can see how much he can develop players and they reap the benefits of it.”
He is under contract until the end of the season and is not yet sure what will happen after. The Cambodian season ends in late October, or early December if they finish in the top four and progress to the finals round, meaning he will be at home to watch the World Cup before plotting what comes next.
In the long-term Keaveny still wants to get into coaching. As a Leicester and Celtic supporter it is impossible to resist drawing parallels with Brendan Rodgers, Martin O’Neill and Neil Lennon. “The obvious place to start would be in youth football [like Rodgers] but should an opportunity present itself, I’d love to grasp it with both hands. Over the years there have been a lot of Leicester and Celtic links. Brendan is the obvious one because he is the current manager but I’ve got a lot to learn from all of them.”
He already has his C Licence and was enrolled with the FAI’s next B Licence batch before moving to Cambodia. That has been deferred because he wanted to fully immerse himself in a “once in a lifetime experience.” For a player who could easily have walked away, right now, it seems inevitable that he will give his life’s services to the game.