Ex-Town teen to face Chelsea in FA Cup

SUFFOLK teenager Stuart O'Keefe's hopes of playing for Ipswich may have been dashed, but he is now set to be on Southend's bench against Chelsea in the FA Cup.

Stuart Watson

SUFFOLK teenager Stuart O'Keefe's hopes of playing for Ipswich may have been dashed, but he is now set to be on Southend's bench against Chelsea in the FA Cup.

The 17-year-old midfielder is due to complete a dramatic upturn in his fortunes when the Shrimpers play at Stamford Bridge in third round next month.

O'Keefe, who went to the same Suffolk school as England and West Ham's Matthew Upson, was a junior player at Ipswich since the age of 10. However, at the end of the 2006/07 season Town decided against offering him scholarship terms.

But the former Hartismere High School pupil never gave up on his footballing dream and now, less than two years later, he has a squad number at Southend and is on the verge of making the League One club's first team.

O'Keefe made his professional debut when he came on for the final minutes of Southend's FA Cup second round replay over Telford last month. He looks likely to make the Essex side's seven-man bench for the away trip to Champions League finalists Chelsea in the next round.

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He said: “It was disappointing to be released by Ipswich, especially since I had been there from such a young age, but I always kept believing in myself. At the end of the day that was Ipswich's opinion, but I knew that I had to keep believing that I was good enough.

“I never expected to be involved with the first team at Southend this quickly. It would be great to be on the bench for the Chelsea game and even better to maybe get a few minutes on the pitch.”

Following his release from Town, O'Keefe - whose family live in the north Suffolk village of Gislingham near Diss - set about finding himself a new club.

After spending over a month at Aston Villa the Premier League club showed some initial interest, however the teenager, who was still studying for his GCSEs at the time, couldn't continue travelling to the Midlands while they made up their minds.

Further praise followed from Championship side Nottingham Forest after he played and scored a goal for them during a trial, but again the club were non-committal over a firm offer.

But if the above clubs took their time over making a decision on O'Keefe the opposite was true at Southend as just days after walking through the doors of the Essex club last November he had been snapped up on a two-year scholarship.

In his first season at the club O'Keefe played every game of Southend's historic run to the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup and played a handful of games for the reserve team.

And at the start of this campaign the midfielder was shocked to learn that he was to be given a squad number (30) and would be involved with virtually all of Southend's first team pre-season friendlies.

Now splitting his time between first team, reserves and youth team, O'Keefe said: “I've just got to keep performing in the reserves and continually knock on the door. The feedback from the manager (Steve Tilson) and Brushy (reserve team manager Paul Brush) has been good and they have told me to just keep working hard.”