Lining up next to the garlanded and feted John Charles in the centre of the All-time Wales defence, one might think that Fred Keenor would be a touch overshadowed. Not only was Charles a multiple title-winner, but he was one of the most technically gifted players of his (or arguably any) generation. Whereas Keenor was noted even by his own team-mates as both unreliable in possession and unable to shoot. Still, his full name appears to be “tough-tackling Fred Keenor”, and it doesn’t appear to be possible to get through a sentence about the man without “committed”, “dedicated”, or “inspirational” rearing their intangible heads.
Like so many of his generation, his football career was first interrupted, then nearly ended, by the First World War. On July 16, 1916, two weeks into the Battle of the Somme, he sustained multiple shrapnel wounds, and was invalided to Dublin for months of convalescence. But he recovered, and joined his hometown Cardiff City, who were playing at that time in the Southern League. Election to the Second Division was immediately followed by promotion to the First, and throughout the 1920s Cardiff, under Keenor’s captaincy, established themselves as one of the strongest sides in the league. Indeed, in 1923/24, they finished runners-up to Huddersfield Town thanks to an goal average differential of 0.024.
They also acquired a redoubtable Cup reputation, reaching the semi-finals in 1921, then going one better and losing in the 1925 final. Following the 1-0 defeat to Sheffield United, Keenor promised that “one day soon our followers can be sure that Cardiff City will bring that cup to Wales”. And he was right. In 1927, Keenor captained Cardiff to a 1-0 victory against English aristocrats Arsenal, the first and only time the FA Cup has been taken beyond England’s borders.
Keenor played for Wales in the first ever schoolboy international, a 3-1 loss to England in 1907, but had to wait for his full debut until 1920. Playing at right-half in one of the unofficial Victory Internationals, he impressed in a 2-1 victory over Wales’ imperial overlords, the first such win for 37 years. He went on to win Home Championships in 1920, 1924 and 1928, but perhaps his finest hour in a red shirt came on 25 October 1930.
The refusal of the English League to release their Welsh professionals for a fixture against Scotland meant that Keenor travelled to face a full-strength Scotland team as captain – and only established international – of a team of semi-professionals and amateurs drawn from such footballing powerhouses as Llanelli Town, Cardiff Corinthians, and Newport County. Hope did not abound, and the Wrexham Advertiser meekly reported that “the only Welsh hope was that the Scots would be merciful”. But Keenor and the Ten Unknowns first stunned Ibrox by taking a sixth-minute lead, then delighted a nation by managing to hold out for a 1-1 draw. In the words of the Mirror, “Wales Deserved More!”
Let’s give the last word to Keenor himself, who, speaking after the 1927 Cup final, managed to sum up the curious blend of pride and insecurity that defines Welsh football: “For the honour of Wales,” he said, “and to show some of the fashionable clubs that we can play the game as well as them”.
Give ’em hell, Fred.