The footballer, the Saudi prince and the proposition


Eamonn O'Keefe, Prince Abdullah bin Nasser and his wife in a London restaurant in 1976

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Eamonn O’Keefe

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Eamonn O’Keefe, Prince Abdullah bin Nasser and one of many prince’s wives on the Barracuda restaurant in London in 1976

The Grand Lodge, Cannes, 1976. On a scorching summer season night time, a wealthy man and a poor man stand in a elevate.

The wealthy man is Prince Abdullah bin Nasser: grandson of the founding father of Saudi Arabia; son of the ex-governor of Riyadh; wealthy past creativeness.

The poor man is Eamonn O’Keefe: footballer from Manchester; son of a print employee; proprietor of a terraced home in Oldham.

The boys are getting back from the on line casino. Abdullah has misplaced – he at all times misplaced – however regardless of. In case you’re a Saudi prince, just a few thousand {dollars} is lunch cash.

Eamonn does not gamble, however he has received. Two years earlier he was a reserve at Plymouth Argyle within the third tier of English soccer, looking for cash for the electrical energy meter.

Now, he is flying with the jet set: top notch planes, five-star motels, on a grand tour of Europe with one of many world’s richest households.

After which, within the elevate, Abdullah turns to Eamonn.

“I have been that means to let you know one thing,” says Abdullah. He places his hand on Eamonn’s shoulder. “I’m discovering that I like you.”

Eamonn can odor the prince’s breath; cigarettes and Johnnie Walker whisky. Nervously, he replies. “You imply – like a brother?”

“No,” says Abdullah. “Not like a brother.”

And that, on a scorching summer season night time in Cannes, is the place the difficulty started.

Eamonn (front left) pictured with the Manchester Boys team

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Eamonn O’Keefe

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Eamonn (entrance left) pictured with the Manchester Boys workforce. “I broke my leg 15 minutes after this was taken”

Eamonn, who’s now 65, grew up in post-war Britain, in a three-bedroom, semi-detached council home in Blackley, north Manchester. He had three brothers, two sisters, and a canine. Gran lived with them too. The place did all of them sleep?

“I am nonetheless baffled,” he says in a Manchester lodge, smiling on the reminiscence.

His dad, an Irishman, ran the St Clare Catholic males’s soccer workforce. His mum washed and ironed the package; Eamonn fetched the balls, then waxed them with dubbin earlier than the subsequent match.

Eamonn’s home was 30 yards from the park and he would play there, on the moist Manchester grass, till it acquired darkish. He was a high quality footballer: picked for Manchester Faculties and Manchester United’s youth workforce till, in a match in opposition to Altrincham, he broke his leg.

His dream – taking part in below the lights at Outdated Trafford – was over. As a substitute, he left faculty and labored as an errand runner for the Manchester Night Information.

When his leg was higher, he signed for Stalybridge Celtic, a semi-professional membership close by. His first supervisor was George Smith, an ex-player who was constructing a global teaching profession.

George – who had already labored in Iceland – left Stalybridge to handle Al-Hilal, one of many largest golf equipment in Saudi Arabia. Quickly afterwards, Eamonn left too, shifting 300 miles south to signal as an expert for Plymouth.

However he was depressing there – his wages barely coated the hire – and he lasted lower than a season. Then, after coming house, he obtained a letter.

The postmark was in Arabic.

Eamonn, who still lives in north-west England, revisiting one of his former streets in Manchester

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BBC / Jon Parker Lee

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Eamonn, who nonetheless lives in north-west England, revisiting one among his former streets in Manchester

The letter was from George Smith. He wished Eamonn to fly to Saudi for a month’s trial. If he impressed – and will deal with the warmth – he would change into Al-Hilal’s first European signing.

“It was November, I feel it was snowing [in Manchester],” says Eamonn. “I believed – ‘That is not a nasty shout.'”

But it surely wasn’t simply the climate that appealed. Eamonn was married with two kids: a spell in Saudi, he thought, would imply repaying the mortgage on his home prior to he thought.

He went to London and flew to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, by way of Cairo and Jeddah. On arrival in Jeddah, he knew he was in a special world. A Saudi official took his Sunday Specific, acquired a pair of scissors, and minimize out the photographs of ladies, leaving solely their heads.

It might have been worse, says Eamonn: the person subsequent to him had the Information of the World.

The tradition shocks saved coming. In Riyadh, George waited for Eamonn on the runway, sitting on the bonnet of an enormous Buick. At house, Eamonn drove a Morris Mini property.

In Manchester, fish and chips had been a deal with. On the five-star lodge, Eamonn signed without spending a dime foods and drinks.

Eamonn – a 22-year-old from a council home – was in an alternate universe. It wasn’t simply the warmth, or the palm timber or the shimmering desert that stretched to the horizon. It was the wealth.

The formation of Opec in 1960, and the oil disaster of 1973, meant the Saudi economic system was booming. Between 1970 and 1980, the nation’s economic system rocketed by greater than 3,000%. It was wallowing in oil, and severe males had severe cash. Eamonn was about to fulfill one among them.

Eamonn O'Keefe (second from right) playing for Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s

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Eamonn O’Keefe

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Eamonn O’Keefe (second proper) taking part in for Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia within the 1970s

Eamonn first noticed Prince Abdullah bin Nasser at Al-Hilal’s coaching floor in Riyadh.

Nonetheless on trial, he was taking part in a apply sport when Abdullah, the membership president, pulled up in a blue Buick. From the pitch, Eamonn noticed a pair of eyes peering by way of the rolled-down window.

“George stated: ‘See the automotive over there? That is my laddo – the president. He says sure or no [to the contract]. So sharpen up!'”

Right away, the ball got here in from the correct wing. Eamonn’s eyes lit up. He leapt, blond locks bouncing within the desert air, and headed the ball in the direction of objective.

“It bulleted into the highest nook,” he says, greater than 40 years later. “And I imply bulleted.”

5 minutes later, the ball got here in from the left wing. Once more, he leapt. Once more, the ball hit the highest nook. As they waited to re-start the sport, George whispered in Eamonn’s ear.

“No matter you had been pondering,” he stated, referring to Eamonn’s wage calls for, “add one other nought on.”

After the match, Eamonn, nonetheless in his sweat-drenched package, went to fulfill the prince. Abdullah requested if the lodge was OK; Eamonn stated it was. Abdullah requested if George was pleased; George stated he was.

“Then go to the lodge and write down your wants,” stated the prince.

Eamonn and George made a listing: cash, automotive, residence, flights to England and personal education for Eamonn’s two kids once they had been sufficiently old. On the subsequent coaching session, the blue Buick pulled up. George gave Abdullah the listing.

“Not an issue,” the prince stated.

At house, Eamonn earned £40 per week, plus £15 taking part in soccer. His new weekly wage was round £140 – equal to £1,100 at the moment, in response to Financial institution of England inflation knowledge. There have been no taxes, no payments and no worries.

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Together with his contract agreed, Eamonn flew again to Manchester, packed his baggage and returned to Riyadh together with his household. At first they lived in a lodge, and – as earlier than – paid for nothing.

“The invoice was staggering, however it was by no means questioned,” says Eamonn.

His spouse took a well-paid job on the First Nationwide Metropolis Financial institution, and, as Al-Hilal educated solely twice per week, Eamonn handed his time by the pool, taking care of the youngsters, speaking soccer with George. They had been blissful days within the desert. “I can nonetheless see the children with the floats on,” he says.

From the beginning, Abdullah favored Eamonn. He purchased him a automotive – “a silver Pontiac Ventura, bonnet like a runway” – and sometimes invited him over for tea. They watched soccer on an enormous display (a luxurious in 1976) or talked to Abdullah’s brothers.

It was an unlikely set-up – a blond-haired boy from England welcomed into the Saudi royal courtroom – however Eamonn loved it. He was younger and assured, and located the Saudis surprisingly down-to-earth and type. In some methods, it was like Manchester – besides right here, his associates ran the nation.

On the pitch, issues additionally went nicely. Eamonn favored his team-mates, and the workforce reached the semi-final of the King’s Cup (earlier than dropping on penalties to rivals Al-Nassr). Saudi Arabia wasn’t excellent – Eamonn as soon as drove right into a sq. the place a public flogging was happening, together with his kids within the again seat – however life was good.

When the season ended, the O’Keefes returned to England for a vacation. Earlier than they left, Abdullah requested for Eamonn’s house telephone quantity.

“I am additionally planning a visit to England,” stated the prince. “We should always meet up.”

Eamonn pictured with Al Hilal

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Eamonn O’Keefe

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Eamonn was the primary European skilled to play within the Saudi league

After three weeks in England, Abdullah phoned Eamonn’s mom’s home, the place the O’Keefes had been staying. Eamonn was out so his mom took the decision.

“What’s-he-called has been on the telephone,” she advised her son. “That prince fella.”

Eamonn referred to as Abdullah again – reverse prices – on the Carlton Tower, a lodge close to Harrods in London. Two days later he was on a prepare to Euston. A chauffeur met him on the station.

Within the capital, Eamonn was once more driving on a merry-go-round of Saudi cash. He watched because the prince purchased six Cecil Gee fits and puzzled, within the Grosvenor Lodge, why a person with white gloves stood close to the urinals. (“I actually thought – he does not maintain it for you, does he?”).

When one among Abdullah’s assistants wanted new footwear, Eamonn was given £200 and despatched to purchase a pair. He gave again £150 and went to Marks & Spencer.

“Totally different world,” says Eamonn.

Quickly afterwards, the identical assistant returned to Riyadh, so Abdullah requested Eamonn if he wished to take his place on the tour. It was Paris subsequent, adopted by Cannes, Rome, Cairo and again to Saudi. Abdullah’s spouse wished to purchase furnishings; the prince deliberate to roll the cube at Europe’s casinos.

His spouse and kids had been going to Wales together with his mother-in-law, so Eamonn agreed. Every week later, he was in a limousine to Heathrow, prepared for his grand tour with “Prince What’s-He-Known as”.

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By now, the Saudi prince and the boy from Blackley had been associates. Eamonn and Abdullah: the Unlikely Lads.

“We acquired on nice, we had been laughing on a regular basis,” says Eamonn. “I feel he was uninterested in all these [other] fellas sucking as much as him.”

At Charles de Gaulle airport, the Saudi ambassador met the prince and his social gathering. “Flags on the automotive, all that,” says Eamonn.

Whereas Abdullah held conferences, he gave Eamonn a case to take care of. Eamonn acquired espresso and a bar of chocolate, waited within the VIP space, and was ultimately taken to Paris alone, case in tow.

An hour later, the telephone rang in his lodge room. It was Abdullah, asking for the case, so Eamonn went downstairs to the prince’s suite. The prince flipped the locks and confirmed Eamonn what he’d been carrying: 1000’s upon 1000’s of French francs.

“A bit such as you see on telly, when there is no room for the rest,” says Eamonn. “I left it on the seat after I acquired espresso on the airport – are you able to think about if I would misplaced it?”

That night time, Eamonn dined in a glass-bottomed boat on the Seine, earlier than admiring town from his lodge balcony. He fell asleep a cheerful man. However his candy desires did not final.

Two days later, they flew to Cannes, the place they went to the on line casino and rode in the identical elevate.

Eamonn with his car in the Saudi desert

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Eamonn O’Keefe

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Eamonn together with his automotive within the Saudi desert

After Abdullah made his transfer, the elevate immediately felt smaller, says Eamonn.

The prince had made his emotions clear, so Eamonn did too. He wasn’t homosexual. He wasn’t eager about a relationship. He wished to be a footballer, and nothing else.

“It was in all probability 15 seconds [until the lift doors opened],” says Eamonn. “But it surely felt like a month. There was this horrible coldness.”

At that second, the grand tour was over. The environment had modified, and so had the itinerary. As a substitute of three nights in Rome, they’d one; as a substitute of stopping in Cairo, they went straight to Riyadh.

“It was like ice,” remembers Eamonn.

Eamonn was embarrassed, however he wasn’t nervous. Within the elevate, Abdullah advised him their relationship would return to “president and participant”, and Eamonn believed him.

“I used to be not pondering for a minute I used to be in any hazard,” he says. “I believed – I’ve acquired my contract, we’ll get again to regular.”

After getting again to Riyadh, that modified. Homosexuality was – and nonetheless is – unlawful in Saudi Arabia, and the royal household had been – and nonetheless are – all-powerful. Eamonn wasn’t going to disclose Abdullah’s secret – however what if Abdullah wished to use some strain?

Eamonn felt nervous. Claustrophobic. Paranoid, maybe. He went to inform George what had occurred, to hunt reassurance. He did not get it.

“They don’t seem to be going to depart it at that, you fool,” stated George.

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George Smith is 84 now; nonetheless watching soccer and nonetheless bursting with tales from a protracted teaching profession. Does he bear in mind Eamonn? “Oh sure,” he says on the telephone from Rochdale. “I made him a professional.”

George’s tales bounce from Saudi to Iceland, by way of Oman and Bahrain. However Eamonn stands out. He favored him, however even earlier than their grand tour he was nervous. Eamonn spent an excessive amount of time with Abdullah, he thought – and Abdullah spent an excessive amount of cash on Eamonn.

“I believed they had been too shut, and the president [Abdullah] knew it,” he says. “He knew I used to be nervous about it.”

When George heard about Cannes, he advised Eamonn to depart Saudi for his personal security. “He was at risk,” he says. “Something might have occurred.”

Corresponding to?

“God is aware of. An accident of some kind. He was interfering with royalty [Abdullah] – you possibly can’t do it.”

Eamonn went chilly. He knew a secret about some of the highly effective males within the nation, and that – he thought – put him at risk. He spent the night time on George’s couch, however handed most of it staring on the ceiling. He was 22 years previous, removed from house, and scared. His household had been in England, and he could not allow them to return to Riyadh.

However there was an issue.

To depart the nation, his boss needed to signal his exit visa – and his boss was Prince Abdullah. To Eamonn, Saudi at all times felt gilded. Now, it felt like a gilded cage.

Jimmy Hill, pictured on the Parkinson show in 1976, was involved in releasing Eamonn from his Saudi contract

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Jimmy Hill, pictured on the Parkinson present in 1976, was concerned in releasing Eamonn from his Saudi contract

The subsequent morning, Eamonn determined to lie.

He would inform Abdullah that his father was sick, and he wanted to see him in England. He went to Abdullah’s mansion, advised his story and waited for a response. The prince listened however made no determination. As a substitute, he made him sweat. They might focus on it tomorrow, Abdullah stated.

It was one other lengthy night time. The five-star lodge in Paris, when he’d slept and not using a care on the earth, appeared a very long time in the past.

The subsequent day, Eamonn went to the soccer membership to fulfill Abdullah. The prince closed the door and advised his employees to not disturb them. Eamonn remembers the prince sitting on the head of a giant desk.

“Is that this due to France?” the prince requested. “I do not consider you’ll return.”

As Eamonn tried to influence Abdullah, the prince reached for a pen and paper. Slowly, Eamonn says, he began writing in Arabic. It was a deal. Eamonn might go house, however just for per week.

All he needed to do was signal.

Eamonn could not learn Arabic. For all he knew, he was signing his life away. So he could not signal it.

However he could not rip it up, both. If he did, the prince would by no means let him go. He thought, shortly, and selected what he now calls “the Bluff of the Yr”.

“You need me to signal this?” requested Eamonn. “I’ve to belief this contract in Arabic – however you do not belief me again? OK, not an issue.”

Eamonn took the pen and went to signal. On the final second, Eamonn says, Abdullah snatched the paper, ripped it up, and threw it within the bin.

“I’ll prepare a flight for you,” he stated, reluctantly.

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The subsequent day, Eamonn went to the airport. He took solely per week’s garments, so Abdullah did not suppose he was leaving for good. Was he nonetheless scared?

“Completely,” says Eamonn. “As a result of if he [Abdullah] says you are not getting on the aircraft, you are not getting on it. Even when the aircraft went up, I used to be nervous.”

After he landed in London, he punched the seat in entrance with pleasure. However his issues weren’t over. To renew his profession in England, he wanted to register with the Soccer Affiliation. To register with the Soccer Affiliation, he wanted clearance from Saudi Arabia.

After chatting with the FA, Eamonn obtained a fax from Riyadh. It demanded:

-9,000 Saudi riyals for breaking the contract (round £1,200 then, equal to £8,000 at the moment)

-1,500 riyals for repairing the air-con at his residence

-£300 (in sterling) to repay a mortgage from Abdullah

-Minus one month’s wage nonetheless owed to Eamonn

Eamonn might settle for factors one and 4. The others, he felt, had been revenge by Abdullah. The air-con wasn’t damaged, he says, and he by no means borrowed a penny from the prince.

Eamonn spoke to the FA and, on 22 November 1976, obtained a telegram from London. “Please ring – reverse prices – pressing,” it stated. It was signed by the brand new head of Saudi soccer, Jimmy Hill.

Jimmy Hill's telegram to Eamonn

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Eamonn O’Keefe

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Jimmy Hill’s telegram to Eamonn

In 1976, Jimmy Hill was some of the well-known males in English soccer. In 1961, as head of the gamers’ union, he had abolished the utmost wage; by the 1970s, he was presenter of the BBC’s primetime soccer present, Match of the Day.

The contract in Saudi was price £25m. How a lot went to him and his son Duncan (additionally employed in Saudi) is unknown, however it was an excessive amount of to be blown by a boy from Blackley.

As requested, Eamonn phoned Hill. Eamonn’s dad – a commerce unionist – stated he was pleased to inform Fifa, and the world, what occurred in Cannes. Two weeks later, a gathering was organized in Altrincham between a mutual buddy of George and Eamonn’s, a consultant from Al-Hilal, and Eamonn.

“What do you suppose would have occurred in the event you stayed?” requested the person from Al-Hilal, sarcastically.

“When it is your loved ones, you possibly can’t gamble,” Eamonn replied, lethal severe.

After a heated dialogue, the lads shook palms. Every week later, the Saudis despatched Eamonn’s launch, and he was free to play in England. The Saudi journey was over. Lastly, he was off the merry-go-round.

Teamsheet from England-Ireland game in 1985

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Eamonn rebuilt his profession to the extent that he was picked to play for the Republic of Eire in opposition to England at Wembley (quantity 9 within the Irish facet)

When he acquired again to England, Eamonn was broke.

He could not get his wages – they had been in a Saudi account – so he needed to promote his home in Oldham. He returned to work on the Manchester Night Information, and, ultimately, began taking part in for semi-professional facet Mossley.

After the sunshine and swimming swimming pools of Saudi, the wind and rain of the Northern Premier League appeared like a step down. However Eamonn cherished it.

In 1979, Mossley received the league and cup double and Eamonn moved to Everton, within the prime tier of English soccer, for £25,000. He performed 40 occasions within the First Division earlier than shifting to Wigan Athletic. He additionally performed 5 occasions for the Irish Republic – together with, in 1985, in opposition to England at Wembley.

The final time he had been there, in 1968, he was a wide-eyed fan watching Manchester United beat Benfica within the European Cup closing. Now, individuals had been paying to observe him. It’s one among many explanation why he is not bitter about Saudi, Abdullah or that scorching summer season night time in Cannes.

“If it [the incident in the lift] hadn’t occurred, I’d have stayed in Saudi,” he says. “I’d by no means have performed for Everton, would possibly by no means have performed for Eire.”

Eamonn is now retired near Manchester, but still works part-time for Everton FC

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BBC / Jon Parker Lee

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Eamonn is now retired close to Manchester, however nonetheless works part-time for Everton FC

Abdullah remained as president of Al-Hilal till 1981, and saved spending. After Eamonn, his subsequent signing was Rivellino, the Brazilian World Cup winner. The membership received the brand new Jimmy Hill-organised league in 1977 and 1979, and are actually one of many largest golf equipment in Asia.

Other than his love of soccer, not a lot is thought concerning the prince. The Saudi authorities’s Middle for Worldwide Communication and Al-Hilal Soccer Membership each declined to touch upon Eamonn’s story, and there was little written concerning the prince. He was, in any case, one among a whole lot.

Abdullah’s grandfather – Ibn Saud, the founding father of the nation – had 45 sons. Of these, 36 had kids of their very own, one among whom was Abdullah.

As one Saudi skilled advised the BBC: “These guys lead very sheltered lives, in a society which has the alternative of an enquiring press.”

The Saudi authorities would not say whether or not Abdullah was alive, however the Al Hilal web site suggests he’s lifeless. A Center East journalist advised the BBC he handed away in 2007, one other thought it is perhaps 2006.

In keeping with Arabic Wikipedia – the entry runs to lower than 400 phrases – Abdullah had three wives and 7 kids. The final time Eamonn noticed him was the “Bluff of the Yr” in Riyadh.

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After managing Cork Metropolis in Eire, Eamonn labored for the council in Cheshire. He moved to Portugal however is now retired close to Manchester. He was handled for most cancers in 2017 with radiotherapy and chemotherapy, and is making a gradual restoration.

“Touching wooden and sending up a fast prayer, it is all wanting good now,” he says.

He nonetheless works on match days within the hospitality suites at Everton, sharing tales from his profession. For years, he did not speak about Saudi: he did not need to relive the trauma, or open himself to homophobic taunts. After coming house, he even turned down a cheque from a tabloid reporter.

However now, greater than 40 years on, he’s pleased to share all. Greater than something, he needs his Saudi team-mates to know why he left.

“I cherished my time in Saudi – how are you going to not love residing like that?” he says. “I cherished my team-mates, the amenities had been nice, the entire set-up was incredible. We had been pleased there.”

Eight years in the past Eamonn wrote an autobiography. Its title completely captures his life, from the inexperienced grass of St Clare’s Catholic membership to his red-hot Saudi journey.

I Solely Wished To Play Soccer.

Eamonn O'Keefe

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BBC / Jon Parker Lee

Photographer: Jon Parker Lee



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