Setting the standard in the quest to end Mayo's drought
Friday profile: Lee Keegan - All Star wing-back 'poetry in motion' going forward and ferocious in defence
Six weeks after their 2011 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry, the Mayo squad met in the Breaffy Woods hotel for a fitness and skills test. It was the first time the players encountered new trainer Cian O'Neill, but the overall testing procedures were demanding and the results were revealing.
Lee Keegan had been a member of the squad for a couple of seasons, but had yet to establish himself on the team. He was one of the last players tested that day and just before he went through the process, Keegan enquired as to which players had been setting the standard and what were their results. By the end of the day, Keegan was the benchmark. The standard. He has been the standard ever since.
Keegan was making a similar statement to the one he had already made six weeks earlier when coming on as a late substitute against Kerry. The game was effectively over by then but Keegan saw it as an opportunity to make his mark. His late booming point was almost a calling card, like firing a flare in the sky to alert his potential.
In the meantime, Keegan has become more than just the standard within Mayo. One of the top wing-backs in the country, playing with one of the top teams, privately admitted recently that Keegan was the standard he was still aspiring to.
He showed why in the Connacht final. Keegan scored one goal, but he could have had four. He should have had a penalty, he blasted another shot off the crossbar and he could have pulled the trigger but elected instead to set up Barry Moran for a goal. And all the while he had been on man-marking duty on Galway's young hotshot Shane Walsh.
In any case, Keegan maintained his hugely impressive scoring rate for a defender. Since the beginning of last year's championship, he has scored from play in 14 of Mayo's last 17 league and championship matches, accumulating a total of 2-18. He has now scored 1-16 in 16 championship games and really illustrated his scoring class in last year's All-Ireland final when hitting two points, one off his left foot and one off his right.
Consistency has been Keegan's hallmark. Shortlisted for Footballer of the Year last season, he was one of the outstanding players in this year's league until he hit a slight dip in form in the middle of April. Enda Lynn only scored one point off him in the league semi-final, but he had Keegan on the back foot throughout.
His performance against Roscommon in the Connacht semi-final was average by Keegan's standards, but he had been struck down by a virus and been busy at work. Horan excused him for a couple of sessions afterwards and Keegan was back leaving scorch-marks all over the field again by the Connacht final.
Keegan is now effectively acknowledged as football's new Tomás ó Sé. An excellent footballer, athletic, a brilliant score-taker, his attacking play often disguises the fact that he is a fine defender and a superb tackler.
"Without doubt, he is now one of the best three defenders in the game," says former Mayo player David Brady. "He is poetry in motion with a ball, but the modern game really suits his style. He is as intelligent a defender as Mayo have ever had.
"He can do everything, but he never gets the credit he deserves for the amount of ball he cuts out and the huge space he covers. His awareness puts him ahead of the pack."
More than anything, Keegan has a brilliant mentality and he loves the big stage. He has a voracious appetite for training and hard work and has developed into one of the team's leaders. One of the current vice-captains, he will never be a narrator to the group in the same vein as Andy Moran, but he has a massive standing within the panel because he always backs up what he says.
Kenneth Mortimer is the only other Mayo defender to have won consecutive All Stars at such a young age. Keegan's status is growing with each season, but his journey has been even more impressive given his starting point. He grew up in Cavan until he was nine and played rugby as a teenager in tandem with football in Westport. He missed out on the Mayo minors, but made Connacht rugby squads.
Pat Holmes had coached Keegan with the Westport U-21s and drafted him onto the Mayo U-21 squad when he was 20. "He had great running ability, burning pace and a great attitude, but the first thing I noticed was his natural physicality," says Holmes. "I remember having a discussion with Lee at that time and saying that if he really concentrated on football, he had the potential to play at the very highest level."
Keegan played centre-back for the U-21s for two years before John O'Mahony invited him onto the senior panel in 2010. His odyssey ever since has almost reflected Mayo under Horan. Keegan is a gifted, expansive, yet pragmatic player, someone who quickly overcomes setbacks and refocuses on the next goal. And he has a real hard edge.
Before the 2012 All-Ireland final, Paul Galvin said in an interview that "Mayo had become a different animal." Galvin was more than likely using Keegan as a key reference point, having engaged in a real battle with him in that year's league semi-final.
When Keegan nailed Mark McHugh with a hit in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final, he appeared to wink to a team-mate afterwards, which annoyed some of the Donegal players. Yet Keegan has a lazy eye, a quirk which often forces him to wink involuntarily.
Behind the iron exterior is a velvet and silken interior – honest, friendly, and pleasant. Widely known by his nickname 'Leroy,' one team-mate says Keegan has "a lovely confidence about himself" and he "always has a smile on his face."
Brady had never met Keegan until the night of last year's All-Ireland hurling final replay. Brady was in a pub in Dublin when Keegan approached him.
"'David, Lee Keegan, nice to meet you,'" Brady says now about the introduction. "I said, 'Jeez, Lee, I'm the one who should be introducing myself to you'. It said a lot about him. He has no airs or graces and is a really nice and down-to-earth fella."
Holmes describes him in the same vein: "He is the most affable guy you could ever come across. He is real placid, engaging fella, someone with absolutely no ego. He is the same sound guy now that he was when I first got to know him in Westport – grounded and low-profile.
"At times, it can be hard to believe that this fella with such a soft and nice character can be transformed on the pitch into such an intimidating player who plays with massive intensity."
Intensity and desire and winning with this Mayo team define everything about Keegan. Ten minutes into the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, he suffered a hand injury, where one of his finger bones was left jutting out of its socket. After the finger was wrenched back into place, he asked to be brought back to Croke Park.
A garda car edged its way through the crowd after the game at the top of Jones's Road until Keegan hopped out to search for the team bus. He turned his jersey inside out and ran through the throngs with his togs and socks still on.
The story is a neat metaphor for how Keegan has been running and chasing down that elusive All-Ireland with this Mayo team ever since.
"He is massively important to Mayo now," says Holmes. "What he has achieved at his age is fantastic. Lee is now widely acknowledged as one of the best defenders in the game and he is still only 24. If he can maintain that consistency, how good can he become? The sky is the limit for him."
When Keegan was once asked in a 10-question interview profile to name his all-time sporting hero, he picked two – Richie McCaw and Andy Murray. He didn't mention either player's huge talent, speaking instead about McCaw's "ability to never give up" and Murray's "sheer persistence in reaching the top."
He could well have speaking about himself.