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To win at all costs now the mantra for Mayo

LEE KEEGAN has talked to the press for just shy of 15 minutes. You trawl through the tape afterwards and, plucking out a selection of buzz phrases, spy a common theme.

"Win at all costs" ... "winning ugly" ... "able to give and get, able to keep going" ... "pride in our tackling" ... "no point resting on laurels" ... and finally, apropos Kerry, "just another team standing in our way."

None of the above phrases, in isolation, constitute a trade secret carelessly revealed by James Horan's wing-back dynamo. But the overall impression is striking: Mayo, the most notorious 'close but no cigar' case study in northern hemisphere sport, are pissed off with second place and will do anything to become top dogs this season.

For Keegan, that meant dragging down Paul Kerrigan in the dying embers of their recent quarter-final against Cork, taking his chances with a black card that never came. Why? Because Mayo had a two-point lead to protect.

And this Sunday, it will mean treating Kerry not as some terrifying nemesis but as "just another team" that must be put to the sword in pursuit of Sam Maguire.

CRUSHING

The most famous GAA famine of them has now lasted 63 years, but it's both unfair and inaccurate to lumber this crushing history on the shoulders of the current group. Most of them have been around for the four years of Horan's tenure, a period that has seen Mayo dominate Connacht like no time before since the glory days (their last four-in-a-row was completed in '51) while toppling three All-Ireland holders (Cork in 2011, Dublin in '12, Donegal last year), reaching four semi-finals and two finals - rising to three if they should win this weekend.

Yet even this recent history is framed by their September record; the failure to finish the job against Donegal in 2012 and Dublin last season.

HORROR

This weekend, the 'history' being talked about is Mayo's championship record against Kerry - five defeats on the spin. These include three deflating All-Ireland finals, irrelevant to the current squad with the exception of Alan Dillon and Andy Moran who were involved in the horror shows of '04 and '06. There is one valid reference point, the 2011 semi-final, when Mayo kept in touch for 40-odd minutes before falling away badly to lose by nine points.

"I wouldn't be one to look back on the history of it all, that's beyond us," Keegan insists. "Process is a huge thing for us. We are taking it game by game ... we just see Kerry as another opposition we have to take down, and they are in our way to get to another final.

"If we don't get a 70-minute performance against Kerry, they'll punish us badly which is the key factor," he warns.

But what about all this talk of previous (mostly pulverising) encounters with the Kingdom?

"We just block it out as best we can, we try not to get involved in that conversation," he explains. "That's for the old dogs talking. We weren't in that era, thankfully, so we can only worry about what's going on in front of us now.

"We'll let the press or supporters or whoever worry about that. We'll just worry about the job we have at hand ... just block out all the crap talk we can!"

HOTBED

Maybe it helps when you hail from Westport, which isn't your typical Mayo GAA hotbed. Keegan was actually born in Cavan before moving west when he was nine. For a while, pursuing the oval ball appeared a more likely career path.

"I was more of a rugby and soccer head," he recalls, "and I suppose I got the ultimatum when I was in the under-21s from Pat Holmes, that it was either this or the other. I was kind of put in a position where I had to pick, so I decided to give Gaelic a go and see how it went."

He hasn't looked back since. Back in 2011, he was the rookie half-back busting a gut to establish his credentials, coming off the bench to kick an eye-catching late point in their defeat to Kerry. Ever since, the points have flowed (1-17 in 17 SFC appearances) but his dual-function versatility has been epitomised by his last two outings.

Against Galway he kept ghosting deep into enemy terrain, scoring 1-1 (it could have been 2-0) while being denied strong penalty claims and selflessly teeing up Barry Moran for another goal.

CURBED

Yet against Cork, his natural attacking instincts were curbed for the collective cause: he had marked Kerrigan several times previously and was deemed the best man to stifle the Nemo flyer, who had punched countless holes in Sligo's rearguard a week earlier.

Even aside from that cynical late drag-down ("You do what you have to do for the team"), the ploy worked: Kerrigan was kept scoreless while his man-marker landed what would prove the winning point on one of his rare attacking excursions.

The young sub of 2011 would finish the next two years as an All Star; on current form he is well placed to make that a hat-trick. Not bad for a player who only turns 25 in October.

Still, individual baubles will count for little if Mayo can't finally land the big one. The worry, this summer, is that they enter the last-four arena playing with less conviction than this time 12 months ago ... and all the while, Dublin appear ever stronger.

Yet, comparing the mood now to last August, Keegan declares: "I think we're happier, to be honest. I think we're in a very good place at the moment. I suppose it was always going to be hard to top expectations after the Donegal (quarter-final) last year; I think we really hit the heights then.

"We're stuttering a small bit," he adds, "but at the same time we've loads to work on and we're winning, that's the main thing. We're winning games, we're winning them ugly, so when we do peak I expect us to have a big one."

CONFIDENT

Moreover, he reckons they'll need a big one for the "do-or-die" collision with Kerry while stressing that Mayo have come a long way since the 2011 semi-final.

"It's kind of hard to remember, I was only a sub that day," he reflects. "We probably looked at Kerry as a force that year and a team we were trying to emulate as such - they have been the standard-bearers for years and were probably the favourites for the All-Ireland when they lost to Dublin (that year).

"Kerry were a team we looked up to for years in the past but, if you look at the last few years, we have grown and there is massive game-time experience there.

"We do have a big belief factor in us," he reiterates. "We've lost the last two All-Irelands, it's not easy, but we have come back again stronger. It shows the belief in the camp and we are all pulling in the right direction."

Different year; same tantalising target. Destination Sam.


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