Sunday 20 January 2019

'Everybody in the country will take some belief from this' -Mullinalaghta midfielder John Keegan

Midfielder enjoying the moment as fairytale becomes reality for Mullinalaghta giantkillers

John Keegan celebrates with Mullinalaghta supporters after Sunday’s Leinster club final win. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
John Keegan celebrates with Mullinalaghta supporters after Sunday’s Leinster club final win. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

When John Keegan arrived home in the early hours of yesterday morning, he was greeted by the sight of his parents, John Senior and Pauline, watching back Mullinalaghta's historic Leinster Club SFC triumph.

They, much like everyone else, had to ensure that they weren't part of a dream which would eventually fade as the sun rose but picture evidence proved that this seismic victory was as real and as raw as it gets.

It struck a chord with anyone who has even a fleeting interest in sport, the minnows with a population of 440 taking out the Dublin Goliaths Kilmacud Crokes to reward a tight-knit community at the heart of everything which the GAA should embody.

Mullinalaghta St Columba's endured 66 years of heartbreak before finally getting their hands on Longford SFC honours for the third time in 2016 and two years later - and with a three-in-a-row to their name - they stand at the provincial pinnacle.

Keegan's mother was preparing sandwiches for their team meeting on Saturday night and "felt like it was Christmas Eve preparing the turkey". Little did she know a Christmas miracle would await in O'Connor Park.

Stacked

Keegan signs autographs for Shauna McGivney and Maria McHale at St Columba’s National School yesterday. Photo: Colin O'Riordan/Sportsfile
Keegan signs autographs for Shauna McGivney and Maria McHale at St Columba’s National School yesterday. Photo: Colin O'Riordan/Sportsfile

Keegan is still trying to get his head around it as every news agency in the country is making contact with them, Marty Morrissey is in the village while they are wanted on 'The Late Late Show' this Friday night.

Hard to believe for a half-parish but like many others toiling far away from the bright lights, they kept their shoulder to the wheel and refused to yield in hard times despite the odds being stacked against them.

In victory, they retain the same humility which took them to the summit and after their team meal - where they are joined by "the Mammies that make the sandwiches week in week out for us" - they share a special moment at the village's cemetery.

"There's a candle there for everybody to bring to their own family grave. It's just to respect and appreciate the team of '48 and '50 that went before us, they're appreciated as much now as they were back then," midfielder Keegan says.

"It's nice for everyone to go to their own family grave and say a prayer just before the hype and the madness at the crossroads, it's nice to take that quiet moment as a group. In generations to come, maybe they'll stop off and talk about us."

Keegan, a consultant with Ernst and Young in Dublin, is one of many Mullinalaghta players who regularly make the trip home from locations like Limerick and Galway while corner-back Conan Brady has been commuting from Leeds at every possible opportunity for the past eight years.

It's not easy, particularly in Brady's case, but that's the lure of the GAA and what it means to be part of a club and a team with Keegan thankful to be bearing the fruits of their labour.

"It's easy for me to say it this morning that those sacrifices are worthwhile and well justified but there's lots of lads making that trek home and maybe not getting that success that we have," the 27-year-old says.

"It's difficult to justify but if you can take anything from Sunday and get some motivation to go at it again and put the shoulder to the wheel, maybe next year will be your year.

"You can make these sacrifices year in, year out and a lot of the time, it's false love in small counties like Longford, a lot of them go unrewarded but thankfully the boys are reaping those rewards at the minute."

What they have achieved under Cavan boss Mickey Graham is extraordinary for a club of their size considering they play underage with Abbeylara - as Northern Gaels with whom many of the current senior squad won a Division 4 Féile title in 2010 - and have beaten their local rivals in the past three deciders.

Longford club rivalries were put aside on Sunday for the greater good with Keegan receiving best wishes and congratulations from all over the county and he hopes that they have provided inspiration for others who are fighting an uphill battle.

"Everybody around the country will take some belief from this. Maybe other clubs will look around now and say, 'Look at what Mullinalaghta are after doing, there's only 400 people there so why can't we do it?' We would have listened to the stories of Slaughtneil, they are only a half-parish as well and we would have taken inspiration from them."

Keegan, whose father is club chairman, intends to soak in their exploits despite nursing "an ankle swelled up like a balloon" for they never know when, or if, something of this magnitude will happen again.

"We always said we just wanted to win one Longford senior championship, that's all we ever wanted. We did the double and then three in a row and then waking up this morning as the best in Leinster, it's really fairytale stuff," he says in amazement.

"These days don't come around too often so anything that happens absolutely enjoy them as best as you possibly can because look it, we mightn't win Longford next year. Enjoy the fairytale while it lasts."

Keegan had no idea who they would play in the All-Ireland club semi-final before Sunday's game - Kerry and Munster kingpins Dr Crokes - but after slaying one giant, who knows what lies ahead. The miracle of Mullinalaghta may yet have a sequel.

Irish Independent

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