Wednesday 13 November 2019

'If Sergio Garcia can do it, so can we' - Incredibly honest Lee Keegan lays blame for final failures at Mayo's own door

Mayo footballer Lee Keegan is pictured at the launch of the Kellogg’s GAA Cúl Camps in Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo footballer Lee Keegan is pictured at the launch of the Kellogg’s GAA Cúl Camps in Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

Lee Keegan is such a hero in Westport that his full name (and preferred title), Leeroy, has become the most used Confirmation name in the town.

Parents of aspiring young footballers keep coming up to him asking his permission. It's not the most common request, but as with everything, the 2016 Footballer of the Year takes it in his stride.

There have been several outside influences hovering around him in recent years, including social media campaigns like #ThingsLeeDid, but they don't faze him.

After firing an early goal, Keegan fell foul of a black card in Mayo's All-Ireland final replay loss to Dublin last year, which many believed was a result of a concerted effort to blacken his name and influence officials - something referenced by Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice ahead of their League final showdown with the Dubs.

"I'm sure there was stuff said about me. Obviously, there was a hashtag even! But it's out of my control. I can't control those things. All I can control is how I perform on the pitch, and I didn't finish the game that day which was unfortunate," he said.

"I didn't think or read a lot about it, because if I did I'm really not worrying what I'm going to do on All-Ireland final day, which is to try and win the Sam Maguire. Again it didn't happen… but if you get too bogged down with what's going on outside of your control, you're going to be in trouble."

Mayo have had a series of near-misses as they bid to end their 66-year All-Ireland famine but the dynamic Westport defender doesn't buy into sob stories about their failure to reach the game's pinnacle and feels the blame should be laid at their own door.

"Refs are under a huge amount of scrutiny and pressure to perform as well, so I can never blame just a referee. He's got eyes everywhere that need to help him," he said.

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Lee Keegan of Mayo, right, is shown a black card by referee Maurice Deegan during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park. His tackle was a split second decision and some question if it merited the card. If he had more time to think would he do it again? Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

"If it was Maurice (Deegan) that called it, Maurice deemed it a correct decision and I can never argue against a referee.

"People always reference Cormac Reilly in '14. Did Cormac Reilly put the ball over the bar? We do. So Maurice Deegan didn't stop us from winning an All-Ireland, we stopped ourselves. We had a chance to level the game in the last minute, and we didn't take it unfortunately."

His regular sparring partner Diarmuid Connolly suffered black card misery in Sunday's League decider, his second such sanction in quick succession, and Keegan insists "defenders are definitely not the bullies all the time".

"Diarmuid's had a tough couple of weeks maybe, he's obviously under a watchful eye which is unfortunate for him, a top player like that," he said.

"But we have to be careful with how the black rule is interpreted. I do feel sorry for the refs because they're making split-decision calls and they're either going to get it right or wrong, and they're going to get scrutinised one way or another," he said.

"Defenders are definitely not the bullies all the time… we're there to do a job for our team and we're trying to nullify some of the best forwards out there. And it's tough - there are some quality, quality forwards at the top.

The game is evolving, it's all systems now, and we're probably trying to protect the defence a bit more than we used to.

Getting stick about not reaching the holy grail happens regularly but goes "in one ear and out the other" to the laid-back Keegan, who tries not to overanalyse football and allow it to consume him.

That doesn't stop him believing their day in the sun will come, however, and he feels the Mayo mentality has changed remarkably from their humiliating All-Ireland final defeats in 2004 and 2006.

"Sergio Garcia has had 74 attempts at a Major. It's going to happen if you keep knocking, that's just the way it is," he said.

"People always say it's a hard luck story, but it's not really. If you are not there you are not going to win it. Mayo were a soft touch for many years.

"Beating big teams was more of a kind of fluke for Mayo 10-12 years ago or whatever. Now we are doing it more common, we are competing against the best teams week in, week out.

"That started with James Horan bringing that aura into Mayo, saying we can compete and we can be in Croke Park week in, week out and winning games - fighting for one another and bringing that kind of hard edge to Mayo.

"If we are there again this year all the better, we've put ourselves in a position to win it again, but I want my Connacht medal back first before we look any further."

The four-time All-Star, who admits he expected to have three All-Ireland medals with Mayo at this stage of his career, takes pleasure in the fact that they performed "when the gun was put to our head" in the League to ensure their survival, but craves more consistency as they look to cross the boundary into the promised land.

Winning an All-Ireland intermediate club title with Westport two months ago was a rare Croke Park success in a final for Keegan and it gave him a sense of what might be with Mayo while lifting him ahead of another assault on Sam Maguire.

"It was nice to walk up the Hogan steps and lift the All-Ireland, a really proud moment," he said. "Club and county are a small bit different but it gave me that glimmer of hope thinking, you know… September did dwell in my head just for a few seconds, that kind of excitement.

"I did cut that off because I like to separate club and county completely. It gave me that kind of new rejuvenation to come back in with Mayo with that kind of confident feeling that 'we can do this'.

"If we look to Westport the last couple of years they were kind of no-hopers so it gave me that view that, you know, anything can happen in the upcoming season and don't limit yourself to what you can do with Mayo.

"Be optimistic and think Connacht medal, All-Ireland medal, there's no reason why you can't do it."

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