Saturday 17 November 2018

'If you were in my shoes, what would you have done?’ - Lee Keegan on All-Ireland final GPS incident

17 September 2017; Dean Rock of Dublin kicks his side's winning point, a free, as Lee Keegan of Mayo watches on during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
17 September 2017; Dean Rock of Dublin kicks his side's winning point, a free, as Lee Keegan of Mayo watches on during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Frank Roche

Frank Roche

LEE KEEGAN doesn’t spend much time thinking about ‘the incident’.

He knows he may be Enemy No 1 to a sizeable chunk of the Dublin fan base; so be it. He can’t change what happened in the past; what transpired in those fateful last few minutes of the All-Ireland SFC final last September.

He knows he shouldn’t have removed that GPS tracker from his person and flung it in the direction of Dean Rock as he advanced to take the free that would propel Dublin into three-in-a-row heaven and leave Mayo in the depths of that familiar hellish inferno. Again.

But at one point in our conversation he poses the question: what would you do if you were staring at your fourth All-Ireland final defeat?

Lee Keegan - four-time All Star, 2016 Footballer of the Year, prolific wing-back with a penchant for earthquake-inducing goals in Croke Park, jersey-hugging shadow of Diarmuid Connolly and, more recently, Ciarán Kilkenny -  hasn’t kicked a ball in public view this year.

Barring some miracle event, it won’t happen in Elverys MacHale Park tomorrow night either, when Mayo and Dublin renew their now-legendary hostilities in Division 1 of the Allianz Football League (7.0, live on eir Sport 2).

But the good news for the green-and-red army is that Keegan, so often their talisman, is making rapid strides from his double hip surgery last November and should be back in action at some stage next month. Enough time to get some league football into his legs. Enough time to sharpen up for Galway on May 13.

Still, any interview with Keegan cannot be long in progress before the talk returns to the Dubs. And specifically to last September.

He doesn’t spend every waking minute mulling over Mayo’s latest heartbreak and its attendant controversies - partly because of his take-life-as-it-comes persona, partly because he’s far more interested in the here-and-now of getting fit and back on the field.

But, with hindsight, does he regret the GPS incident?

"I don’t think about it," he says, speaking to The Herald at the rebranding launch of Sports Physio Ireland at its Dublin 2 base.

"It’s probably an unfortunate thing that it happened. You know, I always say, ‘If you were in my shoes, what would people have done?’ Would they have come up with something else? 

"Obviously it’s very unsportsmanlike and I totally accept that. But, I suppose, you’re looking into losing your fourth All-Ireland … and to be fair to Dean Rock, he never batted an eyelid. As I think he said in the paper, he went through his routine and it just sailed over the bar. That’s the mark of how good he is."

Not every Dub was so unfazed. Writing in The Herald, former player-turned-columnist Charlie Redmond branded it 'a new low' and called on the GAA to make an example of Keegan ... the CCCC demurred.

Of course, the Mayo defender wasn’t alone in his injury-time cynicism: take Cormac Costello’s interference with David Clarke’s kicking tee, or the wrestling of various Mayo men (Keegan included, pulled down by the black-carded Kilkenny) as Clarke sought to deliver a quick restart after Rock’s free.

"We’ve never come out and said we had any disappointment with them doing that," says Keegan. "That’s what the top teams do. I know it’s an unfortunate thing with Gaelic at the moment, this kind of cynicism and stuff like that.

"But to win All-Irelands and to be the best, you have to have that bit of dark side in your game. And, again, I heard Paul Geaney say it last year - ‘Kerry need to do a bit more of it’ - and they kind of showed that (against Mayo this month), especially when they went three points up, a lot of pulling and dragging and stuff like that. But again, I think everyone remembers the winners."

Question is: do Dublin fans really hate Lee Keegan or is his ‘pantomime villain’ role vis-a-vis Connolly a sign of grudging admiration for a player they genuinely fear and (whisper it softly) would love to have? Not that they’d ever publicly admit it.

Another question, for Keegan: does his reputation with the Dubs bother him?

Not in the slightest, he insists. "I’ve met Diarmuid a couple of times; even when he came on in the final last year, we kind of had a smile at each other!”"the 28-year-old recalls, replaying that ‘Here we go again!’ moment.

"I’m probably in the limelight because of some of the stuff we’ve done over the years with Dublin. But I think, between players, we’ve massive respect for Dublin," he stresses.

"The unfortunate thing for us, in Mayo, is we haven’t beaten them. And that’s probably the critical part. We can all talk about this duel we’ve had with them over the years and how close we’ve got … but until you beat them once or twice, it’s not really a duel because they’re always coming out on top. Either by one point or ten, it doesn’t matter; they’re still winning. 

"I may be the Enemy No 1 but listen, at the end of the day, I don’t care. They probably don’t care about me too often, as long as they’re still winning games and championships."

Over 20 minutes before Rock’s deadball dagger, Keegan had unleashed the bullet past Stephen Cluxton that silenced the Hill and promised deliverance from 66 years in purgatory. Mayo led: did Keegan think this was it?

"I thought the timing of it was brilliant; I thought this could be the moment now that will get us over the line. But, no, you’re talking about them inches again," he muses.

"You look at a team sometimes, you might think they’re a bit deflated after a big moment like that. And you look at Dublin - they didn’t bat an eyelid. I think they went up and got a score straight away ... they were just ruthless in what they did. I looked at a couple of their players, and it was ‘next play’ straight away. That’s the difference between a great and a good team. The games they’ve won over the last couple of years, particularly against ourselves … if we played any other team in a final, we’re looking at probably winning two or three All-Irelands. Because it’s Dublin, you can never say they’re beaten and that’s probably the hardest thing for us."

The clock is ticking but Keegan still believes.

"I wouldn’t be coming back every year if I didn’t think we have an opportunity to get there. I still think we do. I still think we’ve a good age profile. At the moment we’re down a number of bodies, so we’re trying to get a good few young lads in there, to get them exposure," he reckons.

That exposure, in the last two games against Kerry and Galway, has been painfully harsh. Now the bar will be raised again tomorrow.

"Again this year, it could very easily have been Dublin coming back from a holiday and going through the motions … they’ve already won their first (three) league games by grinding it out," says Keegan.

"The important thing is we need to start beating them now at this stage, because the years are going to start moving past for a lot of us, and we don’t want be looking back and saying: ‘We didn’t beat that Dublin team ...’

"With Dublin coming to Castlebar it’s going to be a big challenge for us again.

"They’re rocking already this year, so it’s important for us to get a massive performance there. Of course we’re going to look to win that game at all costs."

Win at all costs. Story of last September.

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