When they needed him most, against Dublin, Tyrone, Monaghan and Kildare, their talisman delivered. How does he keep doing it?
A former Footballer of the Year. The only player without an All-Ireland medal to amass five All-Stars. A defender (take note) with the unique boast of scoring a goal past Stephen Cluxton in three consecutive championship collisions with Dublin . . . and the equally original claim to infamy of using a GPS pack in despairing pursuit of that elusive Celtic Cross.
A smiling assassin in one game; a man-marking pest the next.
All things considered, Lee Keegan has squeezed a lot into his dozen years at the senior county coalface.
But did you know that Mayo’s greatest ever footballer never played a minute of minor for the county?
“When you go back to our early years, you would never have pencilled Lee in to turn out to be the footballer that he has become,” says Kevin Keane, his former Mayo colleague, long-time Westport club-mate, one-time Rice College team-mate, and enduring friend.
“He had other interests. Rugby was a big passion of his when we were growing up. Although he did play GAA with us, a few phone calls had to be made at some stages to get him to come and play games, because rugby was at the forefront. He was involved in Connacht underage academies.”
“And again, you’re hardly shocked, he was very good at that code of sport too . . . he has the physique, the stamina, the mentality, he had everything, even from an early age. Thankfully, when you come to a certain age, you have to make a decision.
“Like, Lee never played Mayo minor,” he expands. “In my first year with the Mayo minors in 2007, Lee was actually sitting above in the stand – he didn’t make the squad. It was a Connacht semi-final, straight knockout. We lost to Roscommon at Hyde Park and that was the year over. His opportunity had passed.”
Keegan had trained with the minors that year but, as Keane recalls, “I don’t think GAA was at the forefront of his mind at that particular time”.
But he made the U-21 team in 2009 and ’10. The rest, they say, is history.
* * * * *
Lee Keegan will return to Croke Park tomorrow for yet another All-Ireland quarter-final against a familiar heavyweight, Kerry. The doomsayers have lapped up Mayo’s familiar stutters through the ‘back door’ killing fields and pronounced that the end is nigh. Even some true believers have lost the faith.
But then, this is Mayo and this is not an All-Ireland final.
“When I heard the draw last Monday week,” says Keane. “I texted him straight away: ‘Just the game you need.’ And he was, like, ‘Absolutely’.
“No doubt they’re looking forward to it, although everyone outside the camp will be maybe eyeing up Kerry to be victorious on the day.
“From Lee’s perspective, these are the games that he wants and loves playing in. Whatever it is, the Croke Park factor, that’s just his dance hall.”
The unspoken fear in Mayo is that it could be his last dance too. No one wants to accelerate the clock on his epic career, but Keegan will be 33 in October; he is married to Aoife with two young daughters; he has been through the injury wringer in recent years and tomorrow will be his 140th senior appearance in the green-and-red.
That number includes one abandoned league match, cut short at the midpoint by a spectral blanket of fog, 10 years ago (the GAA officially recognises such games, even if the result was void).
It was Keegan’s first of many encounters with Dublin – a team that would become both his nemesis and the catalyst for several of his finest performances. None more monumental than last August. And that brings us back to our opening claim – is he really Mayo’s greatest ever?
“I would 100pc agree with that,” says John Casey, the former Mayo forward and RTÉ radio pundit. “He’s the Rolls-Royce really.
“I think it was the Dublin semi-final on Con O’Callaghan (in 2019), it looked like, ‘OK, he’s done, we’ve had the best of ‘Leeroy’ and he was a massive servant’ . . . and lo and behold then, what he did the following two years, he was sensational.”
Keane agrees in saying, “I’m not just saying that because he’s my best mate. I’m saying that because he is (the best). Like, he has five All-Stars in the bag – Mayo’s most ever achieved. The way he’s grounded it out the last 10 or 11 years, in the fashion that he’s done, and in some of the games he’s put the team on his back and tried to turn the tide . . . there’s no question in my mind.”
What makes Keegan so special? The complete package.
You could cite his longevity: those 139 games and counting, including 66 in the championship bear pit. Or the roll call of high-calibre opponents who have struggled to escape his fair-or-foul clutches: Diarmuid Connolly several times over, Seán Cavanagh, Enda Smith, Ciarán Kilkenny, Con O’Callaghan – at the second attempt last year, after the horrors of 2019. Or how he still found time for those incredible scoring stats: 8-71 in total, 7-48 alone in SFC combat.
But here’s another reason: just when you thought he was on the autumnal down slope of a peak-laden career, his resistance took on new-found levels of heroism.
He was the alpha and the omega of last year’s semi-final comeback against Dublin. He threatened to repeat the feat as final disaster loomed against Tyrone. And in recent weeks, as Mayo meandered through the qualifiers, he’s been at it again.
Earlier this month, sports journalist Maurice Brosnan tweeted a brilliant one-minute video montage showcasing six championship points scored by Keegan in the last 10 months.
Taken in isolation, each score is eye-catching, but then Brosnan reminds you of the context: they arrived when Mayo were four down against Dublin; five down against Tyrone; six down against Galway; had endured 20 fraught, scoreless minutes against Monaghan; and finally when they were three down and then four adrift of Kildare, a fortnight ago.
Clutch moments. Clutch player.
“The two points he got against Kildare were unreal. He was falling for the first one in the first half, he was leaning back and he fell as he kicked it. But the point he got in the second half – Jesus Christ.
“If Ciarán McDonald got it we’d have been raving about it for years,” says Casey, revisiting how Keegan struck, from almost a standing position, off his weaker left, over a wall of defenders, when his team were crying out for inspiration.
Then there’s the other side of Keegan, the hard-edged stopper.
“Whoever the go-to guy was, you sent Leeroy after them,” says Casey. “And the funny thing about it was, he always did it with a smile on his face! One of the memories I’ll take with me was the time himself and John Small hammered into each other down on the Hogan Stand side (last year), and the two of them just got up and they looked at each other like two heavyweight boxers and the two of them started smiling at each other . . . it was an absolute, utter-respect moment.”
Keane reckons that his reputation for the dark arts has been overblown. “It’s part of the game. You either stand up to it and meet it, fire with fire, or you’re going to get steamrolled,” he concludes.
He has kept motoring in the face of physical adversity, be it two hip operations in late 2017; further surgery in 2018 to repair a dislocated shoulder, an injury that coincided with his third career concussion; and then an ankle ligament trouble in 2019.
“People are very quick to judge. Even in 2019, against Dublin, Lee was held together with an ankle injury,” Keane points out.
“Again, people forget the amount of injuries he’s had . . . so all that takes its toll on a person’s body. But the type of character and person he is, the work he’s done in the last two-three years. And even during the Covid campaigns, in getting his body right and making sure he was in the best shape he could be to compete.
“I think we’re seeing the fruits of that now in the last year or two, because he’s on top of the ground.”
* * * * *
Last year bequeathed a seventh All-Ireland final appearance, a fifth All-Star and a second Footballer of the Year nomination, having won the award in 2016. No sign of regression there; but for how much longer?
“This is the sad part that us Mayo folks realise – he can’t go on forever,” Casey muses. “I suppose he wouldn’t be doing it if he wasn’t enjoying it. You would be fearful . . . I’d imagine if it’s not this year, it would definitely be next year.”
Last word to his close friend.
“I don’t think he knows that himself!” Keane laughs. “I’d love to get two or three years with the club out of him, if we could, before he finishes up . . . to maybe get us over the line for a county title. But, look it, the way his body is and the way he’s playing, from looking at him, he could go on for another two or three seasons.”
How Mayo would love that.