'Around Limerick, I was the biggest let-down' - Meet the hurling prodigy who lost his way, but overcame his demons
The last time Limerick made an All-Ireland final in 2007, Mark Keane was close to his lowest point.
Five years had passed since he finished a scarcely believable three years at U21 with a hat-trick of All-Ireland medals and a personal haul of 9-100 in 15 games.
Limerick fans couldn’t help but fall in love with such an astronomical total but the man behind the numbers wasn’t as easy to understand. At U21 he out-duelled Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett in back-to-back years but as the precocious Premier County duo brought the Liam MacCarthy Cup back to Tipp, Keane was trending in the other direction.
By the time of that surprise showpiece appearance, Keane had let his off-field struggles with alcohol bury his once promising career in an unmarked grave. Nobody knew what had happened to his talent. Only Mark Keane could say where it was and he was reluctant to divulge its location.
"If I’m being really honest now, I didn’t think drink was my problem," Keane says.
"I thought it was other people. I thought they didn’t understand me. That I was a young man who was the same as everyone else. But I wasn’t because they were getting up and going to work, they weren’t missing things that they should have been at. I thought that they were only bringing it up because I was a hurler.
"I was a product of the early 2000s, the boom, money everywhere. I’m an electrician and I was earning more back then than I am now. There was so much going on and there was stuff every weekend. I had too many distractions and I didn’t fulfil my potential."
Perhaps U21 titles aren’t meant to be won in threes. Expectation has hung over Clare this decade like a 'Looney Tunes' anvil waiting to drop the moment disappointment appears on the horizon – and they’ve an All-Ireland banked already.
For the 2000-2002 Limerick side, the let-down was even more acute. Keane recognises that he is to blame for his own situation, but as a collective that Treaty treble has become shorthand for describing how a strong underage crop doesn’t always lead to a rich senior harvest.
"I thought because I was winning U21 All-Irelands at 19, 20, 21, I was just going to go onto senior and do it because we were going to be meeting the same players," he said.
"Two years after we won the All-Ireland, you see Ronan Curran – a fella I hurled against, and hurled against successfully – going up and winning a senior All-Ireland with Cork. Eoin Kelly in 2001. They were winning seniors but we were beating them at U21. We were able to beat these players so we thought that there was going to be a natural progression.
"There was probably an arrogance from the players and a huge expectation from the public and when it didn’t materialise straight away there was a bit of disillusionment from people, 'these fellas are never going to make it'. There was no doubting the ability of that team but speaking for myself, I didn’t apply myself the way an inter-county hurler should."
Despite the success, Keane doesn’t spare himself when he looks back on his days as an underage prodigy. He describes his physique compared to Limerick’s current young stars as 'six foot one, 11 stone and I looked like a rake', while he also admits that his off-field behaviour was hurting him even then, though on the surface he appeared to have it all.
"I could even go back as far as the U21 days and say I was doing too much acting the maggot off the field, 100%," he says.
"I was doing it all wrong and the only way I was getting away with it was because I was delivering on the field. My application to training while I was training was 100% – but the minute training was over, it was my time, which was a totally selfish outlook.
"Everyone knew I was acting the maggot, drinking and partying and having the craic. Up to a certain age, I was able to do both but then one took over the other.
"I got away with it for a while. 'Mark will turn up. He might have been on the drink for a couple of days.' I could still tip away with 1-7 or 1-8 but I was just doing enough to get by. If I had applied myself properly that 1-9 could be 2-11. I 100% had the ability but did I fulfil it? I didn’t."
Keane only made ten senior championship appearances for Limerick, with most of them coming off the bench. After a few years in the wilderness he did have a brief flirtation with fulfilling his considerable potential in 2006. After going over a year without a sip of alcohol, Keane suddenly rediscovered his ability to notch outrageous totals, scoring 4-50 in seven league games - including 2-10 against Clare in an extra-time semi-final victory.
Those heroics came at a cost, with injury ruling him out of a final appearance. Having come so close to putting it all together, Keane reacted badly to seeing his inter-county chance slip through his fingers like a dropped ball.
"I had given up the drink for 15 months and was flying it in the league in ’06 before the injury," he said.
"I was feeling sorry for myself and came back for the first round of the championship and played injured and the head went after that. Wound up that day looking over a bar counter when I shouldn’t have been and the whole thing spiralled out of control then. It’s a lonely, lonely spot. You are looking in over the counter, the bar is full and you are seeing yourself in the mirror thinking, 'what am I doing?'"
This low period coincided with Limerick playing Kilkenny in the 2007 All-Ireland hurling final, and it was tough for Keane to see his underage team-mates on hurling’s biggest stage knowing that he had sabotaged his own chance of being in Croke Park with them.
"I would have delighted for the lads to win but disappointed for myself in 2007," he said.
"I’d have been gutted for myself. I wasn’t in a good way mentally watching it. I would have played with these guys since I was 14. My own head wasn’t right, I was feeling sorry for myself even though the only person stopping me was me."
People tried to help him, but there was a self-destructive streak in Keane that refused to listen. There were managers who wanted him to apply himself more. There were friends and family members who hoped he would get his life back on track. For a time, nothing worked.
"I had numerous interventions, if you want to call them that, with people asking me to do this or that," he says.
"That was probably me being stubborn, if somebody told me to turn left, I’d turn right.
"One manager took me aside and said, 'You’re like an apple. When you are good, you’re very good. But when you’re bad you could send the whole lot sour'."
Finally one day in 2011, something inside Keane changed. If there’s ever to be a film made about his life, they might have to jazz up his turning point because there were no fireworks, grand gestures or one massive moment of clarity. Real life can be much more understated sometimes.
"One night I just said 'I’ll drive to the pub tonight and won’t drink'," he says.
"Looking back and thinking, it wasn’t a conscious decision that very evening to give it up. It could have been that I didn’t have enough in my pocket to buy a couple of drinks. That could have been what started it but it finished with two weeks and then three weeks and now it has been seven years without a drink."
Keane has put a lot of distance between himself and his struggles, and further still between the family man he is now and the hurler who once threatened to end Limerick’s Liam MacCarthy famine with the best young players in the country.
It may have been sixteen years since that last U21 win but Limerick people still don’t forget what those teams promised and ultimately, didn’t deliver. All-Ireland U21 final totals for Keane of 1-8, 0-7 and 1-6 aren't easy to forget.
"Around Limerick, without being cruel, I was probably the biggest let-down," he says.
"You go from being the top-scorer for three years with the U21s to acting the maggot. Then you come back and become top-scorer for the senior team and act the maggot again.
"I get it a lot, 'Jesus you were brilliant, imagine if you did this or that'. I’d get that fairly regularly, even now. I’ve lads I work with and they would have known of me and they say, 'Jesus, we were standing there looking up at you and now you are here working with us'."
The days of almost single-handedly shredding teams are long gone, but thankfully for Keane, so are the days of watching Limerick while his head floods with thoughts of regrets and what ifs. He takes joy in the simple things in life now: his wife, his kids, his job and this Sunday, if he and his county are lucky – finally watching Limerick win an All-Ireland.
"I’d put this down as my biggest achievement," he says.
"That I can give my wife and kids a life. I was never so proud than collecting my daughter’s Leaving Cert results with her. Simple, mundane things like going home and seeing food in the fridge, seeing my kids go to school and seeing them in their uniforms. Being able to walk into a bank and say 'I want to pay this bill' and the money is there. They are nearly daily achievements for me now.
"It’s the first time that I can say I can watch Limerick and be totally selfless, where I’m not thinking about myself or what might have been. I’m just thinking of those lads who will take the field and what they can do. I’d be the proudest man in Limerick if they win on Sunday."