Saturday 24 August 2019

Mayo mind games and the march on Hill 16 - Conal Keaney on Dublin's wild 2006 semi-final

Former Dubs dual star Conal Keaney on the 2006 semi-final and why this game will be very different

Conal Keaney at the launch of the #ThisIsMyDublin campaign promoting Dublin City Sportsfest 2019, a celebration of sport and physical activity from September 23-29. Inset: Celebrating after scoring the first goal in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo. Photo: Sportsfile
Conal Keaney at the launch of the #ThisIsMyDublin campaign promoting Dublin City Sportsfest 2019, a celebration of sport and physical activity from September 23-29. Inset: Celebrating after scoring the first goal in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

It's long enough ago that he initially can't remember the year, but Conal Keaney clearly recalls the conversation. It was minutes before the 2006 All-Ireland football semi-final, and Mayo had made a rebellious, renegade move by warming up at the Dubs' favoured end of Croke Park.

But what was the reaction when word filtered back to the dressing room that the invaders were occupying Hill 16? "A decision was made: we were going down," says Keaney. "'That's our end, let's get out there and see what happens.' Everyone was of the same mind."

What followed was one of the more bizarre sights in recent championship memory, the Dublin players linking arms and marching into the middle of Mayo's warm-up like one of those counter-hakas in rugby. Cue several minutes of chaos, with balls sent flying accidentally-on-purpose at rivals and both sets of fans bringing the atmosphere to boiling point.

"It was kind of funny," admits Keaney, who scored 1-3 that day. "You're getting balls and if it said Mayo on it you were kicking it up the top of the Cusack. I remember looking over and Alan Brogan hitting the physio with the football who fell over and I was like, 'This is unbelievable'."

If Mayo's mind games were meant to unsettle Dublin, it appeared to be working as they raced into a four-point lead, one the Dubs eviscerated with some spellbinding play early in the second half. Keaney scored the point that put them seven up with 25 minutes to play - their first final in 11 years seemed within grasp.

Until, of course, it wasn't. Keaney could never have known then how rare an opportunity had just passed: it would be another five years before Dublin reached the final, at which point he was back with the county's hurlers. Looking back, is it the game he regrets most?

"It's definitely up there," he says. "That was the tough one to take. At the time it didn't affect me so much but looking back it was a great opportunity to get to a final."

In the end they went down by a single point, but Keaney is not one to overplay the effect of any pre-match mind games. "It was made up to be something more than it was," he says. "We should have hung on and we didn't."

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Looking towards Saturday, he expects a similar decibel level in Croke Park - just without the same antics. "It's all changed now. If (Mayo) want to go down (to Hill 16), so what, let them do that - it's not about where we warm up or what we do. I don't think any of those mind games or tactics are going to affect this Dublin team and I don't think Mayo would even try to do it. It's all about when that ball is thrown in."

Keaney played under Jim Gavin during the Dubs' U-21 All-Ireland success in 2003 and even back then, he saw the signs of a managerial great. "He was very thorough in everything he did and everything had to be right - every drill (and) simple things like arriving on time. If you weren't buying into it, you weren't going to be there."

All the same, he believes the current Dublin players are the chief reason for them being on the brink of an unprecedented achievement. "They know what they want, how training should be, what's acceptable as a player, what's not acceptable, so I'd say a lot of the players are driving it themselves and Jim is just guiding it at the minute.

"He has another 30 lads behind that could equally do the same job so it's like Kilkenny when they were winning for years. Their 'A's and 'B's were so competitive. The Dublin footballers are the exact same. If you're lucky enough to play, you better perform because (otherwise) you won't be there the next day."

Looking in on the football offers Keaney a welcome distraction at this time of year, a way to avoid thinking too much on the Dublin hurlers' shock exit to Laois last month. He's 36 now and in the coming months he'll decide whether to commit to the cause once again, but for now all post-mortems have been postponed.

"I've just totally been away from it all, keeping the head down and trying to really forget that defeat. I still believe Dublin are as good as what is out there but I've been saying that for years. We need to make sure we learn (from the defeat). On the day they were better than us - that's the bottom line."

On the topic of upsets, how does he think Mayo will fare this weekend?

"I'd give them every chance. I know they had a couple of injuries but some of the young lads that are coming in to the squad are equally as good if not better and they don't have this fear of losing. They're going to attack and try shock Dublin.

"Dublin haven't been tested at all in the last 10 or 15 minutes of a game so that's probably (Mayo's) mentality: get to the last 10 or 15 minutes and see what happens. They'll probably need to kick nearly everything over at the weekend, but I've seen Mayo do it so I wouldn't put it beyond them."

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