Lee Keegan walks through every door smile first. You could come across him running out of a burning building with a screaming baby under his oxter and a granny slung over his shoulder and he’d still be flashing the pearly whites. So whatever else he feels today after announcing his retirement from inter-county football, we can take it he isn’t hurting. He took his time, he made his decision. He will, we can be assured, enjoy the next chapter.
Alone among the faithful who walked the great Mayo Camino over the past decade, Keegan made retirement his own call. Melting back into civilian life is no reflection on his ability to contribute on the pitch. He hasn’t pulled up lame, he hasn’t aged out of the starting team. He wouldn’t have had to worry about impressing Kevin McStay in the coming months – if anything, it might have been the other way around. He turned 33 in October and led Westport to their first county senior title a fortnight later. He’d have been central to Mayo’s plans in 2023.
But he is finishing up now because life is life and he has less room in it these days. His two daughters, Líle and Rhea, are both under three. To play inter-county, if you’re not young and footloose, you better be old and selfish. Chatting to him recently, we talked a lot about parenting and the upside-down folly of trying to squeeze it in around football.
“There’s always the guilt,” he said. “You’re having multiple people picking up the slack behind you. Stuff that you should be helping out with and getting hands-on with. How much longer can I be relying on people to do all the hard work for me?
“Albeit, I’m at home as much as I possibly can be. But it’s time you don’t get back as well, you know? You want to be a present parent. I don’t want to be dipping in and out, missing milestones and events and that kind of thing.
“I know, it sounds like a real old-man decision. But sometimes you have to put family ahead of everything. It can’t all be about, ‘Well I want to go playing football again because I love it.’ What about the stuff I leave behind me that isn’t getting done because I’m not there to help or to pull my weight as much as I should be?”
That he has followed through now and made sure they weren’t empty words shouldn’t surprise anyone. Keegan has always been a fascinating figure in the Mayo camp precisely because of his ability to stand back and see football for what it is. Nobody was more intolerant of the notion that destiny owed Mayo anything or that luck was ever against them. He never changed his mantra – when they were good enough to win an All-Ireland, they would do so. They were never good enough. Life goes on.
In that regard, it has always felt at least somewhat significant that he didn’t grow up in Mayo. Though he was born there, his family lived in Cavan until he was 10. When they eventually moved back to Westport, he was far more into rugby than GAA. All those lost All-Ireland finals in the 1990s and 2000s more or less passed him by. Asked once if he remembered the first Mayo match he went to, he smiled and replied, “I probably played in it!”
He retires with five All Stars, a record number for a player without an All-Ireland medal
No part of him was infused with Mayo mythology or decades of hurt or any of that old ding-dong. He approached football with absolute clarity. You go out, you play hard, you stop the other crowd any way you can, you take your chances when they come. Mayo took enough of their chances enough of the time to be better than pretty much everyone. They just didn’t do it enough against one of the best teams in history. That’s sport.
Keegan certainly couldn’t have done much more to make it otherwise. A sign of his enduring excellence is the fact that he was shortlisted for Footballer of the Year in 2013, 2016 (when he won it) and 2021. He played championship for 12 seasons and was nominated for an All Star in nine of them. He retires with five All Stars, a record number for a player without an All-Ireland medal. In the modern era, only serial champions Colm Cooper, Stephen Cluxton and Ciarán Kilkenny have more.
As a footballer, it’s no stretch to say there wasn’t another player like him in the game. Plenty of teams have attacking weapons hiding in plain sight in their defence and plenty of teams have shut-down man-markers. Only Mayo had both at the same time.
He pulls stumps at the end of a career that saw 67 championship appearances and in which he racked up an immense total of 7-48 from play, mostly while being tasked with shutting down the opposition’s key attacker. Since 2013, Mayo have only scored two goals in All-Ireland finals – Keegan has buried them both, once while marking Diarmuid Connolly, the other keeping tabs on Ciarán Kilkenny.
Add it all up and he has claims in any conversations around Mayo’s best ever. Not that he’d pay them any heed.