After years of hurt, Lee Keegan finally gets the better of Dublin

Mayo player has been there for all of the defeats but was always confident it would turn

Lee Keegan and Padraig O’Hora celebrate after the game. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Lee Keegan and Padraig O’Hora celebrate after the game. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Lee Keegan limped down past the buses smile first. It was getting on for half-nine on Saturday night and every Mayo player who passed had a mark of some sort on him. “Carnage,” beamed Keegan, carrying a dead leg that brought a wince with every step. And the kind of mad laugh that told you he wouldn’t have it any other way.

At a certain point in the evening, himself and John Small had hopped off each other like demonic Lotto balls down below the Hogan Stand. They squared up as though they were both about to go into the manners-teaching business and then, as if both realising at the same time who they were dealing with, basically burst out laughing at the very idea of it.

“Just madness, absolute madness,” said Keegan in pure delight, as the Dublin bus started filling up, glum face by glum face, 50 yards behind him. “Conditions didn’t help obviously so it was always going to turn into an absolute madfest.”

Keegan is 31. He has been coming to this place to play the Dubs since 2012. That sentence may come as a surprise to him because one of the first things out of his mouth on Saturday night was that this was his first win over them. “I wasn’t here in, ‘12,” he said.

Except, he was. He started that 2012 All-Ireland semi-final but went off injured after a quarter of an hour. So maybe this just felt like a first win. One way or another, it didn’t feel like a time to split hairs.

Keegan has always been such a ball of contradictions. So sleek and balletic in attack, so invasive and ruthless in defence. His dad is from Cheltenham, his mam’s from Cavan - he didn’t even live in Mayo until his teens. When the rest of the county was crying salt tears over lost All-Irelands in the 2000s, he freely admits to barely even watching the games. He was more into rugby.

Indepdendence of spirit

The schoolteachers in Westport who funnelled that independence of spirit towards Mayo football did a good day’s work. On Saturday night, Keegan was central to the Mayo comeback. In truth, he had spent the first half kind of betwixt and between in the Mayo defence, sometimes picking up Ciarán Kilkenny, sometimes Con O’Callaghan, sometimes marking space. What he hadn’t been doing was getting himself into the Dublin half of the pitch.

Dublin’s John Small with Lee Keegan of Mayo during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final in Croke Park. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Dublin’s John Small with Lee Keegan of Mayo during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final in Croke Park. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

That all changed the further the game went on. After Dublin had the first attack of the second half, ending in James McCarthy flashing a shot wide, it was Keegan who carried the ball into the Dublin half from the restart. When Aidan O’Shea took a pass and headed for goal seconds later, it was Keegan running off his shoulder just as the Dublin defence stripped the ball.

Just as it was Keegan who turned over possession as the Dubs came out with the ball. Just it was Keegan who delivered a pinpoint ball from 50 metres right into O’Shea’s bread basket on the edge of the square immediately after. Two minutes had passed since half-time and Keegan had been on the ball four times, each of them a positive intervention that sent Mayo on the attack.

When all the pundits talk about Mayo needing chaos, this is what they mean. It’s the brass tacks of turnovers and tackles and hard-running defenders popping up where they’re not expected. In the first half, there was no chaos. There was just Dublin putting the country to sleep and Mayo letting them do it. Keegan didn’t change that on his own but he was the best example of what it took.

“We just didn’t panic as much as we did in the first half. We were kind of dawdling on the ball a bit in the first half a few times. We just started progressing with the ball, moving forward. We didn’t stop. Little things like that.

“And we just started to run them then towards the end and the pressure told. Four points conceded in 55 minutes against Dublin is no mean feat. We’ll take that as a defensive group. James always echoes never to panic. There’s always time. There’s always time.

“Nothing changed. Just relaxed at half-time. Get in, reassess, similar to the Galway game. There’s no point beating yourself up. We still have 35 minutes of football to play so what’s the point on reflecting on what was bad? Move forward and do what we’re good at.

“Conditions played their part too. It was hard to handle the ball, it was messy at times. But our forward line were just sensational. The way they defended in groups. You could see the intensity the lads brought.”

The lads. Keegan is one of the daddies of the group now. Literally so - he and Kevin McLoughlin had their kids on the pitch after the Connacht final. Of the players who started on Saturday, only McLoughlin is older. Colm Boyle is there on the bench, O’Shea and Rob Hennelly are a few months younger than him.

Washed away

All those years, all those defeats, they weren’t washed away here. That’s not how Keegan looks at the world. They were what they were, this is what it is. For years, he has preached the fact that it wasn’t bad luck or bad breaks that stopped Mayo beating Dublin. His mantra has always been that when they are better than Dublin, they will beat them. That’s what happened on Saturday night.

“We’ve done a good transition. People say it could be a young team but these young lads come in, they have no history, no baggage with them. They come in, they play football, they enjoy it. They give us confidence as well, us older lads. It’s brilliant. We get just as exuberant and just as excited watching them young lads as playing ourselves. We’ll enjoy it, don’t worry.”

By the end, his dead leg had him limping in circles on the pitch, admiring his teammates as they kept the ball, willing them to keep it away from him. He raised a knackered fist at the long whistle. Job done.

“Just tired,” he smiled as he went off to get some food inside him. “Happy. When the whistle went, I just wanted to get home. Go hug the family.

“Sure you know yourself. It’s nice. But it’s just a stepping stone.”

One more to go.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.