Lee Keegan interview: Mayo’s man apart on how Gaelic football was not for him
County’s sports person of the year had little interest in the game when he was younger
Mayo’s Lee Keegan has no regrets about the incident in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final that led to Diarmuid Connolly’s dismissal. “There’s no point in me trying to make out that we go out to be innocent,” he says. Photograph: Donall Farmer/inpho
Mayo’s Lee Keegan was more interested in rugby as a schoolboy. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
You are born into this stuff. It’s a bloodlines thing. It’s you and your father and his father and everyone’s father and back and back for generations.
Except it’s not. Not really. Not always. Lee Keegan’s dad is from Cheltenham. Grew up playing cricket and rugby and bowls. “I don’t know how I even ended up kicking a ball,” says Lee. “Dad couldn’t pull off a solo to save his life.”
Okay, so it’s a thing of place, then. Every time you play, you’re the living embodiment of the county, of its people. You are them and it, they and it are you. Symbiosis.
Except not really. Not always. Keegan was born in Mayo, true enough. But he lived in Cavan until he was 10. His mother, a Shercock woman, was a waitress in the bar managed by his father near Wembley stadium in the 1980s. She got him to Ireland, first to Westport where his brother lived, but then to Cavan for most of the 1990s. They only put down roots in Mayo in 2001. Listen close enough – and get Lee to slow down long enough – and you can still pick up a trace of the accent.
Right. Fine. It’s all about a love of the game then. And talent. And dedication. And boyhood dreams of All-Irelands and Croker and all that jazz.
Well, okay, yeah . . . up to a point. Truth be told, the teenaged Lee Keegan wasn’t crying into his pillow when at the loss of those All-Ireland finals in the mid-2000s. He certainly didn’t make solemn vows to one day bring succour to his people or even, on a wild day, imagine himself as someone who’d give over his life to that cause. The whole scene just wasn’t really his thing.
“I didn’t really play Gaelic too much growing up. To be honest, I had no interest at all in it. I played rugby more so for six or seven years. I got in with the Connacht academy and I was doing okay with it but playing a bit of Gaelic at school as well. The time came around the age of 19 when I had to pick one or the other.
“A couple of coaches, James Conway and Martin Connolly, said they thought Gaelic might be the path to go down and I’d say, to be honest, it was just the fact that I had a few schoolfriends that played Gaelic that I had good memories of that made me come down on that side. I was in with the Mayo under-21s and Pat Holmes said it was time to choose one or the other and I went with Gaelic. But I couldn’t tell you that I had any good reason for it. I just said I’d give it a try and see how I got on.”
So there you have it, that’s how Connacht and Ireland missed out on the talent of a generation?
“Ha! Nah, I just wasn’t big enough really, in the end-up. I was looking at the Irish under-20s the other night and I’m like a child compared to them. I would have been grand playing it away for fun but there was no chance really of me coming through the Connacht academy and making it as a professional. I wouldn’t have had the physique for it. But from it, I had the fitness that stood to me playing Gaelic.
“I played club football but I didn’t have a huge interest. I enjoyed schools football a bit more because it was more fun. I just never really found the game that interesting, whereas I found rugby fascinating. I was a fullback in rugby and I loved it – catching a ball, taking on a man, last line of defence, all that. I loved the amount of thinking you have to do on the pitch – tackle, pass, kick, ruck, everything at the same time. I really liked the intricacies of it.”
Despite it all, Keegan’s path led him to the fringes of the Mayo panel for the 2010 league. Because he’d never been a crack minor nor was even pulling up many trees as an under-21, he found himself a long way behind his peers. He wasn’t all that sure that he fancied making up the ground either.
“Because I came kind of late to it, I never got the whole S&C, nutrition, lifestyle thing beaten into me as a teenager. It wasn’t until I joined up with the senior panel really in 2011 that I got into any of that. And it took me a long time to get into the groove of it, you know, training two nights a week, weights the other nights, whatever it was. I didn’t see the point of it in a way. I was young and I thought that it was just about going out and kicking a ball.
“Some guys would have had a headstart on me in terms of all that sort of stuff but I suppose they probably wanted this their whole life whereas it wasn’t something that I was desperate for growing up. I just felt that I was pretty fit naturally and I play a bit so if I looked after myself, I’d be fine.
“John O’Mahony had me in for the league in 2010 and I didn’t really give it the commitment to be kept on for the championship. But that did sort of open my eyes a bit to what you needed to do. I could see the effort that other lads were putting in week-in, week-out. But to be honest, my reaction to it was to think, ‘Why? What’s the reason for all this?’ It was only the following year when Horan came in that I realised what it took.”
Horan. The use of the surname is a reflex in most of the Mayo players who played under him. Keegan and he crossed paths at the right time for both of them. James Horan was in clean slate mode, Lee Keegan was looking to have a serious go and trying to impress. In an A v B game early in 2011, he got into a pucking match with Aidan O’Shea. “Not very wise,” he says. “I tried it at training yesterday and it’s still not very wise.”
Steel in the tackle
It was duly noted all the same. That was the start of it, the real start. He learned as he went and over the next five years he grew into one of the finest wing-backs in the game. Silk in possession, steel in the tackle. A runner when he can, a stopper when he has to be.
Off the pitch, he’s a mile a minute. Chloroform wouldn’t shut him up. Everything’s a giggle and a smile and a gas, gas, gas. The demands of the sport change him though. It changes them all. Can’t but.
“I always have a sigh of relief after a game. Because when you’re in a high-intensity game, you’re the opposite of who you are in your everyday life. I’m a laid-back character but going into a Dublin game or a Donegal game or any one of the big ones, I can’t actually stand to be around some of the lads. When a game ends, even walking off the pitch can be torture sometimes because you’ve left so much on it.”
At their level, football is no dainty thing. After he and Diarmuid Connolly had their bit of rollin’ and rasslin’ in the All-Ireland semi-final last year, Keegan found himself surrounded by GAA hacks at the player of the month awards. Someone else might have brushed the whole thing off but that’s not him.
He gave a long, cogent and insightful answer about doing what had to be done for his team. The game is the game. There’s so much guff talked about what it should be that it was liberating to hear someone like Keegan talk about what it is. The headline writers were predictably heavy-handed the next day but he wouldn’t change a word.
“The question was put in front of me and I just said it from the point of view of reality, which is that everyone does it. There was no point hiding it. You think if Dublin were in a game where they were winning by a point that they’d be letting me run away up the pitch? Of course not. Dublin did plenty to stop us in 2013 and made no secret of it and I have no problem with it at all.
“At the elite end, you have to have the dark arts as part of your make-up. Listen, Dublin are the best team we’ve seen in a long time. There’s no point in me trying to make out that we go out to be innocent because that’s not what Gaelic football is. You will get run over if you do that. You just do it. Mayo were a soft touch for long enough.
“It’s funny, I think Dublin set out to bully last year but in the first half, it was us bullying them a lot of the time. I know it wasn’t a good spectacle to watch and there was an awful lot of off-the-ball stuff.
“That’s not the way Mayo and Dublin usually play each other. But when the game goes that way, you have to have that hard edge or you won’t survive. Dublin have proved that over the past five years. They didn’t win three out of the last five All-Irelands just by dancing around the rest of us.
“I’m not ashamed of it. That’s just what the sport is. There’s so much to be loved about Gaelic football. I know some people don’t love that side of it but it’s part of what the game is. It’s been like that in Ulster for years and look how much they love their championship up there. I was never going to sit there and tell a load of porkies about what the game is.”
Onwards, then. The next time he found himself in the news, he was refusing to be taken off against Cork in the league after a collision with Eoin Cadogan. It was live on TV so Twitter kicked in so everyone kicked in. Given his time again, he’d probably submit to the team doctor’s wishes and come off. Maybe.
“Yeah, probably. It’s very hard to know how to answer that actually. I could say yes just to say it but it depends on the moment and the circumstances. I felt fine at the time. I wasn’t being macho or anything, I just felt okay to carry on.
“It’s a hard thing to diagnose. I played away and I was fine for a few minutes. I was involved in the play and I was doing okay. It took about seven or eight minutes and I was getting tired and I just thought maybe it was time to go off. I’ll be honest, I probably should have taken myself off earlier. We were getting well-beaten and the game was kind of over. It was pure stubbornness I suppose.
“If the game wasn’t on telly, would we have heard anything about it? Listen, we all learned things from it. The thing I was most annoyed about was that anyone would think any less of Seán Moffatt, our doctor. I’d never, ever want anyone to think that our medical team weren’t listened to or anything like that. I think in the end up, we handled it fairly well. A lot of teams would have just swept it under the carpet but we faced up to it.”
He missed the next game as a precaution, ending a streak of not having missed a game going back to 2011. It was against Dublin in Castlebar and though Mayo gave them plenty of it, the champions came through in the end. Keegan is a genuine admirer of Jim Gavin’s side and has no hang-ups about the distance Mayo need to travel to catch them. Them, or anyone else.
“Dublin were better than us in the end up last year, no arguments. They kicked the ball over the bar more times than we did. I never hold a grudge about these games, I never get so caught up in them that I can’t see who deserved to win and who didn’t. I never look back in a bitter way at anything – not last year, not 2014, not either of the All-Ireland finals. If we were good enough, we would have won. When we are, we will. Simple as.”
So here he is. Clear-eyed, nonsense-free. The son of an Englishman who was Ireland’s vice-captain last November against Australia. A kid who could take or leave football a decade ago, now a three-time All Star. A boy who grew up straddling the Cavan/Monaghan border, now the Mayo Sportsperson of the Year.
Walking his own road. Always.