Lee Keegan enjoying defensive challenge
By Michael Devlin
It’s not the most glamorous job in Gaelic Football, but the role of a designated man-marker is a vital one
For Lee Keegan, Mayo’s go-to guy for the opposition’s danger men in the past few years, it’s a glowing indication of the high regard he is held in by Mayo’s recent managers.
In seasons past, Keegan has been paired up against the likes of Diarmuid Connolly (on four occasions no less), Sean Cavanagh, Shane Walsh, Enda Smith, and Michael Quinlivan, and performed commendably each time.
In Mayo’s recent Allianz League Final triumph over Kerry, he was tasked with keeping tabs on Sean O’Shea, undoubtedly the Kingdom’s most potent threat throughout their table-topping campaign.
Keegan utterly shackled the UCC star, holding him scoreless from play as Mayo captured a first senior national title in 18 years.
While Keegan is also known for his swashbuckling displays from Mayo’s half-back line that have seen him contribute handsomely to his side’s scoring totals over the years, it’s his deployment as a pacifier of marquee forwards under former manager Stephen Rochford, and now the returning James Horan, that has given him most satisfaction.
“It was something that was explored under Stephen Rochford, he played me in the full-back line,” Keegan told GAA.ie at the launch of the 2019 John West National Féile in Croke Park.
“I took a lot of harsh lessons in the league that year. To be honest, it’s a positive for myself, it shows me the trust that management have when they put me on those danger men.
“It’s something I’ve done over the last three to four years anyway. Sometimes it’s not the nicest job to get because you know exactly what’s coming your way. I got to mark Sean O’Shea against Kerry, a fantastic player, probably one of the best players in the League. Myself, I knew that if I didn’t have my game right for Croke Park I would get a bit of a toasting.
“So it’s probably been more of a role that I’ve embraced the last three or four years. I’d have been more of an attacking wing-back, but first and foremost, I am a defender and it's about stopping forwards scoring rather than going up and scoring myself.
“We have a lot of attacking wing-backs, look at Paddy Durcan, his record is pretty sick for scoring for us at the moment. If these guys are able to do it, it's important then that I do my man-marking role to the best I can.
“I actually enjoy it to be honest, having that trust that I'm going to marking their marquee forwards. It brings a bit of nervous tension, that I'm doing something right in training and that the manager is picking me to mark this guy. You want to mark him to the best of your ability, but you don’t want to let the team down also.”
That’s not to say that every game has been a walk in the park for Keegan. The Westport man is quick to point out the tough days when an assignment has gone wrong. Those difficult encounters however have provided him with plenty of valuable lessons on where he needs to be.
“There are some scary moments. I’ve got some absolute cleanings before, and I’ve learned more from them than a guy I’d done well on. I remember marking Darran O'Sullivan in a league game and he gave me a right hockeying, but instead of going sulking about it, I took it as a positive, because this is the standard of man-marking I need to get to. They are the best lessons I ever took.”
But is there a science to winning your duel, a forensic approach to negating the talent of a top forward?
“I'm very horizontal, so studying is not really my thing!” jokes Keegan. “Ah listen, I suppose we're in a bubble, you are aware of the opponent, the scores he's taken and the performances he has put in. You are aware of the threat he is against you.
“You’re going to mark him to the best of your ability, especially when you get to Croke Park. It’s a wide, expansive game, there is a lot of ground to cover up there. We were very aware of some of the forwards we were marking for Kerry, they definitely shone very much throughout the league. We felt if we got a foot grip there, and kept them to a minimum of scores we would have a huge chance.
“It’s a tough one. I suppose you have to take it as it is. There’s no point wallowing in the corner thinking ‘I have to mark this lad at the weekend’, you have to take it as a compliment.
“It’s just natural, whoever wants it more. I think it always adds to the game when you have a couple of good match-ups, it adds a bit of spice to each game. I’ve been lucky enough to mark some good forwards of the last few years, and I’ve had some great tussles with them.”