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Lee Keegan proving age is just a number

John West Féile Ambassador and Mayo footballer Lee Keegan in attendance during the John West Féile 2022 Launch at Croke Park in Dublin. 

John West Féile Ambassador and Mayo footballer Lee Keegan in attendance during the John West Féile 2022 Launch at Croke Park in Dublin. 

By John Harrington

Lee Keegan does a good impression of a man who isn’t ageing every time he pulls on a Mayo jersey, but occasionaly even he can’t ignore the passing of time.

When he roomed with fellow Mayo defender Sam Callinan for Mayo’s trip to play Monaghan in this year's Allianz League there was no escaping the fact he’s now very much a veteran of the game.

Callinan is 18 years old and studying for his Leaving Cert whereas Keegan is 32 years old and married with two children.

It doesn’t feel all that long ago since he was the young buck rooming with an older team-mate on an away trip with Mayo.

It was his first championship season, 2011, and Mayo travelled to play London in a Connacht Championship match they were fortunate to win after extra-time.

Keegan was bunking with Peadar Gardiner whose plans for a restful night weren’t helped by his younger room-mate.

“I remember getting a phone call at half two from someone, this is before the championship game,” said Keegan at the launch of the John West Féile.

“I heard a grunt in the bed I don’t think Peadar was too pleased so I went into the toilet but there was more of an echo from the toilet than if I had sat on the bed.

“I think it was one of mates on the beer over in London, I don’t know why I took it! Peadar wasn’t too pleased!”

Keegan grew up quickly in Mayo’s high-performance environment, but in some ways the wheel has come full circle because he has learned the value of not taking the game too seriously.

A football obsessive who always held himself to exactingly high standards, he now has a more rounded view on the game and puts a priority on enjoying it first and foremost.

Lee Keegan in action against Kerry's Colm Cooper in the 2011 All-Ireland SFC semi-final, his first senior championship season with Mayo. 

Lee Keegan in action against Kerry's Colm Cooper in the 2011 All-Ireland SFC semi-final, his first senior championship season with Mayo. 

"The pandemic came at a great time for myself, personally,” he says. “And kids, they put a lot of perspective on life. Football is no longer your main focus anymore.

“Whereas football before was your sole goal, if you're committed into it like we in Mayo are. It just engrosses, and takes over your life. That's a good thing because it's a good thing to have. Since the pandemic a lot of stuff has been put into perspective. I enjoy it more than I ever have. It's more of a break for me to go in and enjoy the social aspect, keeping fit, keeping healthy.

“Not that I'm too much older, but where I'm at it's good to see if I'm competing with the younger guys in Mayo as well. I was sharing a room with an 18-year-old for the Monaghan game and that definitely put me up the wrong wall. I thought, 'now we're in serious business here!”

The volume of matches that Keegan still plays for Mayo is very impressive considering his age and the fact that he has had surgery on both hips, a shoulder, and an ankle.

He has learned the benefit of listening to his body and if he feels like he’s getting into the red-zone he has enough credit in the bank with manager James Horan to say he needs to ease off the gas.

“I've a lot of mileage done so it's all about body management,” says Keegan. “I'm lucky that Conor Finn (S&C) and James Horan understand that. They know what I've done in the past and am currently doing as well. So it's just about managing myself.

“If there's heavy loads coming, and there's days I might need to take back a little bit, we can do that too. So there's a lot of flexibility in terms of what I'm able to do and able to give. For myself, I'm trying to go full hog all the time.

“I still think I'm 21 sometimes. I probably tailor it more to how I feel and just be smarter all around about how the season is going to progress. I'd say this year because it's a shorter season, any injury is going to put you off so it's just about minding yourself as much as possible.

“It's hard when you've games coming thick and fast, and Division 1 is the way it is. As I said I'm lucky to have the likes of Conor Finn who I can just give a phone call to about a gym session, or whatever it might be, and we might tip it back for training the next night. For myself it's been about being smart over the last three, four, five years.”

Not many footballers have the wherewithal to evolve from being an attack-minded half-back into specialist marker in the full-back line in the manner that Keegan has in recent years, especially at this stage of his career.

Lee Keegan scores a goal for Mayo against Dublin in the 2019 All-Ireland SFC semi-final. 

Lee Keegan scores a goal for Mayo against Dublin in the 2019 All-Ireland SFC semi-final. 

Considering just how effective he is at buccaneering down the field and offering himself as an attacking outlet, it must take an awful lot of self-discipline to instead dedicate himself to curbing someone else’s game?

“It's definitely a new perspective on Gaelic,” he says. “It's a good challenge, I enjoy it. It shows James has a lot of trust in me still to mark some of the top guys out there. It's interesting, at times. But I do enjoy it. If I look at my career over 10, 12 years I've gone from an out-and-out attacking half-back to being solely a corner or full-back with the option of sometimes going out to the half-back line.

“So I'm gone from a freelance scorer to whatever I am at the moment. But James still gives me licence to get forward as best I can. I'm probably just a bit smarter in how I do it.

“I can't do what I did when I was 23, 24 and make 15 runs a half. I have to be a bit smarter with how I use my runs and energy. It has definitely changed. It's a challenge and I'm enjoying it. I've had some good days and bad days, but the bad days always make you come out for the better once you learn from them.”

The nature of marking the very best inside forwards in the game is that sometimes you’re going to be cleaned out, despite your best efforts.

If your half-back line is offering little protection and there’s a steady stream of ball coming into someone like David Clifford, you’re pretty much on a hiding to nothing.

And even if you win the vast majority of balls that come down your channel and clear your lines time and again, it only takes one slip or mis-timed tackle for you to be at fault for the goal that everyone focuses on after the match.

Lee Keegan in action against Dublin's Con O'Callaghan in the 2019 All-Ireland SFC semi-final. 

Lee Keegan in action against Dublin's Con O'Callaghan in the 2019 All-Ireland SFC semi-final. 

In his new role Keegan has had no option but to develop the mental strength to bounce back from an occasional set-back.

“The biggest thing I found was you have 30 yards to cover behind you as well,” he says. “You're on the last line of defence so if you've one slip or fall or make a bad judgement it's nearly a goal chance straight away. When you're a half-back you probably have that more of a fail safe.

“So if you do slip you've a guy who can help you or you'll make up the ground yourself. That was the biggest difference I found initially going back there full-time a few years ago. Get used to your man either getting a couple of scores or getting on the ball.

“There are going to be times where you're going to struggle or slip and be in a position where you can't do anything about it. That's where you have to get comfortable with that.

“Whereas before, if I made a mistake on the half-back I know potentially I'm going to get away with it. So I eventually got there and that's just the way it is. When you're coming up against the Cliffords of this world, or Dean Rock, they're high quality forwards.

“They're going to score. That's just the nature of their game so it's about trying to negate their influence as best as possible. Whereas before you'd get obsessed with your man not even touching the ball but that's just not where the game is anymore.

“Your man is going to get the ball, he could get a score, it's how you deal with it and get on with the next play straight away.”

How Keegan deals with it is to learn from every mistake he makes and analyse the bad days at the office, even if that can be a painful process.

“That's the hardest thing sometimes, you need to review it, sit down and look at exactly what went wrong,” he says.

“Sometimes it's hard to say you got defeated by your man or he got the better of you, but they're the days that you really learn and knuckle down to your trade and you come back the next day and put that right.

“So I got too tight or was I too loose or should I have been this side? You put that into training and come to the match and if it comes off it's brilliant. So that mental side of things, it's brilliant.

“It is an education. It's just about sitting down, reviewing exactly where I can be better or how I can do better. If I can do it in the next game and it comes off, great. It mightn't come off straight away but I know if I keep working at it it's going to come good eventually.”

Up and coming Mayo footballer, Sam Callinan. 

Up and coming Mayo footballer, Sam Callinan. 

Keegan has embraced his role as one of the elder statesmen in this Mayo panel. He’s always available to pass on advice or feedback to a younger team-mate, and in turn he draws great energy from the buzz they bring to the set-up.

That being said, there are times he wishes the roles were reversed.

“It’s quite sickening sometimes (laughs). I decided one training session to go running with Sam Callinan and after about three runs I knew that this was never going to happen again.

“You see that naivety and the rawness of a young guy coming in. He doesn’t see the stuff we’ve probably seen over the years and the concept of the game. It’s the innocence of youth and for me as one of the older guys I love that because that used to be us.

“And they are coming in loving the game, playing free where sometimes players over think stuff, and for me I get great power off that because they are just playing football, there’s nothing else left or right of him just sees football and goes for it and I think there’s great innocence of a lad who can do that.”

Quite often a recently retired player, especially defenders, will tell you that they played with a lot of fear in the last couple of years of their careers.

You tend to realise just how high the stakes are the closer you get to the end of your career because your window of opportunity isn’t going to remain open for much longer.

And for defenders who tend to lose a yard of pace in their early thirties, the truism that very few corner-backs finish their career on a high note surely plays on the mind.

Not for Keegan, though. He’s adamant that every time he runs onto a pitch now it’s an experience to enjoy rather than worry about.

“I don't stress, to be honest,” he says. “Not about sport. I'm very lucky, I get to go out and play football.

“I don't stress about a lot of stuff. I think sport is for enjoying. We get uptight about a lot of stuff in life but sport is the one thing we should enjoy as best we can and I do anyway personally.”