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Keegan and Connolly a battle for the ages

Sport

Edwin McGreal
 
Last winter a gift arrived at Lee Keegan’s door. Inside were a brand, spanking new pair of New Balance football boots. The sender? One Diarmuid Connolly from Marino.
In light of what many people might think, there is a healthy respect between the duo.
Those involved with the Irish team attest to how well Keegan and Connolly got on when training together with the International Rules side last year and the gift of the New Balance boots (Connolly’s boot of choice and his former employers) underline this.
There has been much discussion on the duels between Keegan and Connolly in the run-up to the drawn All-Ireland Final and, particularly, since.
The highlights on The Sunday Game that night saw Ciarán Whelan point the finger squarely in Keegan’s direction for the incident which led to both of them being booked in the final quarter. This drew considerable ire among Mayo supporters who felt the former Dublin midfielder was ‘wearing the jersey’. Of course having pundits from competing counties will always lead to allegations of favouritism or bias. The likes of Whelan are in an unenviable situation.
However, the man beside him, Kerry’s Tomás Ó Se, probably put it better when he said ‘there was a pair of them in it’. That’s the crucial point that was missed in some of the commentary on their duel.
There’s an assumption that is often left unquestioned that Keegan must be the instigator as he is the defender, and the forward would never initiate it. Mickey Harte said the same about the incident which led to Seán Cavanagh and Keegan being booked before the start of the second half of the quarter final, even though he had not seen the incident himself.
To make such assumptions is to ignore the brilliance of Keegan’s attacking play across the last five seasons. He’s on course for a fourth All Star.
Consider that in their three championship tussles prior to this year’s final, Keegan had outscored Connolly from play by 0-4 to 0-2. Connolly may have offensive responsibilities for Dublin but don’t for a second think that he’ll be let off the hook by Jim Gavin if he allows Keegan influence the game on the front foot.
It’s testament to how good Connolly was defensively in the drawn game that not alone did Keegan not score, he did not even have a shot at the posts - a real rarity for the Westport man. Though Connolly’s point in that game was courtesy of a misplaced David Clarke kick-out, it ensured he outscored Keegan from play in a championship game for the first time in their four gripping duels.
Such assumptions about Keegan being the instigator also ignore his disciplinary record. He was red carded once for Mayo - controversially in the drawn Kerry game in 2014 - and in Westport, club people recall just one sending off, a double yellow against Kiltimagh in the 2015 Intermediate championship.
Connolly has his own history of dismissals and both seem to be able to give as good as they get. However, to read the views of some former Dublin footballers, you would think that Keegan did nothing but pull Connolly’s jersey from pillar to post. Such claims disregard the consistently excellent nature of Keegan’s defending, year on year.
John Gunnigan on the Mayo GAA Blog has described the comments from former Dublin players as a smear campaign against Keegan. We can’t be certain about that but it appears Keegan is being made the villain of the pantomime.
Let’s, therefore, look back at the incident for which both men got booked in the drawn game. It came from an incident where Mayo had turned over Ciarán Kilkenny and were about to attack. Keegan pushed Connolly. The Dublin forward then grabbed a hold of Keegan’s jersey and Keegan grabbed Connolly’s jersey in retort. He held on like a possessed man and certainly earned his yellow card.
Connolly had earned his too by that stage but could consider himself lucky that some of the blows he landed on Keegan were interpreted as efforts to free himself, even though some of them connected with Keegan’s head, and not the hand that was holding Connolly’s jersey. A red would have been harsh but in an age of endless analysis of every half contentious incident, those blows have escaped any discussion and Keegan has been considered by many to be the more aggressive party.
Ultimately, Keegan and Connolly is a fascinating duel. Always has been. You could imagine them being a feature piece on the 2026 equivalent of Thank GAA It’s Friday and the laughing and joking as they recall their jousts. You’d just as easily picture them on the high stool, having a few pints and enjoying each other’s company, a healthy respect enduring long after they retire.
For the rest of us we’re fortunate enough to be able to watch two of the country’s best footballers go toe to toe once more on Saturday. Like the game itself, let’s sit back, relax and may the best man win.

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