DIFFERENT CLASS Mayo’s Lee Keegan and Aidan O’Shea fist bump following the Connacht SFC semi-final win over Roscommon last season. Pic: Sportsfile
THE images of the daughters of Lee Keegan and Kevin McLoughlin being placed in the Nestor Cup in Croke Park after Mayo’s big win over Galway triggered a painful memory that still bristles . . . over seventy years later.
On the front page of the Sunday Press on a Monday morning in 1948 appeared a picture of a child sitting in the Sam Maguire Cup. He was the son of Cavan captain, John Joe O’Reilly, after they had beaten Mayo by a point in the All-Ireland final the previous day.
Too young at the time to take in the circumstances of that defeat or its implications we were still old enough to resent the photograph after learning that victory was stolen from Mayo.
Like last week’s Connacht final, Mayo were trailing at half-time in the All-Ireland final of 1948. Having played against wind and rain they failed to score in the first half.
Down eleven points, they stormed back after the break and were only one behind nearing the end when a close-in free taken by Padraic Carney was illegally charged down by a Cavan player . . . and went unpunished by the referee.
Then with some three minutes still remaining, the referee called full-time just as Peter Quinn was about to punch the ball over the bar for the equaliser.
We carried that sense of injustice for a long time. We begrudged Cavan the spoils even after Mayo were crowned All-Ireland champions two years later.
The Nestor Cup was not the prize for a Connacht title in those years, and its value is a pale shadow of the award for an All-Ireland win. Pity, though, that the Covid virus restrictions decreed that for the second year running, the cup be returned to Connacht Council secretary John Prenty for safe keeping after the presentation ceremony.
Now, eyes are focused on a greater prize. How appropriate it would be and how fitting if Aidan O’Shea got to raise the Sam Maguire in Croke Park and Lee Keegan and Kevin McLoughlin got to place their little girls in the coveted trophy.
Everlasting mementos for the wall of every house and pub in the county.
(Be sure, too, that Sam would not fall to pieces as happened at the presentation of the Leinster Under-20 Cup to the captain of the winning Offaly team. As he raised the trophy, a handle came off in the captain’s hand, cheapening it’s worth and demeaning the significance of the victory.)
No trinity of players has done more to realise their All-Ireland dream than O’Shea, Keegan and McLoughlin. In a career festooned with every honour short of the ultimate prize, O’Shea has been the powerhouse of Mayo’s achievements.
The Breaffy man has survived the taunts of opponents and the slings and arrows of those who envy his abilities. It must, therefore, come as a great sense of personal satisfaction to him when he leads his team to success having himself been exemplary in every performance.
Kevin McLoughlin is Mayo’s unsung hero, channelling as only he can the disparate strands of talent around him into a unifying force.
Only when absent is the Knockmore man truly missed. Called in by James Horan at half-time against Galway, he made things happen instantly. Like a chameleon he’s hard to spot.
He occupies no one position. He’s out there linking, distributing, intercepting, spotting openings and pointing the way with accurate passes. More than once he has come to Mayo’s rescue.
And yet, he is not good enough to win an All-Star! Those who choose the All-Stars have yet to recognise there is more to the make-up of great footballers than catching and kicking.
Keegan still driving on
LEE Keegan’s special defensive attributes have enthralled his followers, and spawned complaints from the supporters of his adversaries about the legitimacy of his tactics in neutralising them.
The Westport man honed his skills on Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly in their famous All-Ireland clashes during the last decade. Four All-Star awards testify to his qualities as a wingback, and those electrifying duels also earned him Player of the Year for 2016.
Connolly has left the scene, but Keegan rolls on, a little less sprightly perhaps, but more seasoned and more intuitive now from his corner-back role; the flair for spotting an opening still driving him on, still sensing a chance of the final, elusive honour.
Interviewed at the height of his tussles with Connolly, when his technique was being questioned, the Westport man said that while Connolly was a quality player he did not see why he should let him run around the pitch and do what he did best.
“If I did, sure he’d be kicking six or seven points a game and I’d be looking like a dud out there. I’m a defender, I’m going to try and negate his influence as much as possible.
“Believe me I love watching him play when he’s in top form, but I’m just there to do a job for Mayo and if I’m told to mark him that’s just what I have to do. We have nothing but respect for each other because at the end of the day we’re there to win games and there to win medals, and I’m sure he’d say the same thing if he was in this position.”
Keegan said his name was being targeted for certain aspects of his game but he had no intention of stopping how hard he plays. “I play hard. I play as fair as possible. I’m there to win at all costs. Forwards are recognized for their scoring ability and setting up scores and whatever. We just look like the bullies and the thugs because we’re the ones stopping them.
“Every supporter wants to see the forwards running around, kicking these beautiful scores and that, but we have to do the ugly work and the uncompromised stuff where we have to stop these players because if we don’t there’s no hope for us at all either.
“As defenders you just have to do what other people are not willing to do. I’ve no beef with that at all. I’m very comfortable in saying that because I’m a defender and when it comes to winning games I have to stop a forward.”
Keegan’s philosophy is reflected in his four All-Star awards. He, McLoughlin and O’Shea are the longest serving members of the team, still producing the quality that has sustained them through the cauldron of championship emotions.
For more than a decade they have monopolised our thoughts, tweaked our dreams, thrilled us with explosions of energy, come so close so often to ultimate glory that you wonder does nobody up there like them.
And yet they persevere.
Like Ol’ Man River they just keep rolling along.