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Keegan bows out at the top

Sport

THE FANS’ FAVOURITE Lee Keegan poses for photos with Mayo and Monaghan supporters after a National League match  in Clones last year. Pic: Sportsfile


The Way I see it
Ger Flanagan

DENIAL is a strong state of mind.
It can be so severe that even in circumstances where the reality of the situation is standing right before your eyes and still, you refuse to believe.
This was the case last week when we heard that the great Lee Keegan was officially hanging up his boots for Mayo, bringing an end to the inter-county career of our greatest ever player.
Thankfully, I do believe the state of mind I’m currently in is more a defence mechanism than a cognitive issue, because not seeing him in a Mayo jersey anymore just doesn’t seem right.
Firstly, it’s rare that a player goes out at the top of his game on his own terms and, while the 33 year-old Leeroy Keegan might not be the 2016 ‘Footballer of the Year’ version, the 2023 version isn’t a million miles off it.
Secondly, and cruelly, the Westport man bowing out without a Celtic Cross feels so unjust that it makes you question everything from the death of JFK to Bertie Ahern having no bank account.
But that’s sport in a nutshell, and maybe the situation might have been much worse if Keegan had overstayed his welcome, was in his own state of denial and, in the short term at least, took some of the shine off his legacy.
Kind of like Cristiano Ronaldo, but let’s not get into that again.
Listening to his fascinating interview on the Mayo Football Podcast last week, the Westport man sounded completely at ease and content with his decision to bow out on his own terms.
What speaks volume about Lee Keegan is the universal admiration and respect that people have for him. He’s as popular outside of the county as he is in it.
Despite his abrasive playing style, that so blatantly flirted with the edge to the point that people were beginning to ask questions, he has remained a hugely popular figure in the GAA world.
Compare that to any of the generational players this county has had over the past decade, we reckon only Keith Higgins and Colm Boyle could be considered in the same bracket.
This columnist was attending a wedding in the midlands last summer and, naturally, the football talk was in full flow throughout the weekend.The hot topic was if Mayo will ever win an All-Ireland; followed by the the brilliance of Lee Keegan.
His excellence on the field was followed by his soundness off it, and I couldn’t get over the amount of people who had personal stories and anecdotes about meeting him down through the years and being nothing but impressed with his attitude.
That nonchalant style was how he approached his football too.
I fondly remember after he won his ‘Football of the Year’ award in 2016, Keegan was lining out in the Connacht Intermediate club championship semi-final in MacHale Park against Monivea only two days later.
It was a scrappy game and a gale-force wind was preventing any real football from breaking out. But at half-time when the two teams were walking into the tunnel, a member of the opposing management team started giving Keegan ‘guff’ about him performing nothing like a ‘Player of the Year’.
It was a tense atmosphere and anyone else would have reacted, but all Keegan did was nod the head and respond with that familiar hearty smile and laugh we have seen so many times.
After the game, Keegan was absolutely mobbed by kids, parents and reporters alike.
It was at least 20 minutes after full-time by the time he made his way to the dressing room where he was intercepted by an eager young journo (yours truly) for a short interview and a more obliging and down-to-earth person you could not meet.
It’s no surprise really that his consistency to deliver in the biggest moments were one of his many and greatest strengths. Lee Keegan didn’t do pressure, seemingly, and possessed a gift where he could pull a rabbit out of the hat at the times when it was most needed.
This week there was another example of the kind of personality Lee Keegan is when he chose to do his first interview after retirement with Mike Finnerty, somebody he has known for almost 20 years.
It might not seem like much, but for a player of Keegan’s stature to do that says a lot about his priorities.
There were some fascinating nuggets in the interview.
Notably, how he worked closely with Donie Buckley to transform his game from an unlocked half-back to a defensively-minded defender; how he never once questioned James Horan and the management team when they made his switch to the full-back line a permanent one; clocking up 13-14km in the All-Ireland semi-final victory over Dublin; and how he just casually went for a 12k run during the week to relax and clear his head.
The goal in the 2016 All-Ireland final will never leave my memory.
Standing in a rain-soaked Hill 16, the pace at which he took the pass and the execution of the shot under pressure, was Gaelic football at its very best.
The sound that erupted in Croke Park would have blown the roof off had there been one.
A year later, he managed to do the same thing, this time shooting into ‘The Hill’ and quietening the usually deafening Dubs.
They are memories that Mayo supporters will never forget and, in those seconds, filled us with the ecstasy and belief that maybe our time had come.
The fact it didn’t happen will probably sit worse with Mayo supporters than the man himself.
It’s a crying shame it wasn’t to be, but it certainly won’t define the legacy of Lee Keegan the player.
As so many people have said over the last week, thanks for the memories, Lee.

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