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The man for the big day

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PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST A general view of Croke Park as Lee Keegan of Mayo brings the ball forward during the 2021 All-Ireland SFC Final at Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile

Has anyone been better in All-Ireland finals than Lee Keegan?

Analysis
Edwin McGreal

NOBODY can doubt that Lee Keegan, above any other Mayo player of his generation, delivered most on the big day.
It has been one of the common methods of praising him in the days since his retirement. How he was the Mayo player who stood tallest in Mayo’s All-Ireland finals this past decade – that’s seven finals, including one replay, if you’re keeping count.
But we think this only scratches the surface of just how good he was in All-Ireland finals.
We’re going to go further than that and say Lee Keegan was the best player of his generation in All-Ireland finals, from not just losing teams, but winning ones as well.
He played in seven finals and never once did his performance levels dip. Even when harshly black carded near the end of the first half of the 2016 replay, Keegan had already scored a goal for the ages.
He scored 2-4 in finals, all the while often shutting down one of the opposition’s key attackers.
Dublin were a great team, perhaps the greatest we will ever see, but had they a player who reached such consistently high levels on the big day as Lee Keegan?
Brian Fenton? He struggled on Jack Barry in both games in 2019 and was more solid than spectacular in the three finals before that.
Stephen Cluxton? He had a poor final in 2015 and Mayo put him under considerable pressure in the 2016/17 finals.
We can go through them all and no player has reached Keegan’s consistently high standards.
They won’t care – they left with what mattered, but Keegan was a man apart.
Of course we can be accused of subjective bias here, so in order to inform our analysis we went back into the archives and looked at player ratings in all the finals Mayo played in since 2012 and did likewise with Dublin’s finals since 2011 – an incredible eleven finals.
Player ratings are not foolproof, but represent a good guide as to who played well in games.
In w ratings for those seven finals, Keegan has an incredible average of 8.43. That’s four 8s and three 9s. He was selected as Mayo’s best player by us for three of those finals (2012, 2013 and 2021).
For context and comparison, how does that compare to the Dubs?
Colm Keys and Donnchadh Boyle in the Irish Independent are among the most discerning judges in the GAA media and between them rated Dublin players in every final since 2011.
No Dublin player gets near Keegan’s numbers. Con O’Callaghan is on 7.6 from five finals. Stephen Cluxton is next on 7.5. Brian Fenton, James McCarthy, Jack McCaffrey, Philly McMahon and Ciarán Kilkenny all hover around the 7 mark average.
Okay, so perhaps we in the local newspaper might be accused of being partisan in our ratings for Mayo players – a charge we would strongly protest!
But how does Lee Keegan compare in the ratings in the Independent? He outranks every one of the Dubs there too, with an average of 7.71.
This is closer to the Dubs, but from experience of compiling and reading ratings for nearly 20 years, let me say this much: it is a lot easier to get a higher rating on a winning team than a losing team.
Every positive contribution to a winning team gets magnified and every mistake has less import. The opposite is true of being on the losing team. So to outrank every single Dublin player in All-Ireland finals since 2011 is an utterly remarkable achievement.
‘Keegan was something else’
IT also demonstrates how much Mayo needed to be on top of their game to compete with the Dubs. Michael Foley, GAA correspondent with The Sunday Times, is a shrewd judge of the game and reflects on Keegan’s form.
“Keegan was something else. I think Mayo only had a few players who would have made the Dublin team and Keegan was definitely one of them. It is testament to how close they went to them when you consider that.
“The Dubs could afford a few of their main men to dip and still prevail. Mayo couldn’t. They needed the Keegans and the Boyles to be coming with 8s. Any dips from the likes of Aidan O’Shea was magnified because they had no one to pick up the slack,” he said.
How about we go back a little bit further?
Kerry and Tyrone were the teams of the noughties – others can decide which team came out on top.
“Brian Dooher was relentlessly good in September, Peter Canavan was hugely effective in finals,” said Michael Foley.
“For Kerry, the Gooch was excellent in so many finals in the noughties and his scoring record in finals is incredible.
“Declan O’Sullivan was always very good even if he had some tough moments in 2011. The Ó Ses were all consistently good too. Marc was always really good in finals and Darragh was pretty consistently good even if Tyrone clipped his wings in some of the games,” added Foley.
There’s a critical mass needed for these things. Keegan has played in seven and consistently performed in all of them.
In the 1990s there were eight different All-Ireland winning counties so nobody came close to playing in seven finals. The same applies for many other top teams down through the decades.
You’re heading back then to the 1970s and 1980s to find anyone else who consistently hit Keegan’s levels in so many All-Ireland finals.
There were no player ratings during Kerry’s eight All-Ireland wins from 1975 to 1986, but Foley has literally written a book from that era. His excellent ‘Kings of September’ book on Offaly’s famous win over Kerry in 1982 saw him pore over all of those Kerry golden years and interview most of those players.
“Pat Spillane is the one who jumps out as someone on the same level as Keegan in those finals. Reading the reports, he was considered one of Kerry’s best two players in 1975, ‘dangerous’ in 1976, ‘outstanding’ in 1978, ‘brilliant’ in 1979 and ‘good’ against Roscommon in the war in 1980.
“He missed the 1981 final with injury and should not really have come on in the 1982 final. “But then he was man of the match in most papers in 1984, man of the match in a few in 1986 and while he was fairly well held in 1985, he still got two points, including a key score late on.
“So if you’re looking for an all-time comparison, Lee Keegan is up there with Pat Spillane in terms of consistently turning up on the big day and nailing it,” said Foley.
Spillane, Cooper, Canavan, Keegan … quite the company to keep.
Of course the first three left with 14 Celtic crosses between them.
Keegan, sadly, departs with none.
It can be very reductive to judge a player by All-Ireland medals though.
Lee Keegan is the perfect example of this. Never mind the best Mayo player we’ve seen, he will go down as one of the very best players of the modern era.

KEY NUMBERS
8.43
Lee Keegan’s average rating in his seven All-Ireland finals

2-4
What Lee Keegan scored from defence in those seven finals

7.6
The average rating of Dublin’s Con O’Callaghan in those finals, the highest rating of any Dublin player

 

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