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Irish Mirror
Irish Mirror
Pat Nolan

Colm Boyle column: Lee Keegan was a sensational footballer for Mayo and a privilege to play with

A quick scroll through Twitter this morning brought news that I had been expecting around Lee Keegan’s retirement, but it didn’t make it any easier to take.

From talking to Lee over the past few months, I felt that he was leaning this way but the acute disappointment that came with the confirmation soon gave way to appreciation for everything that he has contributed to Mayo football.

I once came across a comment from Pep Guardiola: “If you work like a beast in training, you will play the same way.”

READ MORE: Lee Keegan - The Ultimate competitor: an unrivalled force of nature

Well, if ever a quote summed Lee Keegan up, that was it. He was an animal in every drill. He trained like each session was his last and that made the player that sparkled on matchday. He put his body through hell to become that player. Then he visited hell on any player that he was designated to mark, a job that he did better than anyone.

Lee had many talents - man-marking, athleticism and his dynamic power amongst many, but his ability to attack and score from deep consistently was unprecedented. It begs the question - could he have developed as a forward?

His 7-48 from play in 67 Championship games would suggest an emphatic yes. That mind-blowing record is even more remarkable for the fact he achieved it while invariably marking the opposition’s best forward.

He played at wing-forward for the early part of the league in 2014 but once the serious stuff began, he was back in his now famed No 5 jersey.

His duels with Diarmuid Connolly became iconic but he was the only one of us that could have taken Connolly on physically - and he did.

As a teenager, rugby was his sporting priority. He didn’t make the Mayo minor squad but played two years at under-21. His first year on the senior panel was in 2011 as a squad player.

He did make a late cameo against Kerry in that year’s semi-final when the game was lost but one of the first acts was to receive a ball around the 45 and drill it over the bar with the outside of the boot - a kicking action that was to become his trademark over the next decade. Little did we know it that day, but a star was born.

In 2012 he won his first of five All Stars but it was the following year when we all realised that this fella was a bit special. He had developed physically and aerobically into a specimen that very few could match. Throw into the mix his sheer football ability and it was a frightening concoction.

It certainly wasn’t all plain sailing for Lee. By his standards he had a couple of barren years in 2018 and ‘19, mainly due to injuries. Those were the only years in his career as a starting player where he wasn’t nominated for an All Star; he went through a spell where it felt like he was on the treatment table as much as the training pitch and it took a toll on his body.

It all added up to one of his most testing days in Mayo Jersey when picking up Con O’Callaghan in the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final. The fact that Lee sustained a serious ankle injury against Armagh six weeks earlier meant he was nowhere near his best.

Looking back, he probably shouldn’t have been on the pitch at all - never mind picking up the best forward in the country at that time. But still, during his toughest hour, he burst up the pitch and scored a goal into Hill 16 to try and drag us back into the game. Typical Lee.

If people were starting to wonder if he was past his best then he rubbished the notion in 2021. He had a truly remarkable year and returned to his best in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, when he turned the tables on O’Callaghan.

With Mayo trailing by four points with 20 minutes to go he drove up the pitch and kicked a score that ignited the team and supporters, infusing all with the belief that that day would be different. He finished the year with his fifth All Star and a third Footballer of the Year nomination.

2022 was his last dance. In a unique way, it was up there with his best seasons. The team was struggling but Lee’s willpower to drag his teammates through games was inspiring.

Unfortunately, there were too many holes to fill and his last appearance was in the All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Kerry, when, typically, he did exactly what he set out to do - he nullified his man, Paudie Clifford, for the game.

One of his biggest assets was his mindset, which enabled him to perform consistently on the biggest days no matter what challenge he faced.

He led the fight on so many occasions with scores and plays that lifted the team.

On so many occasions he sacrificed his own game for the collective good. No matter the opposition, you always felt you had a chance because Lee Keegan was on your side.

A sensational footballer and a privilege to play with for many years.


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