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‘This is the strongest squad we’ve ever had,’ insists Lee Keegan as Mayo eye league final

John West Féile Ambassador and Mayo footballer Lee Keegan. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

James horan

Donnchadh Boyle

When Mayo travelled to play Monaghan in the league early last month, Lee Keegan roomed with the county’s youngest tyro.

Eighteen-year-old Sam Callinan is a Leaving Cert student, only dipping his toes in the inter-county scene.

When Keegan was his age, he couldn’t have been more different. He preferred rugby to football – and saw himself playing in the green of Connacht, rather than the green and red of Mayo.

But since his head was turned there’s been All-Ireland final heartbreaks along with national acclaim as well, and everything in between. Sharing with Callinan was a far cry from one of his early road trips with Mayo.

“It was in London in 2011 (sharing) with Peadar Gardiner,” Keegan recalled at the launch of John West Féile 2022 in Croke Park.

“I remember getting a phone call at half two in the morning from someone at home on the beer, this is before the championship game.

"I heard a grunt in the bed, I don’t think Peadar was too pleased. So I went into the toilet, but there was more of an echo from the toilet than if I had sat on the bed.”

That game was Mayo’s first championship match under James Horan. They needed extra-time to avoid disaster that day.

Keegan turns 33 later this year and under the tutelage of Horan once more, but he remains integral to Mayo, even if the faces at the top of the training runs have changed.

“I decided one training session to go running with Sam Callinan, and after about three runs I said that this was never going to happen again,” he smiles.

Keegan retains the qualities that made him so formidable, he just has to manage himself better. Known as one of the most devastating half-backs around, the Westport man is now housed in the full-back line.

“It’s a good challenge, I enjoy it. It shows James has a lot of trust in me still to mark some of the top guys out there.

“It’s interesting, at times. But I do enjoy it. If I look at my career over 10, 12 years I’ve gone from an out-and-out attacking half-back to being solely a corner- or full-back with the option of sometimes going out to the half-back line.

“So I’m gone from a freelance scorer to whatever I am at the moment. But James still gives me licence to get forward as best I can. I’m probably just a bit smarter in how I do it. I can’t do what I did when I was 23, 24 and make 15 runs a half. I have to be a bit smarter with how I use my energy.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to say you got defeated by your man, or he got the better of you. But they’re the days that you really learn, and knuckle down to your trade – and you come back the next day and put that right.

“So I got too tight or was I too loose, or should I have been this side? You put that into training and come to the match – and if it comes off, it’s brilliant. So that mental side of things, it’s brilliant. It is an education.”

Time has taken its toll of course. Life on football’s frontline does that. Four times he’s been under the surgeon’s knife for operations of varying significance, but lockdown had a silver lining.

“I think that cleared up a lot. I would have picked up a lot of niggles from contact injuries over the years. I had my shoulder, hips, and ankle done. No muscle injuries, they were all contact injuries.

“I just wanted to get them cleared up, but even just to get the body fresh. We had a really good time of four, five, six months from one game to another and I had a lot of time to just kind of get myself right. Then once the season came around I felt pretty refreshed, pretty good. And things just took off.

“I had a really good purple patch and I’m just trying now to carry that through, as best I can, from last year.”

And now he’s back at the Mayo tiller. Horan has cast the net wide – and Keegan reckons they have the best squad depth of any time since he has been involved, as they look to move into a league final with a win over Kildare on Sunday.

“Definitely, in terms of (squad depth), yes. Our performance was a bit patchy last weekend and people will probably question the team, but we have done that through the whole league – so nothing really changed, it was just a poor performance.

“The thing with Horan is, he is picking guys based on performances in training.

“And when you look at squad depth, last weekend, we were missing Paddy (Durcan), Diarmuid (O’Connor), a couple of those main guys – but then when you look around, it didn’t feel like you were missing them when the team was named, because we were very comfortable with who was coming in to do their job.

“So to answer your question, yeah I think we do have real depth in the squad.

“Even the Armagh game, the players that came off the bench got us over the line and that’s really important. And something we may have lacked over the years.

“We have a lot of good talent coming through in Mayo. James has explored that and he is not afraid to put them in and that is the same when we were their age.

“If they don’t get exposure now, they won’t be ready for championship. So it is important the get game time, to experience the elite county players and what they are marking – and how that environment works, so at the moment our squad depth is good and we are in a good place.”

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