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Keegan: 'Kids put a lot of perspective on life. Football is no longer your main focus anymore'

But Lee Keegan stresses he has no retirement plans and that he enjoys playing for Mayo more than ever.

Mayo’s Lee Keegan with his daughter Lile after the 2021 All-Ireland final.
Mayo’s Lee Keegan with his daughter Lile after the 2021 All-Ireland final.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

LEE KEEGAN WAS rooming with 18-year-old Sam Callinan last month before an away game against Monaghan when his senior status in the Mayo squad really hit home.

Leaving Cert student Callinan was just seven when Keegan made his debut for the county in 2011. 

Keegan reflects on his first away trip with Mayo – the famous Connacht SFC clash against London that summer when James Horan’s team squeezed through in extra-time.

Back then, he was the young whippersnapper rooming with a grizzled veteran, Peadar Gardiner. 

“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,” he laughs.

“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. 

“I think it was one of mates on the beer over in London, I don’t know why I took it! Peadar wasn’t too pleased.” 

The 32-year-old didn’t feature off the bench that afternoon. He made his debut off the bench in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork. By 2012, Keegan established himself at wing-back, played in an All-Ireland final and won an All-Star. He’s barely looked back since. 

“To be honest it has been madness, but it has been brilliant, the craic we’ve had,” he says of the journey since then. 

The enjoyment factor has always been there for the Westport clubman. He doesn’t waste mental energy wondering about the outcome of a game or if his time is running out.

“I don’t stress, to be honest. Not about sport. I’m very lucky, I get to go out and play football. I’m healthy, I’m still relatively young, in terms of football. I can’t see, even when I do retire, me stressing too much about stuff like that.

“I’d be the total opposite now. I love going training two times a week and a game at the weekend.

“I’m lucky I get to do my S&C locally in Westport so it gives me a bit more flexibility to be at home a bit more.

“I don’t stress about a lot of stuff. I think sport is for enjoying. We get uptight about a lot of stuff in life but sport is the one thing we should enjoy as best we can and I do anyway personally.”

He brushes off the question of whether retirement is on the horizon. 

“I’ve loads of campaigns left, sure I’m a spring lamb! There’s no talk of that, unless the wife or kids tell me otherwise.”

“I’ve a lot of mileage done so it’s all about body management,” he adds.

“It’s just about managing myself. If there’s heavy loads coming, and there’s days I might need to take back a little bit, we can do that too. So there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of what I’m able to do and able to give. For myself, I’m trying to go full hog all the time. 

lee-keegan Lee Keegan takes flight. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

 ”I still think I’m 21 sometimes. I probably tailor it more to how I feel and just be smarter all around about how the season is going to progress.

“I’d say this year because it’s a shorter season, any injury is going to put you off so it’s just about minding yourself as much as possible. It’s hard when you’ve games coming thick and fast, and Division 1 is the way it is.

“I’m lucky to have the likes of Conor Finn (S&C coach) who I can just give a phone call to about a gym session, or whatever it might be, and we might tip it back for training the next night.

“For myself it’s been about being smart over the last three, four, five years.”

After going relatively injury free in his inter-county career up until 2016, Keegan endured a tough few years with injury. He had both hips, his shoulder and ankle operated on as the physicality of the game caught up with him. 

“They were keyhole (surgeries). There was nothing massively repaired. My hips, we had to shave a bit of bone off. The ankle was keyhole and the shoulder was as well. It’s just that you’re away from the pitch for three or four months and you’re kind of chasing your tail.

“Sometimes what can happen is you’re working so hard and you’re trying your best to get back to a high level of performance that it just doesn’t work. Sometimes the more you try the less you get from it.

“You don’t want to be missing anything. I was lucky from when I first came in in 2012 I had no injury up until 2016 so I had a clear run of it. But when you get one injury you can get another niggle straight away and that does frustrate you but you have to find some solace somewhere.

“I was a bit of a head the ball, I wanted to challenge myself to get back quicker from an injury and sometimes that’s probably the worst thing you can do. Then you can pick up a hamstring injury or something in rehab is done wrong.”

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For that reason the pandemic came at the right time. With two young daughters at home, Keegan has been able spend more time with his family and give his body the rest it required. 

“Pandemic came at a great time for myself, personally. – and kids, they put a lot of perspective on life. Football is no longer your main focus anymore. Whereas football before was your sole goal, if you’re committed into it like we in Mayo are.

“It just engrosses, and takes over your life. That’s a good thing to have. Since the pandemic a lot of stuff has been put into perspective. I enjoy it more than I ever have.

“It’s more of a break for me to go in and enjoy the social aspect, keeping fit, keeping healthy. Not that I’m too much older, but where I’m at it’s good to see if I’m competing with the younger guys in Mayo as well.”

john-west-feile-2022-launch Lee Keegan in attendance during the John West Féile 2022 launch. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

He has shifted back to the full-back line in recent years, but embraces that challenge too. 

“It’s definitely a new perspective on Gaelic. 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 runs and energy.

“It has definitely changed. It’s a challenge and I’m enjoying it. I’ve had some good days and bad days, but the bad days always make you come out for the better once you learn from them.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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