"I’d give them all up to win one Celtic Cross" - Lee Keegan on winning Footballer of the Year and the "ultimate goal"

The Mayo defender explains how much it takes to keep competing at the highest level year after year

Lee Keegan

Image: ©INPHO/Donall Farmer 

Mayo were given two bites at the cherry this year in the All-Ireland against Dublin, but ultimately came up short.

Lee Keegan was consoled after the final whistle by Diarmuid Connolly, the Mayo man's 'nemesis' if we are to stick to the narrative. Of course, Keegan's day ended well before the final whistle - a first half black card meant that one of the best players in the country was forced to watch on as Stephen Rochford's side came up agonizingly short once again.

Mayo's famine - described by Keegan as a "farce" on Off The Ball earlier this month - went on, but his toils during the summer and throughout the year did not go unnoticed. Last week, the 27-year-old picked up the player of the year award ahead of Dublin duo Ciaran Kilkenny and Brian Fenton.

But while the accolade is a significant milestone in his inter-county career, Keegan admits that it wasn't the "ultimate goal" he had set out for at the start of the year.

"It’s a great honour to be honest," he said. "There’s a small number who have done it without winning All-Irelands. But to be recognised to be a great player in a great team, you have to win the ultimate goal. That’s the Sam Maguire.

"I’d give them all to win one Celtic Cross, but there’s a lot of work that goes into that.

"Again it can be very easy for me to say I’d give it up, Player of the Year is hard won as well because you’re getting picked by players that you’re kicking lumps out of for nine months of the year.

"I don’t go out to think about awards during the year, it’s ultimately about going out to win the main goal. That’s why I come back every year to train with Mayo. We believe that we can win it."

Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly embrace after the final whistle during the All-Ireland final replay. Image: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan 

Keegan, like many inter-county players, has put his life on hold in pursuit of winning the Sam Maguire and explains that it is not just he who has endure the long summer's toiling.

"Even from my partner’s point of view, she’d love to go travelling sometime or see part of the world during the summer, because she’s a teacher. She does be putting pressure on me at that time of the year.

"Of course you always think what the other possibilities could have been if I had played gaelic or if I had taken a year out. You look at Rory O’Carroll with St. Vincents, he’s probably not coming back next year either. He’s obviously enjoying his life away from football. But that’s easier from him because he has won three All-Ireland medals. 

"Winning the All-Ireland would influence a lot of things. I’d love to win the All-Ireland and go off for a year to relax.

"But there is a huge buzz out there don’t get me wrong, there’s no better feeling in the world. When you run out to Croke Park in front of 84,000 people, there’s no better feeling. The hairs on the back of your neck… I’m blessed that we’re able to compete on that level year in and year out.

"It's our choice and we love it. We love it so much and that's why we come back every year."

Mayo now look forward to the year ahead having learned the lessons of 2016 and know that they have a more stable base to operate from.

"It was Stephen’s first year so we were a bit slow out of the blocks between the league and being beaten by Galway at the start of the year. It’s not that it’s a trust thing it’s just about trying to get into a new regime.

"He obviously tried to implement different gameplans and systems. It wasn’t pretty but I think we got there toward the end… Next year we’ve got a number of U21s coming through and some minors, a group of lads who want to make that senior team.

"It’ll probably start on a more positive note because we know what Stephen brings to the game now. We know what to expect and we’re only inches away from what we need to get to. We can get that momentum as they year goes on because we were a bit slow going into the Championship, that’s why we got caught cold by Galway."

Lee Keegan was speaking at the launch of the GAA-GPA Opel All-Stars Jersey in support of the Childhood Cancer Foundation. To support Ireland's fight against childhood cancer and to make a donation, click here.