The last time he was in action in Croke Park, Lee Keegan was sent off by referee David Coldrick just before the short-whistle. While Keegan was cleared to play in the replay of that semi-final against Kerry it is something that he does not look back on with anger, even if it did probably hamper his preparation for the replay the following week, as a number of days of will he or won't he be allowed to play had to be negotiated before he got the all clear. "Again no blame, that was something I had to take myself and again I'm not someone to point the finger, that was subsquently my own thing. It was mentally draining week, it was very tough leading into a big game. But I had a very strong group of players around me and the management had a good belief that I would be ready for the game on the Saturday, which was a great confidence booster."
The Westport man is someone who does not look for excuses, when looking back on how Mayo missed out on beating Kerry in the controversial semi-final series, there is a cold hard simple truth to the reason Mayo lost that battle he believes. "It was tough to take. I tend not to look back on it too much, because I prefer to be looking forward. We took a lot from the games and people say it was the referee's fault and this and that. I don't have any problem with people having opinions, we lost the game because we weren't good enough on the day." Expanding on that belief the All Star winner added: "I make peace with it because at the end of the day, if we were good enough we'd have put the ball over the bar more times than Kerry, and we didn't and that's the reality, that's Gaelic football at the top level. Kerry took their chances when they had them, we had our chance the first day and we didn't take it, we had our chance the second day and we didn't take it, and I said it's very easy to point fingers at this person and that person, but it's down to ourselves on the day to take our chances, and Kerry went on to win the All Ireland because of it."
Back to the big house
Tomorrow afternoon, Keegan and his fellow Mayo players will be back in Croke Park looking to book their place in the All Ireland semi-final for the fifth year in a row, standing in their way is a Donegal outfit who have been on a very similar path to Mayo's over the last four years, with the one caveat Donegal have their Celtic Crosses in their back pockets after their 2012 win over Keegan and his team-mates. And the lack of that medal is what drives them on to keep going he says. "They are just hard to take [All Ireland final losses], there are some things you probably never get over, you have to [try to] get over them and we come back every year and strive for one final goal and that goal is obviously to win Sam, and to get there we have to take it one game at a time, so I don't tend to look back no matter how hard they are. I might look back in my older days when I've won medals."
It has been a long four and half years for Mayo since they burst back to the top level of the game in 2011 under James Horan, but the drive and determination to get over the finish line is what has brought the core group of players back for more, year after year, Keegan believes. "I think the key thing is we come back every year because we believe that there is more in this team than the previous year. I come back because I believe there's an All Ireland in this team, and again make ourselves better players year in year out and progress and that's the key thing for us, you're always looking to improve you game and improve yourself as a player. We've taken a lot of knocks, but hopefully there'll be a few bits of joy too."
Winning medals and winning games is what Keegan is all about and being part of a Mayo team that claimed five Connacht titles in a row is something of which he is very proud. "That's what drives us, winning medals is always a huge achievement and a five-in-a-row again, it was very historic for us as a set of players, it was a great incentive going into the final. Probably not the best facilities to be going to in Hyde Park, but we took it anyway. It was definitely a historic moment and we enjoyed it thoroughly, it was another chance to pick up a medal and get back to Croke Park and this is where the business starts now."
Looking over your shoulder
While there have not been too many changes to Mayo's starting 15 this year under Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, the competition for places has stepped up a bit this year with a number of younger players and older ones biting at the established starters for a place in the starting side. "The likes of Paddy Durcan, Diarmuid O'Connor, Stephen Coen, like these guys are really hot on our heels, it's great for us and adds to really good competition in A v B games in training. They aren't looking behind them, they are just looking forward at us. It really keeps us going during the year, you mentioned the big breaks between games, but these guys are loving the breaks because they are putting us under pressure and they see a great opportunity for a place as well. Definitely Pat and Noel have brought a great emphasis on the younger lads coming through and you've seen it during the league, they were all given their game time so they had got that bit of experience early, and again in the Connacht final they got a chance to show their skills."
Mayo will go from having just two games they have won with relative ease since they last met Donegal in their final league game, to facing a battle hardened side who have had five tough championship games under their belt along with a league semi-final, but if you want to be the best it is not going to be easy says Keegan. "If you're going to win it, it's going to be the hard way, that's the route we have to take. I wouldn't even look past the quarter-final, we're just focused on ourselves, and whatever comes our way we have to accept it."