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Saturday 10 December 2016

Keegan revels in real deal of Dublin

Goal hero Lee gears up for a Sky Blue epic as Mayo get back to where 'we plan to be'

Lee Keegan scores Mayo’s second goal during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final against Donegal at Croke Park.
Lee Keegan scores Mayo’s second goal during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final against Donegal at Croke Park.
Mayo’s Barry Moran in action against Ryan McHugh of Donegal during Saturday’s football quarter-final clash.

Mayo versus Donegal last Saturday; now Mayo against Dublin at the end of August. This, according to Lee Keegan, is "the real business end of the year, where the teams want to be. And we plan to be here every year we can."

So the record shows … five straight Connacht titles, and now five All-Ireland semi-finals on the bounce. And yet, if Sam is indeed "coming home to Mayo", this prodigal son will probably need a Sat-Nav to find his way back after 64 years.

Mayo's route to what Keegan calls "the holy grail" has been predictably routine within their province, and now laden with landmines at every juncture beyond.

Champions-elect

True, last weekend's quarter-final promised far more of a white-knuckle ride than materialised. Dublin are a different animal, even if the perception of them as invincible champions-elect has softened in the wake of Kerry's demolition job on Kildare and now Mayo's eight-point dismissal of Donegal.

"It was probably the first big heavyweight game of the year in terms of top-four teams," says Keegan. "So we just wanted to put down a statement for ourselves - we didn't look beyond this game at all for the last couple of weeks.

"Dublin, as people said, probably conceded a lot against Fermanagh ... they were still in control of the game for 70 minutes. People can say they were flat, but they took off a lot of their big hitters. They were looking at a semi-final from the last 20 minutes against Fermanagh. So it's going to be another heavyweight game ... we have to be ready for all outcomes."

Keegan couldn't have been more ready last Saturday night, popping up from his supposed wing-back sentry for Mayo's first two points, then chipping that match-ending goal on the restart.

The least convincing part of his 'Man of the Match' performance was the post-match insistence that he meant to lob Paul Durcan in such exquisite fashion: "Absolutely! No debate! And I'll take it to my grave if I have to!"

Yet, while Mayo fans are no strangers to seeing Keegan roam forward to deadly effect, they were just as enthused by the evidence of a coherent defensive structure behind him.

Their penchant for leaking too many goals was an obvious worry with Michael Murphy et al about to invade their patch.

What happened? Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly eschewed the county's usual gung-ho, man-for-man mantra by employing Barry Moran as a sweeper in front of the square, with Colm Boyle often doubling as a second free man in defence.

"We took a lot of flak conceding 2-11 against Sligo, so we had to work on something - we were kind of hurt from that," admits Keegan. "You always have to look at different ways for different games, it depends on the team we're playing."

Next up you-know-who. "Dublin are probably the team that everyone's looking at in terms of scores, defence, everything," he reflects. "They're definitely a team we look at too. It's just going to be a great challenge. It's always a great game to have in Croke Park … Dublin/Mayo always pop up with big, big games."

Pulverised

Except it didn't happen in the league last March, when Dublin pulverised their Castlebar hosts, 2-18 to 0-10.

"It's something we won't look back on too much. It was just one of those nights where we never got out of second gear, and Dublin put us to the sword early on," the two-time All Star recounts.

"No, I don't think it's going to be a factor for us. Again, we've played Dublin enough times over the last five years to know … in championship we've beaten them, they've beaten us in big games.

"From that point of view we know what we've to work on; they know what they've to work on. Again it's going to be a huge game, one we're really looking forward to, and guys are just biting at the bit."

Still, however the semi-final or even September pans out, no one can argue against Mayo's bounce-back-ability. To win five Connachts on the spin is a testament to their resilience; to win five quarter-finals on the trot, two of those against defending champions (Cork in 2011, Donegal in 2013), even more so.

"It's something we pride ourselves on," says Keegan. "I said a couple of weeks ago, winning any medal is a good medal. It's always a stepping stone, trying to get to the holy grail. A semi-final is just another stepping stone; we won't be looking any further than that.

"We have to knuckle down for three weeks and just give it everything we have."

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