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Great rivalries: Connolly v Keegan battles summed up Mayo v Dublin

 

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Diarmuid Connolly tussles with Lee Keegan as Mayo’s David Clarke and Keith Higgins intervene in the 2016
All-Ireland final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Diarmuid Connolly tussles with Lee Keegan as Mayo’s David Clarke and Keith Higgins intervene in the 2016 All-Ireland final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Diarmuid Connolly tussles with Lee Keegan as Mayo’s David Clarke and Keith Higgins intervene in the 2016 All-Ireland final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

IN the long history of GAA head-to-heads, there has seldom been one so high-profile or combustible as the recurring battle of Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly.

This was pure opera with a pyrotechnic twist.

Shredded jerseys. Stunning goals. Cards of every hue. Disciplinary sagas stretching deep into the night. Alleged media campaigns. Social media counter-assaults in p***-taking retaliation.

These two supreme footballers squared off, man-to-man, in the All-Ireland final of 2013, the semi-final and replay of 2015, the final and replay of 2016.

Five close encounters of the gladiatorial kind. Half th e fun, though, was in following all the surreal sub-plots and sideshows.

Even without 20-20 hindsight, it was always likely to be epic. Connolly: perhaps the most gifted footballer of his generation. Keegan: a cussed defender and counter-attacking wonder, rolled into one.

Yet that last paragraph only skims the surface. Connolly v Keegan was Dublin v Mayo (a modern enmity like few others) in microcosm.

Connolly, for all his genius, was perceived by opponents as prone to eruption if you pressed enough buttons.

And Keegan was a button-presser par excellence.

They were in opposite camps for the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final but not in direct company on a day Keegan departed early through injury.

Outscoring

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Lee Keegan and  Diarmuid Connolly battle it out in the semi-final of 2015.

Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly battle it out in the semi-final of 2015.

Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly battle it out in the semi-final of 2015.

Their first summer face-off was the 2013 final: wing-back Keegan won the battle (outscoring his man 0-2 to 0-1) but Connolly's team won the war.

Two years later, the relationship turned incendiary.

The 2015 drawn semi-final was at times "unrefereeable", Kevin McStay reckoned on 'The Sunday Game', culminating in a Keegan/Connolly flashpoint in injury-time.

As the pair grappled off the ball, the Mayo back pulled his man to the ground before a wrestling match ensued.

It led to a yellow for Keegan but a straight red for Connolly, cited for striking with the hand.

Cue suspension for the replay… or maybe not. The most frenetic week in the history of GAA jurisprudence, involving trips to the CHC and CAC, concluded in Connolly's successful foray to the DRA - on a majority 2-1 ruling - the verdict delieverd around 2.30am on the morning of the game.

The freed 'Marino One' was duly parachuted in to start… but had minimal impact, little wonder given the multiple distractions.

Once again Keegan outscored his man - but was left to rue a fluffed chance to push Mayo five points clear.

On to the drawn All-Ireland of 2016, where both saw yellow after another bout of maggot-acting. The image of Connolly's theatrically ripped jersey seemed to encapsulate a relationship frayed beyond repair; again, if you check out the video, there were two matadors at it.

Typically, between spiky stalemate and nerve-shredding replay, it all got very tetchy.

Several former Dub players railed against Keegan's off-the-ball antics; Mayo folk spied an orchestrated smear campaign.

Thus was born #ThingsLeeDid - the Twitter hashtag that Mayo fans rallied around in mock derision of their omnipresent hero, who was suddenly responsible for everything from the Famine to Brexit, for sinking the Titanic, shooting Michael Collins - and JR.

He was also reputed to have developed a new quality control test for inter-county jerseys; endured arrest for assassinating JFK on foot of evidence from unnamed Dublin GAA sources; and went to pay at the checkout only to discover Connolly still in his back pocket.

He even elicited a stirring defence from 'Donald Trump', who declared: "I like the guy, we've lots in common 'cos we both want to annoy the f*** out of DC."

Most of you recall what happened next: Keegan scored a stupendous goal only for his day to end before half-time, black-carded for a foul on… you guessed it, who subsequently converted a crucial second-half penalty.

Maurice Deegan's decision was contentious - Connolly, himself no fan of the black card, would later maintain it was the right call in a SportsJoe.ie interview.

For Keegan, another 'what if?' season ended in some individual solace, voted Footballer of the Year.

Curiously, in their five SFC duels, the Mayo defender has tallied more from play (1-4) than his arch-rival (0-4).

Post-2016, Connolly's sporadic involvement contributed to Keegan being handed new Sky Blue missions - such as Ciarán Kilkenny in '17 and Con O'Callaghan last August.

But back at the height of their rivalry, the Westport man rubbished talk of bad blood. "I have nothing but respect for Diarmuid Connolly as a player," he insisted.

"If you look at his record, it is one of the best out there. It's complete competition, we are there to win."

To win at all costs.

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Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly up close and personal in the 2013 decider.

Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly up close and personal in the 2013 decider.

SPORTSFILE

Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly up close and personal in the 2013 decider.