SHORTLY after Mitchelstown were beaten in the delayed 2020 Intermediate A football final by Rockchapel last August, Ballygiblin played Cobh in a challenge game in Cobh.
Mark Keane, who was home from Australia and who had played in that football final, lined out that evening in Cobh. It was the first time Keane had hurled in three years, but it made no difference. He bagged four goals.
A week later, Ballygiblin played Aghada in a challenge game. Keane started at full-forward before being switched to centre-forward and ending up midfield. The jigsaw was suddenly coming together. Ballygiblin knew they had a player who could literally do a job for them anywhere.
When Ballygiblin started Keane at midfield in their final group game of the Avondhu championship against Araglen, he was so imposing that he was nearly operating as a second centre-back on the Araglen puck-out, as well as being an option on the Ballygiblin puck-out across the half-forward line.
When Ballygiblin had their full-back sent off in the Avondhu quarter-final, they reconfigured the team and Keane went to centre-back. He played so well that he stayed number six for the rest of the Avondhu championship, the county semi-final and final.
In the decider against Dromtarriffe, Keane was the difference. After moving to attack, his thunderbolt goal seven minutes from time was the catalyst for victory. Keane was also involved in Ballygiblin’s first goal just minutes earlier.
It looked like being the ideal going away present as Keane returned to Australia just two days later. He missed the club’s Munster semi-final win against Caherline before coming home for the Munster final against Skeheenarinky in early January.
Keane was due to return to Australia for pre-season training with Collingwood the following week. But, despite having five first-team appearances under his belt, and another year to run on his contract, Keane opted to stay at home.
The boon for Ballygiblin was huge. The big question now though, is can Keane make a significant difference with the Cork hurlers?
As soon as he made the decision to join the hurlers and not the footballers, there were ripples of excitement around the potential impact Keane could make.
For a start, he has something that Cork have lacked for too long – a ball-winning presence up front.
Keane has added a buzz to the discussion. When it was made public that he would feature for Cork against UCC in the Canon O’Brien Cup in early January, the attendance at the Mardyke that evening was greater than it would have been without Keane’s presence.
When he made his league debut against Offaly two weeks ago, the main segment of discussion on Cork’s performance on League Sunday that night centred on Keane’s display. He forced the save which led to Conor Lehane’s goal while Keane could have had a goal himself when his effort in the second half flashed over the bar. He wasn’t really utilised as a target man but he won some great possession at wing-forward in the second half.
That is the great conundrum around Keane. He looked dangerous when he moved to full-forward for Ballygiblin in the All-Ireland Junior final but using him as a target-man full-forward is not Cork’s game.
So where might Cork deploy him? For a start, it has to be accepted that Keane didn’t play hurling for three years, between the crucial developmental ages of 18-21, so he can only be expected to do so much. In that context, the best-case scenario may be a specific ball-winning role at wing-forward or else as an impact player at full-forward.
That will still take some tactical adjustments.
A wing-forward in the modern game has to go back the field. Can Keane play that game?
If he is seen as a target-man full-forward, the team can work on trying to win breaking ball with runners coming off Keane.
What is certain is that Keane gives Cork a solid option.
“One of Mark’s greatest attributes is his temperament for the big day,” says Ronan Dwane, Ballygiblin coach.
“He also has an incredible ability to adjust to any situation or adapt to wherever he is put on the field. Plus, he has a ferocious determination to succeed.”
Keane’s powerful and commanding physical presence, combined with the experience garnered from spending three years in a professional game, is surely bringing a consistent edge to Cork training.
As a young player coming up through development squads in hurling and football, players who played against him in those hurling squads say that one of the biggest conundrums they faced when marking Keane was his unpredictability under the dropping ball.
They never knew which hand Keane was going to catch with. He could fetch the ball in front in his left hand or switch the hurley in his hand and grab it with his right. He still does that now, which makes him hard to read, and a nightmare for any defender to deal with.
It’s an exciting proposition for Cork to have a big man who can hurl and who can score. It’s also an endorsement of management that they are prepared to try a physically strong rookie rather than wheel another young skillful player off the production line.
Keane will need time, but if Cork want to really find out if he’s ready, tomorrow’s game against Limerick — especially when Cork were physically bullied in last year’s All-Ireland final — is the ideal opportunity to see if Keane is.