Mayo's Lee Keegan changed the role of a GAA defender

Mayo's Lee Keegan changed the role of a GAA defender

Lee Keegan of Mayo celebrates after scoring his side's first goal in the 54th minute during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

IN the aftermath of the 2021 All-Ireland final, there was general agreement in Mayo that Lee Keegan had proved himself to be Mayo’s greatest player, which is a considerable status for a player to be conferred with while still playing.

Although Mayo were beaten again, Keegan almost cemented that status by the manner in which he took the game to Tyrone when the need was absolutely at its greatest.

It was all the more impressive again considering Keegan was playing in the full-back line and didn’t appear to have the capacity to influence the game anymore as an attacking defender, which was how he made his name in the first place.

When Keegan won his fifth All-Star at the end of 2021, it was the first time he had won an award outside of the number 5 position.

Keegan has more All-Stars than any other Mayo player, but only seven footballers have won more All-Stars than Keegan, while he is also level with eight other players on five awards. 

All of those 15 decorated players are some of the greatest to ever play the game but Keegan is the only one of them that doesn’t have an All-Ireland medal.

Keegan doesn’t need that medal to define his greatness because, when he announced his retirement last week, he walked away with the acclaim as probably the greatest player – alongside Roscommon’s Dermot Early – to never to win an All-Ireland.

Keegan was a brilliant footballer, but any attempt to rank greatness and status in a descending manner is always subjective and highly contentious.

Great players leave a huge imprint but the legacies of the greatest players is how they fundamentally change the game. And Keegan emphatically did.

Football has evolved to such a degree now that a defender with a heavy man-marking role can still be thinking about getting on the scoreboard. Nobody facilitated that culture shift more than Keegan.

Despite having huge man-marking roles in the 2016 and 2017 All-Ireland finals on Diarmuid Connolly and Ciarán Kilkenny, Keegan still managed to score brilliant goals in both (the 2016 replay) matches.

Keegan was a phenomenon, the highest scoring defender in history, having clocked 7-48 in 67 championship matches.

For years, Tomás Ó Sé was considered the greatest scoring defender of his generation. Emmett Bolton, Seán Óg de Paor and Philip Jordan were also brilliant scoring defenders but that acclaim now firmly belongs to Keegan; the Mayo man scored 4-13 more than Tomás Ó Sé, despite playing 21 less championships games.

Although defenders contributed 0-5 in the iconic 1982 Offaly-Kerry All-Ireland final - Paidí Ó Sé (2), Liam Currams, Sean Lowry and Pat Fitzgerald - scoring defenders was still a rarity for the rest of the 1980s until they started to become more prominent in the early 1990s.

The scoring rate of the Derry defence was central to their only All-Ireland senior success in 1993. The half-back line of Gary Coleman, Henry Downey and Johnny McGurk kicked 0-4 in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin while McGurk kicked two memorable points in the final against Cork.

Dublin’s Paul Curran was recognised as football’s first great scoring defender. He finished his career with 1-21 from play but by the end of the 1990s, Galway’s Seán Óg de Paor was already establishing himself as football’s first great scoring defender of the new Millenium; de Paor finished his career with 2-28 from 52 championship matches.

Players were becoming stronger, faster and more athletic, and with the tactical grid radically shifting in the 2000s, there was bound to be a knock-on effect.

Mickey Harte’s Tyrone defence scored 0-10 in the 2003 championship but they took defensive attacking play to a new level in 2008. With a litany of retirements and injuries, Tyrone didn’t have the same artillery anymore so they had to increase their scoring spread through a more expansive attacking style. In the 2008 All-Ireland quarter-final, semi-final and final, Tyrone’s defence scored 1-09 from play.

Cork took up that charge the following season when their half-back line became their greatest source of energy. In the 2008 championship, Cork’s defence and midfield scored 1-5. In 2009, John Miskella exceeded that total on his own with nine points, which was a record for a defender over one individual campaign up to that point.

Then Keegan took the art to a whole new level again. He first hinted at his rich scoring potential between 2013-14, when Keegan scored from play in 15 of 18 league and championship matches, accumulating a total of 2-19.

In the 2014 Connacht final, Keegan scored one goal but could have had four. And yet, all the while, Keegan had been on man-marking duty on Galway’s Shane Walsh.

The culture of attacking and scoring defenders was largely a product of how football became so defensive. In a numbers game, the onus is on the opposition to push more men forward and use the ball smartly.

Football has produced some brilliant scoring defenders over the last decade like Keegan, Peter Harte and Ryan McHugh but the game has also become so tactically fluid now that defenders spend so much time in the attacking half of the field that they need to be shooters as much as stoppers. And they are.

On average, one in every four shots from play at inter-county level is taken now by a defender. In the recent All-Ireland club semi-final, the Glen defence scored more from play (1-4) than the whole Moycullen team (0-4).

The culture has radically changed. And nobody drove that culture more than Lee Keegan.

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