“I was just turned 15 when they threw me into the senior team,” he laughs.
He won his first county title at 18 and from there developed a fanatical thirst for success; one that because it demanded so much proved maddeningly hard to satisfy.
“I spent the next two decades trying to quench that thirst but the desire is just as strong today. I’ve seen it full circle. I had four or five lads looking out for me as a kid and now I’m playing the ‘minder’ role. Coming off the bench trying to help. It’s not the role I want but it’s the one I have.”
‘Impact sub’ — the label that is the bane of, and the footnote to, many a fine career. McKeegan wishes he wasn’t one but, after 21 years of being ‘The Man’ in Antrim hurling, is coming to terms with the reality.
“Ah, it’s not great,” he chuckles softly. “I never have to sit out a session, and I still feel fresh as a daisy. I’m not a good watcher either and the bench doesn’t suit me. I don’t get nervous hurling — it’s only on the feckin’ subs’ bench that I feel nervous, because I want to go and change something.” When he comes on, though, he’s usually been good for goals. Some have been less than pretty — like the one he plundered against Sarsfields in the All-Ireland semi-final — but they’ve all counted.
Now 37, McKeegan acknowledges he’s well into bonus territory. He’s also conscious the final whistle tomorrow could signal the end of more than the just the previous 60 minutes.
“Well it’s been burning my head,” he admits. “I’m still fit and was well able for the whole of winter training so there’s the question: why quit now? But is there a point in hanging on either? I’m at a crossroads. If we beat Na Piarsaigh and win the All-Ireland I’ll probably go. 21 years is a long time but doesn’t feel like that. My career has gone in a flash. It’s scary how quickly it all ends.”
He doesn’t want the end to unravel under a grey haze of disappointment in Croke Park. If this is to be the last roll of the dice, it must count. For all of them.
Cushendall have long struggled for numbers and most of the team have grown up within a mile of Ruairi Óg, their club, their home. They don’t get many shots at this.
Reaching a first All-Ireland offers McKeegan — and other Cushendall stalwarts such as John ‘Smokey’ McKillop — the chance of a dream finale. Smokey has played nearly every role in the club from groundsman to chairman to senior team manager, and McKeegan is as desperate to win for him and others as for himself.
But after eight losing semi-finals, he is almost afraid to dream big and knows too well not to count chickens: “I’ve seven county titles but I mostly remember the three I lost and the rest of the boys feel the same.
“As for the All-Ireland semi-final defeats, well the one in 2008 to De La Salle was the worst. They knocked over a sideline ball with the last puck and I took that badly. It ate me up.” For too long, Cushendall were also-rans. Do the hard work in Antrim, cruise through Ulster (the 2014 decider against Portaferry aside) and then take a pat on the head from the Southern boys after losing another All-Ireland semi.
“All that cut us, aye,” says McKeegan. “The losses start to affect you. It’s a fine line between actually doing it and being obsessed with doing it.”
In the end, progress came down to simple changes. Their work-rate wasn’t good enough, nor was their touch. They didn’t hook or block enough. They might talk the talk but didn’t always put in the shift. But by the time they hammered Sarsfields last month, much had changed. They held the Galway champions to just 1-1 from open play — and roared with primal joy at the finish.
“Aaron Kernan had spoken to us before the game and told us not to let the chance go. And we didn’t,” says McKeegan. “But we still have another wee bit in us. We’re sick of being patronised. Great to get to a final, but we want to win it.
“It’s complete b****x to be happy just to get to a final. I’ve been preaching that to our lads. If we get a hammering who is going to remember you then?”