What first strikes you when talking to Keelan Sexton is the geniality – there is a natural amicability, an easy confidence about the man. However, what is not apparent from this effortlessly affable exterior is the (blue and) gold mine of impressive endeavours: underage county hurling, excellent soccer player (League of Ireland side Bohemians showed interest) and, most recently, a senior gold medal at the North European Boxing Championships.
Yet, ultimately, he chose football. Given his success in the ring, to question why is a natural reaction. “Individually, I think it’s very tough to kind of keep going”, explains the 25 year old regarding his decision to park his boxing career in favour of the football field. “And it’s not that I didn’t have that [desire]”, he assures me, earnestly enthusiastic for all sports, “but I definitely thought it was easier to get up and go training with a group of lads that I grew up with, that I have the same interests as … It was just better for me at a young and impressionable age … socialising was something I enjoyed and I just leaned towards that bit more”.
The team spirit whose allure Sexton alludes to was on display during the Banner’s All-Ireland run earlier this year. “Clare was traditionally a Hurling County, and now all of a sudden you’re actually a dual county”, he says, with discernible pride. For Sexton, the link between the upturn in results and the Clare coaching staff is an inextricable one. He reserves special praise for one man in particular. “Colm Collins, our manager, he’s had a massive impact on football in the county. He’s really brought it up to new levels from what it was. 10 years ago, Clare was in the bottom division in Ireland, like at the bottom door, one of the worst teams … so he’s brought a massive amount of consistency to performances and we took a couple of big steps.”
Fellow Clare footballer and Trinity student Ronan Lanigan emphasises another contributing factor to the Banner men’s recent success, left unmentioned by Sexton’s modesty. “Having shared the field with Keelan as both a teammate with Trinity and Clare as well as an adversary for our clubs, it is clear to see the high standards he holds himself and the players around him to. He is a quality player and a threat to any opposition,” lauds Lanigan.
Camaraderie is high in the Clare camp – unsurprising, given that this year’s run was their first All-Ireland Quarter-final since 2016. “It’s nice to be a part of something like that, you know?” says Sexton. “I think anyone in the GAA, they enjoy it, but you don’t enjoy getting walloped every week like,” he laughs with the heartiness of one who has endured the bad before enjoying the good. “You definitely enjoy winning, and definitely enjoy all the experiences”. That is not to cast Sexton as a serial winner in Ronaldo’s mould, playing purely for himself with an ego the size of a bus. He is not the Cristiano of Clare – there is much more humanity, much more humility to the man. “There’s ninety year olds here, there’s seven year olds and six-year-olds … the enjoyment that it brings and how it brings people together, just the thrill of something you know. That’s the thing about sport, it’s the uncertainty of outcome … it’s unreal.”
Also prominent on Keelan’s consciousness is a commitment to the Clare community. “The positive energy that you get off people on the street like the week before a game, or a couple of days leading up is massive … I just find that so, so amazing … It’s just seeing what your actions and something that you’re doing means to other people. You wonder why you’re training in the middle of winter, on a cold night, with hail stones coming down and muddy feet … you’re doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for your family, and you’re doing it for your people,” a reverent Sexton says. “It’s for the shopkeeper, the person on pints, the local school kids, all these people … it’s as cliché and as Irish as it gets, but it’s something that as a human you’re just drawn to … you get a great feel-good factor.”
Listening to Sexton, the emotion of representing your people feels infectious. Phone glued to my ear, I almost feel like donning the blue and gold kit for my next (very amateur) five-a-side game – and that’s coming from a Brit who didn’t even know where Ennis was until a couple of years ago. Yet, even with multiple mediums of motivation amplifying his morning alarm clock and fuelling his training regime, balancing County commitments and club commitments in Clare alongside a postgraduate degree in Law and Finance in Trinity is not a task for the faint-hearted.
Fortunately, as his lungbusting 2-6 performance against Roscommon in Round 2 of the All-Ireland in June was testament to, Sexton’s cardiovascular system is far from faint. “It was tough, but I suppose I’ve always thought of myself trying to be a high-performing person. Would I rather be sitting at home just in the comfort of relaxing, not getting up? I just like the challenge of bettering myself,” he explains. “You have to be on time management, project management and stuff like that, but I had a great support with family, friends, and I think as a person myself I wanted to do it. And that makes an awful difference.”
At first glance this may appear to be an exhibition in media training by Sexton. ‘He would say that, wouldn’t he,’ sceptics may mutter – that is, if they have not heard Lanigan’s testimony. “I often travelled with him [Sexton] from Dublin home for training a few nights a week. This can be a gruelling enough journey and take its toll on the body but I don’t think I ever heard him complain. He was happy to do so to play ball,” Lanigan says of his county colleague.
Sexton was also keen to note the role played by Trinity in enabling him to juggle his studies with his sporting commitments. “I got a sports scholarship, and the services and providers were massive when it comes to getting the right balance with training. The guys in Trinity Sport were so, so accommodating between training sessions and extra information in terms of bettering nutrition, recovery sessions … I had full access to all that”.
Amidst this flurry of activity, Sexton has managed to find some time off the pitch too. “I got a couple of good mates there from Trinity, a couple of international students, people that I’d be staying in touch with.” Indeed, although adjusting to the move to Dublin from home isn’t always straightforward – especially coming from the University of Limerick (where Sexton was an undergraduate) – the forward had warm words for his time in the capital. “There’s definitely more of a community feel to the UL social aspect just because I think it’s a smaller array of people … but with Trinity as a whole, I’ve got great time for all the lectures and I’d recommend [it] … I wish I could restart!”
As results come out this week, Sexton’s Trinity days are all but over. The same cannot be said for his tenure in Dublin. “I’ll be going to Blackhall in 2023, I’ll be doing my training solicitorship there,” says Sexton, “but I’ll be working when I’m here [Dublin] before I start.”
I ask him whether that means he’ll still be commuting back to Clare for his club commitments, in what I thought was a subtle attempt to draw him on any impending Shane Walsh-esque transfer. Much like a slow-motion side step on a slippery pitch, Sexton sees right through my trickery – and parries with ease. “Yeah, no exclusives whether I’ll be transferring clubs,” he laughs. “The questions that I’ve been getting about that since that’s happened [Galway star Shane Walsh’s decision to play his club football in Dublin, where he works, rather than his native county] is mad.”
Formal interest from other clubs has been expressed, the Clare man admits – but that is all he’ll admit. “I have had offers, yeah – undisclosed,” he chuckles as he blocks yet another of my clumsy efforts. “It’s always flattering … but I mean it just isn’t for me at the moment anyway.”
On Clare’s hopes for next season, Sexton is more forthcoming. “I mean, the thing about us is we are always looking at one step further. At the end of the day, an all-Ireland is there to be won and our goal is to get one step further again.” Sexton will play a big part in this, and Lanigan emphasises the full extent of his importance: “To reach such a high level, you need a strong mentality along with physical ability. I think the Roscommon game in Croke Park demonstrates the confidence he has in his own ability. The night leading up to the game he envisioned and wrote down what he would score, and did exactly that. I think the only time he truly doubted himself was when I beat him in a shooting competition. And if you saw me shoot I’d be worried too”.
There is a youthful purity to Sexton’s County ambitions too. “Once you get that taste of experience of bigger teams with 40, 50, 60,000 people there, you know, this is what you grew up on your front lawn dreaming of, kicking the ball, with the stadium, the atmosphere,” Sexton relates of his quarter final experience. Listening to an almost boyish excitement in his voice, the impression Sexton imparts is that of a down-to-earth bloke simply doing what he loves in front of people that he loves.
As I put the phone down, it feels like coming away from an encounter with a friend of a friend at the pub. You’d heard good things beforehand, and you’ve come away echoing those warm words. Lanigan puts it nicely – “He’s a really good guy, and it’s a pleasure to share the pitch both with and against him”.
Ebullient and more than competent, Sexton is the kind of man you’d want to have on your team. And, perhaps, more importantly, you wouldn’t mind having a pint with him after the game.