The top 50 full-backs of the last 50 years
There has always been a fascination about football No 3s and the pivotal role they occupy. Martin Breheny ranks the greatest he has seen over the past five decades
Published 16/01/2016 | 02:30
When it was announced that full-back Rory O'Carroll would be absent from the Dublin team this year, it immediately sparked discussion on how the All-Ireland champions would cope without him.
It also generated a wider discussions about full-back play and how it had evolved over the years. Yet, for all the perceived changes, one basic requirement remains the same - the No 3 has to provide the tightest security in the red zone in front of goal.
Who has done that best? Here's my top 50 over the last 50 years. Kerry's Marc Ó Sé and Mike McCarthy are excluded, for while both played at full-back at various times, they mostly played in other positions, where they gained most of their accolades.
1. John O'Keeffe
Those who claim that previous generation full-backs would be unable to adapt to the modern game clearly know nothing of O'Keeffe. Whatever the age or era, he would have been the ultimately authoritative No 3.
Equally effective in air and ground wars, his approach was invariably positive, operating off the basic policy that if he beat his opponent to the ball, he was in control.
O'Keeffe started as a centre-back, where he won the first of seven All-Ireland senior medals in 1970. By 1972 (when Kerry lost to Offaly in a replayed final) he was at midfield, before taking over at full-back for the glory run under Mick O'Dwyer.
He is a member of the exclusive five All-Stars club, having won four at full-back and one at midfield ('73, '75, '76, '78 and '79).
2. Noel Tierney
This year is the 50th anniversary of Galway's All-Ireland treble, a feat that only Kerry have achieved since then.
During that run, Galway conceded just one goal in three finals and three semi-finals. Tierney played a big role in their shut-out policy, dominating the area in front of goal with unbreakable authority.
In fairness, he had some outstanding defenders around him, backed by Kilkerrin's Johnny Geraghty, one of the best goalkeepers in football history, but when it came to fielding expertise, power and all-round efficiency, Tierney was the consummate full-back.
What's this? How can he be ranked so highly after his torment against Padraic Joyce in the 2001 All-Ireland final? That argument will no doubt be made, but where's the player in any sport who hasn't had a wash-out day?
Instead, recall his consistent excellence in the seasons before that, starting in 1996 when, as a 20-year-old, he was a central figure in the launch of a new era under Sean Boylan.
From a great footballing clan in Kilbride, Quinn was extremely versatile, equally at home in defence, midfield or even attack, but it was at full-back that he reached the highest peaks, topped by the All-Ireland win in 1967, Meath's first for 13 years.
His career was pre-All-Stars time, but his stature was recognised in 1966 and '67 when he was selected as the best full-back for the Cu Chulainn awards.
5. Dan McCartan
It says it all about him that having been at centre-back for many years, including the All-Ireland double years of 1960 and '61, he slotted comfortably into No 3 following the departure of the excellent Leo Murphy.
Switching from the half-back to the full-back line is very difficult but McCartan mastered it easily, crowning the switch with a third All-Ireland medal in '68.
6. Mick Lyons
Three Meath men in the top six might look like an excessive Royal representation, but a very solid case can be made all of them.
Lyons' famous comment that playing full-back was like being a member of the Mafia ('kill or be killed') accurately reflected his approach.
He defended his goal area with relentless ferocity and there was a real manliness in how he played. Feigning injury and some of the other sneaky tricks that have crept into the modern game would have horrified him.
7. Sean Doherty
Dublin's return as a major power, which launched the re-birth of football in the capital in 1974, required a whole lot of components to come together.
They are all well-documented but whether Doherty's role gets the recognition it deserved is open to question.
His foul on Mickey Ned O'Sullivan in the 1975 All-Ireland final is still highlighted but, on the positive side, he was an outstanding full-back in an era when Dublin won three All-Irelands in four seasons and reeled off six successive Leinster titles.
8. Paddy McCormack
A corner-back who became a full-back in succession to another great No 3, Greg Hughes, his stock soared when Offaly won the All-Ireland title for the first time in 1971 and retained it a year later.
His reputation as man who devoured forwards who ventured into the Offaly square ignores the fact that there was a whole lot more to his game. Otherwise, he would have not survived at the top for 15 seasons.
9. Gerry McCarville
All of those above him won All-Ireland titles, but Monaghan's failure to do so in his era doesn't in any way detract from his credentials.
Like O'Keeffe, Quinn and McCartan, he started further out (winning an Ulster medal at midfield in 1979), before dropping back to No 3, where the high point came when Monaghan won the League title for the first time in 1985.
It still remains one of the great mysteries - and travesties - that he didn't win an All-Star that year.
10. Neil McGee
The best full-back still playing at inter-county level?
Donegal's style under Jim McGuinness and largely retained by Rory Gallagher is the ultimate co-op where everybody has extensive defensive responsibilities, but it still requires specialist individual skills.
McGee has them in abundance, as recognised by three All-Star selections, in 2011, '12 and '14. Nor should it be forgotten that he has been on the Donegal team since 2006.
11. Pat Lindsay
Like McCarville, he didn't win an All-Ireland medal, coming closest in 1980 when Kerry beat Roscommon by three points in the final.
It was Roscommon's bad luck that they were up against the best team in football history. Even then, they conceded only 1-9, a giveaway rate that would win most finals.
An All-Star full-back in 1977, Lindsay was chosen on Roscommon's Team of the Millennium.
12. Sean Walsh
When John O'Keeffe's career was cut short with injury, Mick O'Dwyer simply looked further out and summoned Walsh from midfield for full-back duty in 1984.
By the end of '86, Walsh had added three more All-Ireland medals to the four he won elsewhere. He adapted quite easily to the full-back challenge, but then he had the talent to play in any of the five outfield lines.
13. Pauric McShea
This was Brian McEniff's description of McShea from some years ago: "Strong under the high ball, an exciting full-back, who was one of the first to carry the ball out of defence, even going on to take a return pass. Unheard of in those days."
McShea played for Donegal between 1965-76, during which they won the Ulster title for the first time in '72 and regained in it in '74. He was chosen at full-back on the Donegal team of the Millennium.
14. Seamus Moynihan
He could have played in any of the six defensive positions or midfield - and maybe as a forward too. He spent most of his career as a half-back but made a sufficiently big impact at full-back to earn a high rating. He won Footballer of the Year for his full-back performances in 2000.
15. Kevin Kehilly
One of many Corkmen from a lost generation that had so much misery inflicted on them by Kerry in the '70s and '80s. How they would have loved a second chance, via the qualifiers.
16. Barry Owens
It's difficult for players from so-called weaker counties to even get an All-Star nomination but Owens not only broke through that barrier but also won two awards in 2004 and '06. It was a fitting reward for reaching such a high level of performance that he came in ahead of rivals, who enjoyed more success.
17. Ray Prendergast
Vastly experienced Mayo journalist Sean Rice wrote the following about Prendergast some years ago:
"Ray suffered somewhat from comparisons between him and his more famous brother, Paddy. He never managed to shake off that."
Rice selected Ray as Mayo's best full-back since 1960.
18. Gerry Hargan
He started shakily enough when promoted by Kevin Heffernan for Championship duty against Meath in 1983 but, by the end of the campaign, Dublin were All-Ireland champions.
Hargan's career lasted until 1992, during which he won two All-Star awards, in '85 and '89.
19. Paudie O'Donoghue
At corner-back and wing-back respectively on the Kerry teams that lost the 1964 and '65 All-Ireland finals to Galway, he later moved to full-back, winning Sam Maguire in '69 and 1970. He continued as Kerry's first choice full-back until '74.
20. Rory O'Carroll
Just how much will Dublin miss him this season? He has been a reliable performer for several years, going about his business without fuss or frills.
His unobtrusive style means that he hasn't always got the credit he deserved. Dublin could find it hard to replace him this year.
21. Conor Deegan
Peter McGrath once described Deegan as "the complete footballer", testament to his versatility. Deegan was full-back when Down won the All-Ireland title for the first time in 1991, before moving to midfield where he won another Sam Maguire in '94.
22. Greg Hughes
Unfortunately for him, his career ended just before Offaly made the All-Ireland breakthrough in 1971. Prior to that, he had been their regular full-back for over a decade, a period in which he won three Railway Cup medals with Leinster.
23. Tony Scullion
A massive presence in the Derry full-back line for many years, he spent much of his team on corner duty but also slotted in at full-back on many occasions, including the 1993 All-Ireland final, when they won the title for the first time, beating Cork. A true warrior.
24. Steven O'Brien
Yet another who could slot in comfortably anywhere in defence. He played in his first All-Ireland final (1988 replay v Meath) at corner-back at the age of 19 and while that ended in defeat, Cork followed up with a double over the next two years, with O'Brien at full-back.
25. Tommy McGovern
It's easy to forget players who never get to play in All-Ireland finals but, of course, it doesn't mean they weren't top class performers. That was very much the case with McGovern in the '70s and '80s, a period in which he won an Ulster title and three Railway Cup medals with Ulster.
26. Francie Bellew
Joe Kernan's decision to bring him into the panel in his mid-20s wasn't universally welcomed in Armagh in early 2002 but it proved an inspired decision. Bellew went on to be one of the most enduring defensive anchors for several seasons, both as a corner-back and full-back. And sometimes as a cross between them!
27. Gary Fahy
His senior inter-county career lasted 12 years and while the first half was during bad times for Galway (they even dipped into Division 3), all changed in 1998 when a new-look team won the All-Ireland and added another title three years later. Fahy's steadiness and intelligent reading of play were central to both successes.
28. Colman Corrigan
Another who made his way back from midfield to No 3, he was an intelligent presence in a Cork team that suffered two All-Ireland final defeats to Meath in 1987 and '88 before winning the next two. He was an All-Star in '87 and '88.
29. Tom McCreesh
His national profile was built in the Railway Cup, where he won four titles with Ulster. It was very late in his career when Armagh won the Ulster title in 1977 but the All-Ireland dream ended against Dublin in the final.
30. Matt Gallagher
He might not have kicked the ball in the historic 1992 All-Ireland final win over Dublin but he still made a massive contribution. It was the high point of a 15-year inter-county career, where he made 147 appearances.
31. Liam Connor
The man who made the kicked pass from which Seamus Darby scored the winning goal late in the 1982 All-Ireland final had already delivered on his defensive duties. He later won an All-Star.
32. Ciaran McGarvey
A powerful presence throughout the '80s, he was unlucky not to win an All-Ireland medal in '86.
33. Tom O'Sullivan
Comfortable anywhere in the defence, he was at No 3 for the All-Ireland wins in 2006 and '07.
34. Kevin Cahill
Another who didn't win an All-Ireland medal but who played consistently well for a long time.
35. Hugh Kenny
If he were from a stronger county, challenging for major honours, how many All Stars would he have won?
36. Chris Lawn
At full-back when Tyrone came so close to winning the All-Ireland final in 1995, he played a major part in the emergence of the next wave that went on to win the All-Ireland in 2003, He came on as a sub in the final.
37. Graham Canty
A play-anywhere performer, many believe that full-back was his best position and that he should have been left there.
38. Paddy O'Donoghue
The Lilywhites made no senior breakthroughs during his career but he remained a model of consistency for a very long time.
39. Paddy Christie
Suffice to say that if he were playing now, he would force his way in somewhere in the defence.
40. Martin Dempsey
A commanding figure, the high point of his inter-county career was a National League win in 1986.
41. Bernard Brady
Donegal didn't make the Ulster breakthrough during his career in the '60s but he enjoyed considerable success with Ulster.
42. Larry Gillen
Longford enjoyed a glory spell in the late '60s, winning the National League title in '66 (they beat Galway, who later won the All-Ireland treble) and the Leinster title for the first time in '68. Gillen was a key man in both successes.
43. Paddy Kennedy
An All-Star in 1981 but unfortunately for him, it would be another 10 years before Down won the All-Ireland.
44. Jack Cosgrove
His performance against Sean O'Neill in the 1971 semi-final was one of the best by any full-back in that era. Unfortunately for him, he played in three losing All-Ireland finals in 1971, '73 and '74.
45. Seamus Quinn
He became Leitrim's second All-Star (Mickey Quinn was the first in 1990) in 1994 after a first Connacht title for 67 years.
46. Senan Downes
The Banner didn't achieve a whole lot during his career but the fact that he featured quite often for Munster in the '60s underlines his talents.
47. Peter Ford
A steady performer in the '80s and '90s, he came close to winning an All-Ireland medal in '89, only for Cork to deny Mayo with a strong finish.
48. Tom Quinn
Selected by Armagh's Jimmy Smyth some years ago as one of the best full-backs he had seen. "Laid-back but safe" was his description of Quinn, who was full-back on the Derry team that won Ulster titles in 1975 and '76.
49. Davy Dalton
Best known as a corner-back in a long career, but won an All-Star at full-back in 1997, in what was his second last season.
50. Cormac McAnallen
He deserves to be recognised, despite having played only four games at No 3 after been brought back from midfield by Mickey Harte for the 2003 Ulster final replay against Down.
Two months later, Tyrone won the All-Ireland final for the first time, a triumph in which McAnallen played a big part in his new surrounds.
He would have been one of the truly great full-backs but, sadly, he died in February 2004, aged 24.