Sunday 23 April 2017

The 20 young GAA stars to keep an eye on in 2017

Michael Verney

With spectators eagerly awaiting the start of this year’s pre-season competitions Michael Verney marks your card and casts his eye over the most exciting young players to watch out for in both football and hurling as the race to lift the Sam Maguire and Liam MacCarthy Cups begins.

FOOTBALL

1. Con O’Callaghan (Dublin)

Currently tormenting defences for Cuala with the small ball, O’Callaghan’s immediate future is committed to Jim Gavin’s footballers and he looks to have all the ingredients needed to excel at the highest level.

A consistent score-getter with the ability to win his own possession, O’Callaghan made a handful of senior appearances last year and was outstanding for Dessie Farrell’s U-21 side. It’s only a matter of time before he puts huge pressure on Bernard Brogan and Co for a starting place.

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2. Conor Loftus (Mayo)

Another attacker earmarked as a potential senior star for some time, Loftus could help provide the missing link as Stephen Rochford looks to unearth more scoring power to help the Connacht side break their 66-year famine.

The Crossmolina forward was Mayo’s U-21 semi-final match-winner against O’Callaghan’s Dubs last year before hitting 2-2 against Cork in the final. Expect the strong-running half-forward to see more game-time this season.

3. Jason Foley (Kerry)

The conveyor belts are overflowing in Kerry after three-in-a-row success at minor level and with Eamonn Fitzmaurice not afraid to parachute young players like Brian Ó Beaglaoich into the big time, Foley may make his bow this year.

With fresh legs needed in defence, Ballydonoghue’s Foley, full-back on last year’s U-21 side and also No 3 for the 2015 minors, can impress as the Kingdom bid to halt the Dublin juggernaut.

4. Liam Casey (Tipperary)

Although they reached the last four, Casey’s departure for America last summer was a body blow to Liam Kearns and the manager will be glad to have the Cahir powerhouse, equally at home in midfield or attack, back on board.

With Steven O’Brien and Peter Acheson unavailable, Casey, a Sigerson Cup winner with UCD last year, is likely to partner George Hannigan in the engine room as the Premier look to build on what was an extraordinary 2016.

5. Stephen McBrearty (Donegal)

Big things are expected of McBrearty, younger brother of senior star Patrick, as Rory Gallagher looks to inject youth and rebuild the side five years on from their memorable All-Ireland win.

Gallagher recently name-checked the Chill Chartha clubman as a player “very close to playing consistently for Donegal” and the 2014 Ulster minor winner can offer pace, power and point-taking ability from the half-forward slot.

6. Mark Bradley (Tyrone)

Anyone following the fortunes of Killyclogher as they streaked to Tyrone SFC success last year will be well aware of Bradley’s potential with the exciting attacker putting in a string of high-scoring performances.

He finished at the head of the scoring charts and the brilliance of the dynamic 2015 All-Ireland U-21 medallist marks him out as one to watch under Mickey Harte.

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7. Peter Cooke (Galway)

All the vibes in the west suggest Kevin Walsh is brewing something special and the physically-imposing Cooke is likely to see game-time as momentum builds.

The 20-year-old Moycullen defender made some late cameos towards the end of last year’s campaign and presents options for Walsh, while Michael Daly, son of former Galway star Val, is also tipped to make a big impression in the coming campaigns.

8. Michael Hurley (Cork)

His older brother Brian is an established senior member and the pair look set to combine in the Rebel forward line during 2017 as Peadar Healy looks to lift the sense of gloom in the county.

The Castlehaven corner-forward was man-of-the-match as the U-21s powered past Monaghan last spring before making his senior Championship debut and his scintillating pace could torment many a defender throughout 2017.

9 Ben McCormack (Kildare)

Added to Kildare’s championship squad on the back of his impressive U-21 campaign last spring, McCormack didn’t see competitive action under Cian O’Neill in 2016 but will have learned from the experience.

The Sarsfields attacker was on song in the autumn as back-to-back Kildare SFC titles were secured with a win over Newbridge neighbours Moorefield and he adds scoring power to a misfiring attack.

10. Cillian O’Sullivan (Meath)

O’Sullivan was an integral part of Andy McEntee’s minor squad which bounced back from Leinster final defeat to reach an All-Ireland final in 2012 (beaten by Dublin on both occasions) and renews acquaintances with his old boss.

Having recovered from serious injury the Moynalvey attacker made his long-awaited senior Championship debut last summer  and he can help offset the loss of rising star Conor Nash to the AFL.

HURLING

1. Steven O’Brien (Tipperary)

After failing to make the match-day 26 as Tipp lifted Liam MacCarthy last September, the easy decision for O’Brien was to return to Liam Kearns’ footballers where he is all but guaranteed a starting berth.

But the Ballina attacker is sticking with the small ball and in the absence of Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher for much of this year’s League, he has the tools to make a telling impact in the Premier’s back-to-back bid.

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2. John Walsh (Kilkenny)

Brian Cody has indicated that fresh faces are ready, willing and able to make their mark for Kilkenny on the biggest stage and as he looks to resurrect the Cats, he may turn to the exciting Walsh to bolster his attack.

The Mullinavat poacher, who hit 2-5 from play in the 2014 All-Ireland minor final and 2-2 in last year’s All-Ireland intermediate success, raised eyebrows with a hat-trick against Ballyhale Shamrock and signs suggest he can successfully step up.

3. Conor Gleeson (Waterford)

Equally adept at hurling or football, Gleeson burst onto the scene late in last year’s Championship and the tight-marking corner-back looks certain to become a regular fixture in the Déise defence for many years to come. With some doubts hanging over Waterford’s full-back line, the Fourmilewater clubman, a vital cog in their U-21 All-Ireland-winning side, could be the solution as they bid to end their 58-year wait for a senior crown.

4. Brian Molloy (Galway)

There were few bright points in Galway’s All-Ireland U-21 final hammering at the hands of Waterford but Molloy, the hero of their extra-time semi-final defeat of Dublin, was one.

What the pacy Kilnadeema-Leitrim forward lacks in size, he certainly makes up for in skill and Micheál Donoghue will be hoping to mould him similar to a Kevin Broderick or Joe Deane-type player as the Tribesmen hope to finally crack the All-Ireland code.

5. Bobby Duggan (Clare)

Duggan was shooting the lights out for the Banner U-21s and making a mark in senior League ties in recent seasons but it may have been a case of too much too soon as the Clarecastle attacker fell well down Davy Fitzgerald’s pecking order as 2016 went on.

He’s likely to be rejuvenated under new joint-managers Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor, and the NUIG student with a keen eye for the posts may get more chances to fulfil his potential with Ballyea chasing All-Ireland club honours.

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6. Oliver O’Leary (Wexford)

Wexford fell flat in their back-to-back All-Ireland U-21 final defeats in 2014 and ’15 but O’Leary certainly wasn’t to blame, with the Buffers Alley goalkeeper pulling off a string of reflex saves to keep the scoreboard down. Acclaimed by many in Wexford as their most accomplished keeper based on his superb shot-stopping ability and pinpoint puck-outs, new boss Davy Fitzgerald is likely to afford him opportunities to pressurise Mark Fanning for the No 1 spot.

7. Sean Finn (Limerick)

Finn was one of many U-21 All-Ireland winners drafted in by TJ Ryan 12 months ago and was expected to feature heavily in his plans but the Bruff corner-back was struck down with a cruciate knee ligament injury.

Now fully recovered and having served new manager John Kiely well in the past, the teak-tough defender could get a chance to make up for lost time and join former U-21 team-mate Richie English in a new-look back three as the Treaty reassess.

8. Shane Kingston (Cork)

Kingston’s Twitter biography reads “when you’re a winner, you come back no matter what happened the day before” and the Douglas youngster, son of Rebel boss Kieran, has certainly had to overcome his share of serious injury in recent years.

With that in the past and cameo appearances against Dublin and Wexford in last year’s Qualifiers under his belt, the exciting attacker, spoken highly of in Cork, can help lift his father’s side out of the doldrums.

9. Andrew Jamieson-Murphy (Dublin)

Ger Cunningham has made no bones about giving youth its fling at the expense of experience and the promising Jamieson-Murphy could be another talent ready to graduate after impressing in the U-21s’ Leinster triumph last year.

The Na Fianna flyer is similar in style and stature to Niall McMorrow with a habit of landing crucial scores and, with the Cuala contingent away until March, he should get plenty of opportunities.

10. Oisin Kelly (Offaly)

Kelly was a stand-out performer in the Offaly SHC in 2016 and after scoring a goal on his debut off the bench against Wexford in last year’s Qualifier defeat, big things are expected from the towering Belmont forward.

Strong in the air and with a keen eye for goal, the first-year LIT student will be expected to ease the scoring burden on Shane Dooley and Joe Bergin.

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