FOR many a year I had little trouble in nominating Nick O'Donnell of Wexford as the best full-back I had seen. Born in Kilkenny, he played junior for the county in 1946 and was a sub on the senior team that won the All-Ireland the following year. Shortly afterwards he went to live in Wexford, played club hurling with St Aidan's of Enniscorthy and declared for his adopted county.
FOR many a year I had little trouble in nominating Nick O'Donnell of Wexford as the best full-back I had seen. Born in Kilkenny, he played junior for the county in 1946 and was a sub on the senior team that won the All-Ireland the following year. Shortly afterwards he went to live in Wexford, played club hurling with St Aidan's of Enniscorthy and declared for his adopted county. At the conclusion of his career he was high on the ladder of legends.
Nick was a big man with a commanding presence, his great strength enabling him to hold his ground firmly against the charging forwards of his era and he was the ideal cover for a goalkeeper. The territory close to and in front of the goal was regarded as his and for a dozen years or more he regularly turned in performances that bordered on perfection.
He was at full-back in the final of 1951 when Wexford fell to Tipperary, and was playing a lead role in the '54 final against Cork, when injury forced him to retire.
Disappointments were swept aside in 1955 when the popular O'Donnell captained his county to win the All-Ireland for the time since 1910. His second All-Ireland medal came a year later when the joy of overcoming Cork was immense. More than half of that illustrious team had retired from inter-county hurling when Wexford beat Tipperary in the 1960 final, but Nick O'Donnell, then 35, was still at full-back and captain once more.
He went on to play in yet another final in 1962, but a powerful Tipperary team carried the day. Nick O'Donnell would grace any hurling selection and was the full-back on the teams of the Century and the Millennium. I could easily have opted for him on my selection, but somehow could not clear my mind of another name Brian Lohan of Clare.
He is currently preparing for an All-Ireland final and I know that I had a guideline suggesting that current players would not be considered for selection. Some rules are not meant to be steadfast and I am levering one of my own to accommodate Lohan.
I am not saying that he is a better full-back than the 'Master' O'Donnell who gained 100% in his exam, but the Wolfe Tones man is as good and takes his place in the Team of My Life.
I first noticed him as a fearless and enterprising corner-back on a Clare team in the early '90s. Back then he was the 'son of Gus', a man who had hurled with his native Galway before throwing in his lot with Clare and winning a League medal in 1977.
However, it was not long until perception was switched around, with the elder being referred to as 'Gus, the father of Brian'. It was an inevitable change because there was something special about this committed Clareman from the time he was launched on to the hurling firmament.
Though winning a Fitzgibbon Cup medal with the University of Limerick as a corner-back in 1994, it was soon obvious that his future role would be in the centre and in many ways he was the dynamo that spurred and drove Clare to glories that were merely the subject of dreams for decades before hand.
He was no ordinary full-back and there have been numerous sightings of him racing to the corners, to the wings and betimes far outfield in his inimitable drives for possession. If a representative is ever needed to personify 'total hurling', it has to be Brian Lohan.
Time and time again his absolute commitment to the mission on hand acts as a rallying call to colleagues and followers. His approach electrifies the atmosphere and I have heard Clare cheers rent the air on occasions as the red-helmeted warrior simply began his run towards a ball that was yet there to be won.
I once heard a leading referee describe him as the most intimidating player he had ever encountered. The clarification sought was clear-cut 'the sheer grit, confidence and single-mindedness of his hurling is so captivating that it is easy to stand, admire and forget everything else'.
He loves the great game of hurling and does not spare himself in making it even greater by adding a unique dimension. It contributed hugely to bringing the McCarthy Cup to Clare in 1995 and '97.