Joe Kernan and Eugene McGee masterminded historic wins for their counties – a first title for Orchard and Séamus Darby’s unforgettable Offaly moment
Who were the best All-Ireland football champions over the last 50 years? How do the champions rank against each other? Our series rates them all from 1972 up to this year.
Teams that won more than one title in a short space of time are classed as one unit, as is the Kerry team that dominated so much of the 1970s/’80s and Dublin’s super-squad since 2011.
It amounts to 24 – 12 once-off winners, seven two-time champions, two treble squads, one four-timer, plus multiple winners from Kerry and Dublin. Starting at 24 we rank them in reverse order down to the last two, who we will pit against each other in a final on Saturday week.
These are the bottom 12 . . .
24: Cork 2010
23: Dublin 1995
22: Tyrone 2021
21: Derry 1993
20: Donegal 1992
19: Dublin 1983
18: Kerry 2014
17: Cork 1973
16: Kerry 2022
15: Donegal 2012
14: Armagh 2002
13: Offaly 1982
14. ARMAGH 2002
They won one title, but it could – and probably should – have been more. The emotional dimension of bringing the Sam Maguire Cup to Armagh for the first time will always be recalled in the county, but it was such a talented squad, superbly managed by Joe Kernan, that a second All-Ireland would have been a more appropriate return.
Apart from 2002, they fell into the unfortunate habit of losing to the team that went on to win the title. It happened in 1999 (Meath), 2000 (Kerry), 2001 (Galway), 2003 (Tyrone), 2005 (Tyrone) and 2006 (Kerry).
Any wonder there was such a sense of frustration in Orchard-land? The biggest opportunity for a second title arose in 2003 when, after an injury-ravaged team lost a first round Ulster game to Monaghan, they negotiated their way through the qualifiers and reached the All-Ireland final.
Tyrone, who were bidding for their first All-Ireland, were the opponents in what turned out to be a predictably dour slog. Tyrone won by 0-12 to 0-9, the lowest total score since Kerry beat Roscommon by 1-9 to 1-6 in 1980.
It was a real sickener for Armagh, who had Diarmaid Marsden sent off in the wrong in the second half. Losing such an influential attacker in a tight game was a massive blow to Armagh and probably cost them the double. Armagh appealed the dismissal and won their case at Central Council.
“The suspension was struck out and while it was of no value to us or Diarmaid in footballing terms, it at least cleared a good man’s name, which was important to us all. I have no doubt that if he had been on the pitch over the crucial finishing stretch, Armagh would have won the two-in-a-row,” wrote Joe Kernan in his autobiography.
A year earlier, Croke Park had rocked to an orange beat, with decades of frustration consigned to history as they finally reached the summit. They did so by beating Tyrone in a replay, Fermanagh, Donegal, Sligo in a replay, Dublin and Kerry so nobody could argue about the merits of their success.
Few counties have beaten Dublin and Kerry in the championship in the same year. In Armagh’s case, the victories over the ‘Big Two’ were made all the sweeter by the manner in which they were achieved – one-point wins in both cases.
What’s more, they had to come from behind in both games, something which would have been beyond them in previous time. It was different in 2002. Crossmaglen’s All-Ireland club successes had helped raise confidence levels in Armagh, so when the pressure came on they were able to absorb it.
That was especially important in the final against Kerry, where they trailed by 0-11 to 0-7 at half-time. Few Kerry teams have lost All-Ireland titles after leading by four points but it was different this time.
Armagh restricted them to 0-3 in the second half, while scoring 1-5, the goal coming from Oisín McConville at the three-quarter mark. It was the most important goal in Armagh’s history.
FACT: In 2002, Armagh became the first team since Cork in 1989 to beat Kerry and Dublin en route to taking the title.
13. OFFALY 1982
Séamus Darby’s goal. Mention Offaly ’82 and it’s what most people remember about the year. The catch, the turn, the strike, the goal, the impact.
“My aim was to get the ball over Charlie (Nelligan) and under the bar. As it happened – and this is where luck plays its part – I hit it right on the button. Charlie said afterwards that he felt the wind off the ball going past his hands. He was a fingernail or two away from getting it and possibly making the save of the century. But he didn’t.”
That was Darby’s description in his autobiography of arguably the most famous goal in All-Ireland final history.
It prevented Kerry from becoming the first county to win the five-in-a-row, a loss of immense significance in a county of record-breakers.
From an Offaly perspective, it was the precious goal that enabled a team that had battled so hard in their attempts to break Dublin’s dominance in Leinster to do likewise with Kerry at All-Ireland level. In less competitive eras – and there have been several – that Offaly team would have won more than one All-Ireland title, but such was the significance of the 1982 win that it carried more glamour than most single successes.
It was the culmination of several years’ work, starting the difficult task of displacing Dublin as Leinster’s No.1.
That was finally achieved in 1980 when Offaly beat their great rivals in the provincial final, a win which took them onto the faster highways where Kerry were cruising so smoothly. They sped past Eugene McGee’s men in the 1980 All-Ireland semi-final and the 1981 final but there were signs that Eugene McGee’s fine-tuning was improving the Offaly engine.
Question was – would it be quick enough on the 1982 circuit?
Mick O’Dwyer acknowledged in his autobiography that he was worried going into the 1982 final. Outside distractions were at work in Kerry.
“While Offaly were training away quietly in the peaceful surrounds of Ballycommon, we were facing unbelievable five-in-a-row mania,” he wrote.
“It was crazy stuff. We knew what to expect from an Offaly team that had been built up carefully over five seasons.”
After the 1981 All-Ireland final defeat, McGee decided that everything would be geared towards a rematch with Kerry a year later.
“So lopsided was the All-Ireland championship at that time that we were confident we would reach the final again, even though we had a close shave against Galway in the semi-final, only winning by a point. It was all about preparing for Kerry and we felt it was safe to gamble on that basis,” explained McGee in his autobiography.
Ultimately, it worked, albeit with a priceless stroke of fortune. Having invested so much time, energy and emotion for a number of years, Offaly were a completely different outfit in 1983.
It was as if they were drained – mentally and physically – leaving them vulnerable. It showed in the Leinster final against Kevin Heffernan’s new-look Dublin team, who ended their title days with a five-point win in the Leinster final. It was 14 years before Offaly next won the Leinster title in 1997.
FACT: Offaly beat Galway and Kerry by a point each in 1982 – the first time in championship history that the All-Ireland semi-final and final was won by the minimum in the same year.
Still to be ranked: Offaly 1971-72; Dublin 1974-76-77; Kerry 1975-86; Meath 1987-88; Cork 1989-90; Down 1991-94; Meath 1996-99; Kerry 1997-2000; Galway 1998-2001; Tyrone 2003-05-08; Kerry 2004-06-07-09; Dublin 2011-’20.
Tomorrow: We reveal the 12th and 11th placings.