Ulster’s Oak Leafers and Donegal fail to build on their breakthrough glories while Dublin’s mix of youth and experience lost two deciders
Who were the best All-Ireland football champions over the last 50 years? Which were the best finals . . . and the worst? Who gave the best individual displays in finals? Who were the best managers, best captains, best subs? What were the biggest controversies?
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, comprised of 12 once-off winners, seven two-time champions, two treble squads, one four-timer, plus the multiple winners from Kerry and Dublin.
Starting at 24 we rank them in reverse order, counting down to the last two, who we will pit against each other in a final on Saturday week.
These are the bottom six – we will continue the countdown over the coming days.
24. Cork 2010
23. Dublin 1995
22. Tyrone 2021
21: Derry 1993
20: Donegal 1992
19: Dublin 1983
21. DERRY 1993
Eamonn Coleman was in the mood for asking, rather than answering questions. I was with other journalists outside the Derry dressing-room in Newry after their demolition of Down in the 1993 Ulster quarter-final when he emerged with a mischievous grin on his face.
“Now before I get to any questions I have one for ye. Do youse boys know anything about football?”
It was more an emphatic statement than a question, based on his perception that most of the predictions had gone Down’s way. Coleman, always the master at creating an ‘us against the world mentality’ had used that as part of a motivation plan, which obviously worked. Derry won by 11 points, sentencing Down to their heaviest championship defeat since 1952.
Monaghan, Donegal, Dublin and Cork were later taken out by Derry in a glory march that took them to the All-Ireland summit for the first time.
How good were they? They certainly did it the hard way, beating the 1991 All-Ireland champions (Down), the 1992 All-Ireland runners-up (Dublin) and the Munster champions (Cork). Down went on to take a second All-Ireland in 1994, followed a year later by Dublin.
That made Derry’s achievement all the more impressive, but it has always remained a disappointment in the county that, unlike Down, they didn’t win a second All-Ireland title. Down beat them in the 1994 Ulster quarter-final, a game still recalled as one of the great provincial classics, and Coleman was controversially sacked a few months later.
It led to a period of turmoil in Derry, allowing the momentum of 1993 to ebb away. The defeat by Down in 1994 probably wouldn’t have had such a dramatic impact if Coleman was left in charge but internal politics took over and he was forced out.
It was a ridiculous move by the county’s power-brokers, who appeared to forget that Coleman’s bond with the players was one of the main driving agents for the historic adventure in 1993.
There were other factors too. It takes more than good luck to win an All-Ireland, but it certainly helps. Derry enjoyed a generous share in 1993, both in Ulster and beyond.
But then, just as some of their opponents could argue that the breaks went against them that year, Derry felt they got none two years earlier.
They led Down by a point two minutes into injury-time in the 1991 Ulster semi-final, but were denied victory when a controversial free was awarded against them. Ross Carr pointed it – Down won the replay and went on to win the All-Ireland.
It was different in 1993. Derry beat Donegal by two points in an Ulster final that was reduced to a dangerous lottery after torrential rain left the newly-laid Clones pitch in a mess.
Dublin led Derry by five points at half-time in the All-Ireland semi-final before suffering an inexplicable power failure. Coleman’s crew played well but Dublin made it easy.
Cork’s chances in the final were seriously diminished by the absence of the injured Larry Tompkins, one of the greatest players of his generation. It was as if the gods had decided Derry’s turn had come. Captained by the ultra-impressive Henry Downey they saw their chance and took it.
FACT: Eight points (0-8 to 0-6) were enough for Derry to win the 1993 Ulster final against Donegal. It remains the lowest winning total in the final since Cavan beat Armagh by 0-8 to 2-1 in 1931. That was game was over 60 minutes whereas the 1993 final was 70 minutes.
20. DONEGAL 1992
The jury were back in and had reached a verdict – Donegal were mentally fragile when the pressure came on. The weight of evidence was damning.
Exhibit A: Level with Meath after 45 minutes of the 1990 All-Ireland semi-final, they were out-scored by 2-2 to 0-1 from there on. It would have been worse except for a penalty save by Gary Walsh from Brian Stafford.
“A bad blow psychologically,” was Brian McEniff’s managerial assessment of a frustrating occasion.
Exhibit B: Donegal led Kildare by five points after 24 minutes of the 1991 National League semi-final, but folded in the second half and lost by a point.
“They seemed to want it more than us,” said McEniff.
Exhibit C: Donegal led Dublin by four points with two minutes remaining in the 1992 league quarter-final in Clones but were hit for two goals in 90 seconds by Paul Clarke and Vinnie Murphy, sentencing them to a 3-6 to 1-10 defeat.
Right through his outstanding career as player, player/manager and manager, McEniff’s had limitless faith in Donegal football but after a series of confidence-sapping experiences over previous seasons, even he must have been doubtful if the squad of ’92 were capable of making the breakthrough.
All the more so when they found themselves a man down against after 27 minutes of the Ulster final against Derry. As John Cunningham trudged towards the sideline, it looked as if it was going to be another of those miserable days.
It didn’t turn out like that. Level at half-time and with Donegal facing the wind in the second half, the challenge was to raise their game to heights not previously explored.
It came in the form of a commitment which full-back Matt Gallagher later described a “bordering on madness”. Donegal won by two points.
It was the turning point for the group. Mayo, who later launched a heave against manager, Brian McDonald, were seen off in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Donegal were outsiders going into the final against an emerging Dublin team but refused to read the script. After an edgy opening, during which Dublin missed a penalty (Charlie Redmond), Donegal settled into an impressive routine and were full value for their four-point win. There was a belief in Donegal that finally making the All-Ireland breakthrough would liberate the team, enabling them to expand over the coming seasons.
They seemed on course to do that when they reached 1993 Ulster final against Derry, when fate intervened with the darkest intentions.
Twelve hours of continuous rain left the newly laid Clones pitch not just in highly-dangerous state. Despite that, the game went ahead. It was turned into the ultimate lottery, with the winning numbers coming for Derry in a 0-8 to 0-6 win.
Who knows if Donegal would have won in better conditions, but the fact remained that they lost their titles in circumstances that should never have been allowed and then watched as Derry went on to win the All-Ireland for the first time.
Fact: Donegal won the All-Ireland title despite not scoring a goal in the provincial final, All-Ireland semi-final and final. It was the first time that happened.
19. DUBLIN 1983
Beating Kerry can do wonders for a team. Dublin’s win in Killarney in the first round of the 2010 Allianz League was a significant catalyst in their relaunch under Pat Gilroy after losing to Kerry by 17 points in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final.
By the end of the season, they were unlucky All-Ireland semi-final losers but clearly emerging as a major force, which reached its first high peak in 2011.
In late 1982, Dublin were in a bad place. Beaten by Laois in 1981, as the break-up of the great 1970s team continued, and trounced by Offaly in the 1982 Leinster final, they weren’t on anybody’s likely list in 1983.
“Then it happened,” wrote John O’Leary in his autobiography. “We travelled to Tralee to play Kerry in the league and beat them by a point. It didn’t make much impression nationally because the general view was that Kerry were still in mourning after the shock defeat by Offaly in the All-Ireland final and didn’t give a toss about the league. Maybe, but there were signs that Dublin were beginning to flicker back to life.”
Ten months later, their new-look model, designed under Kevin Heffernan’s forensic eye, were All-Ireland champions, having beaten Meath (replay) which went to extra-time, Louth, Offaly, Cork (replay) and Galway.
Dethroning All-Ireland champions, Offaly and beating Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoímh, was quite a double-achievement but it was what happened in the final against Galway which guaranteed them a place in Dublin folklore.
Down to 12 men five minutes into the second half when Kieran Duff became the third Dublin player to be sent off and playing into a strong wind, their case seemed hopeless. Brian Mullins and Ray Hazley had been sent off in the first half, as had Galway’s Tomás Tierney, leaving 14 v 12 for 30 minutes. Galway cut the deficit to three points with 20 minutes remaining, but that was as good as it got for them. Dublin launched one of the most spirited resistances in championship history, carefully defending their lead against opposition who became increasingly frantic.
Dublin, in contrast, were controlled in everything they did, with Pat Canavan, Anton O’Toole, Barney Rock, captain Tommy Drumm and youngsters Joe McNally and Tommy Conroy especially effective. O’Leary’s description of O’Toole’s contribution summed it up: “He was pulling strings that others couldn’t even see.” Dublin’s performance over the final half-hour was quite remarkable.
With Kerry in a state of uncertainty after the setback against Cork in the 1983 Munster final and Offaly losing altitude, Dublin looked to be in a good position going into 1984. Not for the first time, Kerry emerged as their bogey team, beating them in the All-Ireland final, a feat they repeated a year later.
Dublin’s 1983 heroics will always feature in tales of All-Ireland final drama, but that overall campaign certainly won’t figure on any ‘best of’ lists.
Dublin’s defensive defiance was inspiring, but it must be acknowledged that Galway were quite awful. Failing to exploit two extra men and a strong wind for most of the second half has gone down as one the most embarrassing failures by any team in a final.
FACT: Joe McNally holds the rare distinction of having won All-Ireland minor and senior titles in successive years. He played in goal for Dublin minors in their title-winning run in 1982 and was at left full-forward on the senior team in 1983.
Still to be ranked
Offaly 1971-72; Cork 1973; Dublin 1974-76-77; Kerry 1975-86; Offaly 1982; Meath 1987-88; Cork 1989-90; Down 1991-94; Meath 1996-99; Kerry 1997-2000; Galway 1998-2001; Armagh 2002; Tyrone 2003-05-08; Kerry 2004-06-07-09; Dublin 2011-2020; Donegal 2012; Kerry 2014; Kerry 2022.
Tomorrow: We reveal the 17th and 18th placings; Plus: The five best individual performances.