Achieving a two in-a-row is a huge target after failures in 2005 and 2010, while Donegal’s 2012 win was inspired by Jim McGuinness
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 ten . . .
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
16. KERRY 2022
Is it too soon to rank a team that only won the title a few weeks ago? Probably, but they can’t be ignored either. They are on the All-Ireland roll of honour and now the question centres on how much more is to come?
Once a team win an All-Ireland they are invariable talked up as being likely to achieve more, which is understandable. However, as our rankings show, there are several examples of one-hit wonders who never won a second title.
It doesn’t happen very often in Kerry, although that was the fate of the 2014 squad who couldn’t quite figure out a way of beating Dublin. They gave it a good shot in the 2015 final and 2016 semi-final, but came up short by three and two points respectively.
There’s more optimism in the Kingdom around the current group, not least because they believe Dublin are heading into a period of uncertainty.
Whether or not that happens remains to be seen. Indeed, it’s quite possible that only for Con O’Callaghan’s injury Dublin would now be All-Ireland champions.
Margins are small at the top, as Kerry discovered last year when they lost by a point to Tyrone in the semi-final. They were without David Clifford in extra-time, a setback which was at least equal to O’Callaghan’s loss to Dublin this year.
It can be argued that if neither had been injured, Kerry would have won last year’s All-Ireland and Dublin would be this year’s champions.
Successfully defending an All-Ireland title is a very difficult challenge, mastered only by exceptional teams. Quite often, highly-rated winners don’t deliver in the second year, with some never regaining the form which won them the first title.
Tyrone were the latest to discover that even the slightest loss of focus is ruthlessly exploited by opposition who set the champions in their sights even before they leave Croke Park with the Sam Maguire Cup.
Jack O’Connor will be drilling that into his squad whenever they hold their All-Ireland debrief. His previous experience of two-in-row attempts failed in 2005, when Kerry lost the All-Ireland final to Tyrone, and in 2010 when they were well beaten by a moderate Down outfit in the quarter-final.
That’s a long time ago, but O’Connor won’t have forgotten. He has already enjoyed the distinction of winning an All-Ireland with three different groups – the next target has to be to preside over a double, something no Kerry manager has done since Mick O’Dwyer. In fact, only Jim Gavin has managed it over the last 30 years.
O’Connor has good reason to be optimistic, especially if Clifford avoids injury. Against Dublin and Galway, Kerry looked like a squad with plenty of scope for improvement.
The confidence derived from winning an All-Ireland will be immense, so it’s really a question of attitude now. One suspects O’Connor will be already working on that side of the equation.
If it works, then this group could move up the 50-year rankings quite quickly.
FACT: Kerry’s 2023 squad will be bidding to become the ninth from the county to complete an All-Ireland two-in-a-row.
15. DONEGAL 2012
Armagh 2-14 Donegal 0-11 (first-round qualifier – 26 June, 2010)
“A lot of these players have to take a long, hard look at themselves. That type of performance is not acceptable. There have been far too many of them this last couple of years and it’s the same players that have been involved in the majority of them.”
– Declan Bonner (Donegal News).
“That’s another heavy defeat. Any team that takes those kind of defeats, there is something wrong.”
– Kevin Cassidy, captain (Donegal News).
Donegal 1-11 Derry 0-8 (Ulster final – 17 July, 2011)
“This is a great achievement for the county and a lot of credit has to go to Jim McGuinness for what he has put into the team.”
– Declan Bonner (Donegal News)
“There’s a big difference now than walking out of Crossmaglen last year (having lost to Armagh by nine points). It’s the difference between night and day.”
– Kevin Cassidy (Donegal News)
Eleven of the players who endured the embarrassment against Armagh in 2010 were on the 2011 Ulster final winning team; 10 of them were aboard the All-Ireland winning team a year later.
The transformation of Donegal in one year remains one of the most remarkable turnarounds in GAA history, fashioned very much in the image and likeness of McGuinness.
His novel tactical approach to the game, loved in Donegal because it brought success, disliked elsewhere because of its defensive nature, was only part of the evolution.
Equally significant was the change of mindset.
In 2010, Bonner had referenced “players hanging around county squads for this last few years, who aren’t giving full commitment”.
“Some are just happy to be there, get their tracksuits, polo shirts and gear and aren’t bothered about sitting on the bench. We need 25 to 30 men who want to PLAY in the team,” he wrote.
In fairness to McGuinness, he evolved the tactical structure after 2011, realising that an All-Ireland title could not be won with the defensive approach which restricted Dublin to 0-8 in the semi-final. Unfortunately for Donegal, they scored only six points.
A year later, Donegal hit Mayo for two early goals – via Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden – with a more direct approach in the All-Ireland final and ran out four-point winners.
How good were Donegal that year? Better than everyone else but, from a technical viewpoint, they wouldn’t be classed as one of the great All-Ireland winners.
However, they were so well-structured and detailed in how they carried out the game-plan that nobody could quite figure them out.
They got the most out of themselves, unlike what was happening in the pre-McGuinness days.
They didn’t defend the title particularly well in 2013, losing the Ulster final to Monaghan before being demolished by Mayo (4-17 to 1-10) in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Injuries disrupted their two-in-a-row attempt and by the time they reached the quarter-final, they were losing power at the same time as rivals were cranking up.
“Have we lost hunger as a result of winning the All-Ireland? Is it because we’ve been on the road for a few years or it because we’ve been carrying niggles and knocks all year?” asked McGuinness.
Whatever it was, it didn’t last as they were back in tune in 2014.
FACT: Donegal conceded only three goals in their seven championship games in 2012.
Still to be ranked: Offaly 1971-72; 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-’20.
Tomorrow: We reveal the 14th and 13th placings.