Will Tyrone’s current crop suffer same fate as Cork and Dublin teams which failed to kick on after winning their All-Ireland titles?
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, surprises etc?
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.
Starting today, we name the bottom three, with Cork 2010 as the lowest.
24. Cork (2010)
23. Dublin (1995)
22. Tyrone (2021)
Sorry Cork, some team has to come last in the 50-year rankings and, unfortunately for the Rebel class of 2010, they fill the position, having won a below-average championship, after which a decline set in.
Despite the quality question mark over the 2010 campaign, there were high expectations on Leeside that the breakthrough would provide the squad with the impetus required for further improvement.
With an average age of 25.5 years their profile was ideal, but instead of the success liberating them after several disappointments – including two All-Ireland final defeats by Kerry in 2007 and 2009 – it appeared to satisfy their ambitions.
They defended the title poorly in 2011, losing rather tamely to Kerry in the Munster final before being edged out in the All-Ireland quarter-final by a new-look Mayo team, who were in the first season of their rebuild under James Horan. Their rawness was fully exposed by Kerry in the semi-final.
Winning the 2012 Munster title restored Cork’s conviction that the previous season was a mere blip, but it turned out not to be the case as they lost to Donegal in the All-Ireland semi-final. It sparked a serious decline, which has left Cork without a Munster title since then. They have also dipped as low as Division 3.
The obvious conclusion from the 2010 All-Ireland win is that Cork were the best of a modest bunch in the poorest championship of the qualifier (2001 onwards) era. All four provincial winners (Roscommon, Meath, Kerry, Tyrone) were beaten in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Meath shouldn’t even have been there, their Leinster success seriously tainted by the manner of the win over Louth in the final.
Cork ousted Roscommon in the quarter-final before hanging on to beat Dublin, who had conceded five goals against Meath in the Leinster semi-final, by a point in the semi-final. After their heavy defeats by Kerry and Meath respectively in 2009 and 2010, Dublin’s self-belief was still in a fragile state and while they gave themselves every chance of winning (they led by two points after 66 minutes), Cork’s experience proved vital on the run-in.
Down awaited in the final, having hit an unexpected form streak to reach the decider for the first time in 16 years. They made a great start but Cork’s battle-hardened outfit worked their way through the challenge to win by a point.
The closeness of the contest made it interesting, but you won’t find it on any shortlist of memorable finals in terms of quality. The subsequent decline of both counties supports the contention that it was a battle between two moderate teams.
Cork won only four All-Star awards – Michael Shields, Paudie Kissane, Graham Canty and Aidan Walsh. For the first time in All-Star history no forward from the All-Ireland champions won a place on the team.
The big surprise of the 2010 championship was Down’s defeat of Kerry in the quarter-final, a result that greatly facilitated Cork, who had a dismal record against the Kingdom in Croke Park over the previous eight years, losing six and drawing one of seven All-Ireland semi-finals and finals. Cork did little to suggest they would have ended that barren run if they met Kerry in the 2010 final.
FACT: 2010 remains the only year since the introduction of the qualifiers in 2001 that all four provincial winners were beaten in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. The winning margins in the four games ranged from five to nine points.
Reach the business end of any competition on a regular basis and you just might hit the jackpot. That’s what happened for Dublin ’95, with their success arriving just as even their most loyal fans were beginning to suspect that time was up for that particular group.
Beaten by Donegal and Down respectively in the 1992 and 1994 All-Ireland finals and by Derry in the 1993 semi-final, it was their worst-ever championship run against Ulster opposition.
A distinct trend set in after 1983, where the teams that beat Dublin won most of the All-Irelands. It happened in 1984-85 (Kerry), 1987-88 (Meath), 1989 (Cork), 1992 (Donegal), 1993 (Derry) and 1994 (Down).
John O’Leary, captain in 1995, recalled in his autobiography Back to the Hill the sense of frustration felt by the players at the start of that season.
“A blanket of desperation had wrapped itself around the Dublin squad. Suddenly, people were beginning to pity us. That made a change. Usually, Dublin had the other 31 counties against them, which was something we thrived on. Now, we were being told we deserved to win an All-Ireland. It wasn’t meant to be patronising, but it came across that way.”
Relegation from Division 1 in early 1995 hinted at a difficult championship ahead for Dublin, but a new arrival changed everything. Enter 19-year-old Jason Sherlock, whose exciting range of talents had been well-flagged as a minor.
He electrified the Dublin attack and with Meath in rapid decline, the path to another Leinster title had no surprise obstacles. Sherlock was the summer sensation as Dublin marched into the All-Ireland final against Tyrone. Yes, more Ulster opposition.
However, unlike the previous three attempts, Dublin succeeded this time, edging home by a point (1-10 to 0-12), despite being down to 14 men for the final 25 minutes after Charlie Redmond’s dismissal.
After so many near misses, it brought Dublin an incredible sense of relief, accompanied by a confidence for the future. It was ill-founded.
Pat O’Neill left the management seat, replaced by Mickey Whelan. It’s unusual for a manager to depart after winning an All-Ireland title and when it happens, there tends to be a drop-off.
Still, after beating Meath by 10 points in the 1995 Leinster final, Dublin had little reason to believe the Royals could close such a big gap a year later. It was a miscalculation.
A much-changed Meath panel brought a whole different challenge and with Dublin misfiring all over the place they were picked off in the final quarter, eventually losing by two points. It would be six years before they next won the Leinster title.
Their decline after 1995 raised the question of whether, in fact, they had won a low-quality championship. In all probability, that was the case and while it didn’t matter to the players who had waited so long for their big day, it’s why Dublin ’95 are so low in the 50-year rankings.
FACT: Dublin won the 1995 final against Tyrone despite scoring only two points in the second half.
If the manner in which a team defends the All-Ireland title is an indication of their true status – and it should be a factor – then Tyrone 2021 were sub-standard champions.
They made the poorest attempt to defend the title in the qualifier era, wiped out by Division 2 opposition in the Ulster quarter-final and failing the qualifier test against Armagh in a manner which suggested they had no real two-in-a-row ambitions.
There will be opportunities next year, and beyond, to redeem themselves but as of now Tyrone’s 2021 All-Ireland win left serious doubts about the overall quality.
Removing the qualifiers from the 2020-21 championship made them easier to win than their 19 predecessors, where there were quarter-finals to be negotiated.
Also, the qualifiers allowed strong teams, who lost in the provinces to re-group, often with considerable success, including winning the All-Ireland.
There were no such obstacles for provincial winners in the last two years, so those championships cannot compare with the 2001-19 versions.
In fairness to Tyrone, they dealt well with every challenge presented to them last year, beating Cavan, Donegal, Monaghan, Kerry and Mayo. It’s a formidable line-up, although they didn’t have to face Dublin, who were knocked out by Mayo in the semi-final. Also, the absence of David Clifford for extra-time in the semi-final may well have been a tie-breaker in a game Tyrone won by a point.
Overall, there are questions about the standard last year. Dublin had dipped from previous seasons, as evidenced by more difficult times than usual in Leinster before being caught by Mayo.
It raised hopes in Mayo that the long wait for an All-Ireland title was finally set to end, but as they have done so often in finals, they didn’t deliver. Tyrone were smart and competent, but it would stretch credibility to suggest they had to do anything special to win.
Mayo’s defending was beyond poor for both Tyrone goals, leaving them with too much to do and too few ideas on how to do it. That final certainly won’t be recalled in any list of all-time classics.
Still, it was expected that the confidence-dividend from the win would improve Tyrone this year. No so. In fact, the opposite happened.
Their performance against Derry in the Ulster quarter-final was beyond abject. They weren’t much better in the qualifier clash with Armagh, which they lost by six points. Joint-manager Feargal Logan admitted afterwards that he didn’t know why the season had been so disappointing.
“It’s a very intangible and difficult thing (to figure out). In terms of focus and hunger and all those things – it’s very hard to put your finger on it. We thought we would kick-start some day and thought today could be the day. But it wasn’t. Dealing with success – it’s not easy and we saw it all year really,” he said.
In truth, Tyrone looked like a team who didn’t snap out of celebration mode until it was too late. By then, others were ahead of them and they couldn’t make up lost ground.
Even allowing for that, they should have done better in Ulster and the qualifiers.
FACT: Tyrone’s 11-point defeat by Derry this year was their biggest in the Ulster Championship since losing by 12, also to Derry, in 1997.
Still to be ranked:
Offaly 1971-72; Cork 1973; Dublin 1974-76-77; Kerry 1975-86; Offaly 1982; Dublin 1983: Meath 1987-88; Cork 1989-90; Down 1991-94; Donegal 1992; Derry 1993; 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.