Kingdom team of 2000s did well to lift Sam four times but legacy was weakened by one-sided finals and their inability to solve Tyrone riddle
And then there were four. Today we name the fifth- and sixth-ranked teams in our comparison of All-Ireland football champions 1972-2022. That leaves two Dublin squads, one Kerry and one Tyrone.
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, comprising 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’re ranking them in reverse order, counting down to the last two, who we will pit against each other in a final on Saturday. The list so far is:
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
12. Meath 1996-’99
11. Down 1991-’94
10. Galway 1998-2001
9. Kerry 1997-2000
8. Offaly 1971-’72
7. Cork 1989-’90
6. Meath 1987-’88
5. Kerry 2004-’06-’07-’09
Still to be ranked: Dublin 1974-’76-’77; Kerry 1975-’86; Tyrone 2003-’05-’08; Dublin 2011-2020.
Tomorrow: We reveal the fourth and third places.
6. MEATH 1987-’88
The Meath Chronicle opted for the starkest possible response to the footballers’ defeat by Laois in the 1985 Leinster semi-final.
“RIP MEATH SENIOR FOOTBALL” ran their front-page blurb, accompanied by a picture of a coffin. All very melodramatic, it didn’t go down well with the squad or management, but it summed up the disappointment experienced in the county after a big summer flop.
It wasn’t supposed to be like that. The progress of 1983, when they took Dublin to extra-time in a Leinster quarter-final before losing by two points, and 1984 when they won the Centenary Cup and ran Dublin close in the Leinster final, counted for nothing in 1985 when Laois beat them by 2-11 to 0-7. Meath were simply dreadful.
It looked like the end for Seán Boylan after three years in charge. Indeed, it might have been if the squad hadn’t shown such enthusiastic support for him. They wanted change in how things were being done but strongly believed that Boylan was the man to bring about that change. It was about little tweaks, not a total rejection of everything.
It showed a degree of responsibility that is all too rare nowadays when players often turn against managers rather than examining their own roles. The Meath squad of that era showed a maturity which stood to them and the county.
Despite the embarrassing performance against Laois, who managed only 0-4 in a six-point defeat by Dublin in the Leinster final, Boylan and his squad were convinced the problems could be fixed. They were right.
Over the next six seasons, Meath won two All-Irelands, five Leinster and two Allianz League titles. Two of the four defeats were in All-Ireland finals (1990 v Cork, 1991 v Down), one was in a semi-final (1986 v Kerry) and one in a Leinster final (1989 v Dublin).
It was quite a period in Royal history, one where the squad’s iron-hard intent was evident so often.
Ironically, one of the best examples came on a day they lost. Hotly fancied to beat Down in the 1991 All-Ireland final, it was as if the toll of a nine-match campaign, including extra-time in two of the four games with Dublin, to reach the decider had left them drained when they trailed by 11 points after 50 minutes.
But instead of accepting what appeared like an inevitable trimming, they launched an awesome comeback, outscoring Down by 1-8 to 0-2 in the final 20 minutes.
They would, in all probability, have completed the remarkable comeback if they had another two minutes. It was Meath’s fierce competitiveness at its most effective, and while it didn’t save the day, it typified their core belief in themselves.
It was a legacy that served their successors well, having created the impression that all Meath teams possessed magical powers of recovery, however high the odds against them.
It certainly helped the 1996 to 2001 All-Ireland-winning squads. It lasted beyond that, too, but has evaporated over the last decade as their fortunes continued to drop.
The Meath team of 1986-1991 would never attract many votes in a popularity contest for champions. Nor would they have looked for them, preferring to be regarded as hard-nosed achievers who got the job done.
Their rivalry with Cork was one of the most intense in championship history. Neither could quite figure out why they disliked the other so much – and in later years agreed it was all nonsense – but there was an edge to those games that would have sold out Croke Park twice over if it had the capacity.
Meath-Dublin clashes were also spicy. Meath were seen as the common denominator in the enforcement stakes and while there was no doubt they made their physicality count, there was a lot more to their successes than that.
Technically, they were a very gifted outfit, well capable of playing attractive football. They were also hugely adaptable, with quite a few players equally comfortable in a number of positions in defence, midfield and attack.
Their talents probably should have yielded more All-Ireland titles. They had an extra man for most of the 1990 final but lost by two points. And nobody could ever quite figure out why they were so listless for so long against Down in 1991 before launching a dramatic rescue drive which came up just short.
FACT: Between 1986 and 1991 Meath won 24, drew five and lost four of 33 championship games.
5. KERRY 2004-’06-’07-’09
Early September 2003 was a grim time in Kerry football. Still trying to work out why they were so comprehensively beaten by Tyrone (0-13 to 0-6) in the All-Ireland semi-final, another setback piled on the dismay.
A highly rated U-21 team headed to Walsh Park as unbackable favourites to beat Waterford in the Munster final, only to lose by two points. A stoppage-time goal from Shane Walsh provided Waterford with one of their most memorable wins in history.
Colm Cooper, Declan O’Sullivan, Kieran Donaghy, Bryan Sheehan and Séamus Scanlon, players who would go on to have great senior careers, all featured that evening, but Waterford were well organised and had no intention of allowing big reputations to unsettle them.
Kerry manager Jack O’Connor would have known the impact back home of losing a championship game to Waterford. After the wipe-out by Tyrone, there was still uncertainty over Páidí Ó Sé’s future as senior boss. The situation dragged on for weeks before he departed in somewhat acrimonious circumstances.
As U-21 manager, O’Connor would, in ordinary circumstances, be a natural successor, but the defeat by Waterford didn’t help his cause.
There was a perception that Kerry weren’t right for that game and, even if untrue, the defeat stained O’Connor’s CV. Despite that, the power brokers, led by chairman Seán Walsh, looked at the bigger picture and decided he was the man for the job. They were proven correct.
Over the next six seasons, Kerry won four All-Ireland titles, three under O’Connor in 2004-’06-’09 and one under Pat O’Shea (2007).
Even by Kerry standards, it was quite a haul, yet those squads have never quite got the credit they deserved. There are two specific reasons for that.
One: They failed against Tyrone in two All-Ireland finals.
Two: Their All-Ireland final wins were easily achieved against Mayo (twice) and Cork (twice). There’s always a question mark in regard to the quality of a championship if the final is a one-sided affair, which happened in 2004-’06-’07.
Mayo collapsed in the 2004 and 2006 finals, losing by eight and 13 points respectively, while Cork finished 10 points behind Kerry in 2007. They were closer in 2009, but the final score (0-16 to 1-9) is misleading in terms of Cork’s overall competitiveness.
They were excellent in the first 11 minutes, racing into a 1-3 to 0-1 lead and looking as if they might finally claim a victory over Kerry in Croke Park, something that had eluded them in six attempts over the previous seven years.
It didn’t happen. Kerry outscored them 0-15 to 0-6 over the remainder of the game, completing a recovery that looked improbable after losing heavily to Cork in the Munster semi-final replay. The Kingdom’s qualifier route was shaky also, before they finally regained their touch when thumping Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
O’Connor had stood down after the 2006 All-Ireland, replaced by Pat O’Shea, who presided over the 2007 win.
When it came to dealing with the Tyrone problem, both O’Connor and O’Shea found it as intractable as Páidí Ó Sé had in 2003. Ó Sé could point to the surprise element as that was the first season of Mickey Harte’s reign when opposing teams were still trying to figure out how to counteract their style.
By 2005, everyone knew how Tyrone played. Kerry certainly did but still couldn’t beat them. Tyrone won the physical battle, prompting O’Connor to admit that watching re-runs of the game was “like a work schedule unfolding for me”.
“I have to go away and I have to actually learn how to coach the tackle. Genuinely, I don’t know how to do that. Tackling is something that was never heard of in Kerry, beyond telling a fella to go out there and not foul the man,” wrote O’Connor in his autobiography in 2007.
O’Connor left after Kerry won the 2006 All-Ireland. While they completed the two-in-a-row in 2007, the Tyrone conundrum remained unsolved in 2008.
Harte’s men won the All-Ireland final by four points, using the basic principles from 2003 and 2005 to force Kerry into submission.
O’Shea left after that defeat, with O’Connor returning time. A year later, Kerry were back as champions, winning the title without facing Tyrone.
Ironically, Cork solved the Tyrone poser in the semi-final, winning by five points. It has always remained a stone in Kerry’s shoe that they failed against Tyrone three times. And while they won the title four times in six seasons, compared to Tyrone’s three in a similar timespan, they have to be rated behind Harte’s squad.
FACT: Kerry won the 2004-’06-’07-’09 All-Ireland finals by an average of almost nine points.