Dublin in the mid-1970s were coming from close to rock bottom but managed to match and better the Kingdom’s best team of all
It’s down to two in the battle for top spot in our ranking of All-Ireland football champions 1972-2022. Tyrone 2003-’05-’08 take fourth place, with Dublin 1974-’76-’77 filling the third slot.
That leaves Kerry 1975-’86 and Dublin 2011-2022 as the top two, with the winners being revealed on Saturday. 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’re ranking them in reverse order, counting down to the last two, who we will pit against each other in a final on Saturday.
Here’s how our list looks so far:
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
4. Tyrone 2003-’05-’08
3. Dublin 1974-’76-’77
4. TYRONE 2003-’05-’08
Only once in Ulster final history has a team conceded four goals and not lost. The exception was Tyrone in 2003, when they were hit for 4-8 by Down.
It wasn’t enough for Down. An attack-dominated contest finished level 1-17 to 4-8 after Tyrone had recovered from a nine-point deficit in the second half. It was the day that showed there was something different about the Red Hand county under Mickey Harte.
Despite the brave recovery, it was clear there were defensive issues to be addressed. Relocating Cormac McAnallen from midfield to
full-back for the replay was the most influential move as he brought stability lacking in the drawn game.
Tyrone won the replay by 15 points, conceding only five points. Fermanagh were also restricted to five points in the All-Ireland quarter-final, Kerry scored six in the semi-final while Armagh got 0-9 in the final.
It was an extraordinary turnaround. Having conceded 4-8 (20 pts) in the drawn Ulster final against Down, Tyrone gave away no goals in their next four games and conceded the miserly total of 0-25. Yes, there definitely was something different about them.
By the end of 2008, they had accumulated three All-Ireland titles, one through the direct route in 2003 and two via the qualifiers in 2005 and 2008.
Their historic first All-Ireland win in 2003 brought its own controversy. Armagh had Diarmaid Marsden sent off in the second half of the final, a decision later overturned on appeal to Central Council.
“Diarmaid Marsden was unfortunate to get sent off,” was Mickey Harte’s brief assessment in his autobiography.
Armagh boss Joe Kernan had much more to say, insisting that his side would have completed the two-in-a-row if Marsden hadn’t been sidelined. Nor was he pleased with the Tyrone reaction.
“I was disgusted by the actions of at least one Tyrone player who mockingly clapped Diarmaid off the pitch. To see a man gloating over an opponent’s bad luck in an All-Ireland final is something I could never understand,” wrote Kernan.
While neutrals were happy to see Tyrone win the All-Ireland for the first time, it was certainly the case that their style of play didn’t endear them to the masses.
It continued that way over the following years, including 2005 and 2008. Nobody doubted their footballing credentials, but there was a feeling that they brought an unnecessarily cynical edge to their game.
It was as if they thrived on an ‘us and them’ mentality. It played a part in their successes, but there was more to them than just that. They had some of the best footballers of their generation and Harte’s expertise in harnessing their talents greatly added to the mix that made them such a formidable force.
We’re ranking them fourth best nationally over the last 50 years, a place ahead of the Kerry squad that won four All-Ireland titles between 2004 and 2009.
That was quite an achievement for Tyrone who, before 2003, had never previously beaten Kerry in the championship. Indeed, it has always remained a stone in the Kingdom’s shoe that they lost to Tyrone in two All-Ireland finals and one semi-final over six seasons.
One surprising aspect of that Tyrone group was the disappointing manner in which they defended the All-Ireland titles. They were beaten by Derry in the 2004 and 2006 Ulster Championships and were eliminated from the All-Ireland race in those years by Mayo and Laois, respectively. They won the Ulster title in 2009 and reached the All-Ireland semi-final, where they gave a disappointing performance in a five-point defeat by Cork.
Retaining the All-Ireland title has always been regarded as the seal of true greatness for a team. Tyrone didn’t quite make it, which was surprising as they appeared to have all the ingredients.
In fairness, their chances of completing the double in 2004 were undermined by the sudden death of Cormac McAnallen in February. Apart from losing one of their best players, it took a heavy emotional toll on the rest of the squad.
There was no such explanation for their erratic form in 2006, when they scored a total of 0-11 against Derry in the Ulster Championship and Laois in the qualifiers. Those inexplicably bad days contrasted so much with their peak performances that it was difficult to believe it was largely the same group.
FACT: Tyrone (2005-2008) and Kerry (2006-2009) are the only counties to win more than one All-Ireland title via the ‘back door’. Galway (2001) and Cork (2010) are the only other counties to win off the qualifier route.
3. DUBLIN 1974-’76-’77
Where this Dublin squad stand in the rankings is a matter of opinion, but it’s non-contestable that no other team starting from such a low base went on to exert such a dramatic impact, not just on football but on the GAA generally.
Consider the facts. In 1974, Dublin lost the NFL Division 2 final to Kildare by seven points, having led by seven in the first half.
There was so little interest in the game that only 4,049 spectators turned up in Croke Park. According to reports, most of them were from Kildare.
Over the previous eight seasons, Dublin had won only five Leinster Championship games and were eliminated in their first outing four times. It was a dismal period. Dublin had won the 1963 All-Ireland and the 1965 Leinster titles, but the decline was so rapid that there were fears the county’s days as a major power were over.
Outside influences were at work, too. Match of the Day on Saturday nights and The Big Match on Sunday afternoon were popularising soccer to such a degree that there were genuine concerns about the GAA’s future in the capital.
Something special was needed to re-energise Dublin, but there were few signs that it was imminent after the defeat by Kildare in May 1974.
Twenty weeks later, no fewer than 12 of the players that lost to Kildare were on the team that beat Galway in the All-Ireland final. Arguably, the most remarkable transformation in championship history had unfolded under Kevin Heffernan.
It would be six years before Dublin next lost a Leinster Championship game, by which time they would have won two more All-Ireland titles and lost three finals to Kerry.
That Kerry team is regarded as possibly the best of all time, so it’s fair to assume that Dublin would have won more All-Irelands in many other eras. Of course, the same goes for Kerry, who beat Dublin in 1975, ’78 and ’79 but lost to them in 1976 and 1977.
It was a fascinating duel, overseen by Heffernan and Mick O’Dwyer, the pair who effectively launched the cult of the GAA manager. They changed a whole lot more too, introducing new training methods and different tactical approaches, moving football to a level few could reach for some time.
O’Dwyer figured after watching the 1974 championship that the only way to beat Dublin was to unleash a team with so much energy that it would outrun them.
He was proven right. His manic training regime had Kerry so primed that Dublin simply couldn’t react to the speed and intensity they encountered.
Kerry won the 1975 final by seven points, after which O’Dwyer declared that they would go on to become the best team to emerge from the Kingdom. He was right, but it still didn’t stop Dublin from winning the next two All-Ireland titles.
Recovering from the shock of the 1975 defeat, and recalibrating so efficiently that standards were pushed even higher in the battle between the ‘Big Two’, was some achievement.
It’s why Dublin deserve to be third in the 50-year rankings. Beating Kerry by seven points in the 1976 All-Ireland final, followed by a
five-point win in the following year’s semi-final, underlined just how good Dublin were.
Such was the impact of the double jolt for Kerry that they came close to ending O’Dwyer’s term as manager. There was a view in the county that he was being out-manoeuvred tactically and that his style of football wouldn’t dislodge Dublin.
It was easy to understand the sense of dismay. They had a very good team, but after the high of 1975, they appeared to have stagnated.
That wasn’t necessarily the case. Dublin had taken the game to a new level, and the only way to counteract that was to raise it again.
Dublin were on a similar mission to drive up standards and appeared to have achieved it when they led Kerry by five points in the first half of the 1978 All-Ireland final. And that’s where it ended, the dam bursting as Kerry unleashed an extraordinary goal rush which ended Dublin’s reign.
It would be 34 years before Dublin next beat their great rivals in the championship.
The legacy of the 1970s team was incalculable in Dublin. It changed mindsets at all levels – including clubs – and ensured there would never again be any worries about the GAA’s future in the capital.
FACT: Dublin conceded a total of 7-22 against Clare and Kildare in the league in early 1974, but their defence had improved so much by summer/autumn that they gave away an average of just 1-9 in six championship games.