As the season makes its early close, we trawl through the great moments of late-summer glory
Who were the best All-Ireland football and hurling champions of the past 50 years? Which were the best and worst finals?
Who gave the best individual performances in finals? Who were the best managers, best captains, best subs?
What were the biggest surprises, comebacks, controversies? And who were the unluckiest teams? All these questions – and more – will be answered here over the next few weeks.
The main focus will be on ranking the All-Ireland winners. How do they rate against each other? It’s an objective question to which there can only be a subjective answer.
Ask 1,000 of the most analytical GAA minds and the chances are that no two would come up with a similar ranking list. So many variables add to a complicated mix of imponderables.
Still, it’s fun taking it on. With the GAA deciding to slam shut the inter-county gates much earlier than any time in their history, we want to keep the season going as a reminder of the glory days of August and September, which thrilled the multitudes down through the decades.
There was a time not so long ago when this would have been All-Ireland football quarter-final weekend, followed by the hurling semi-finals, played a week apart. So, too, with the football semi-finals, while there used to be two weeks between the finals
Not anymore. Squeezed so tightly that they can scarcely breathe, the championships are run off to a timescale that suggests it’s all about the finish line rather than the journey. Hence, a finishing date of July 24.
It has created a huge void in the Irish summer and early autumn, leaving inter-county fans with nothing but memories of what August and September used to be like.
It’s an appropriate time to reflect on the great teams and players who enriched those months as they pursued the All-Ireland dream.
We are doing it in the form of rankings, which seeks to create an order of merit for all the champions since 1972. Where a county won more than two All-Irelands in a relatively short timespan – or, in some cases, multiple titles over an extended period – it’s treated as one squad.
Kerry, who won eight football titles between 1975 and 1986, and Dublin, who also won eight between 2011 and 2020, will count as one unit each. Similarly with Kilkenny hurlers 2006-2015.
That may appear excessively long, as squads change over the years. However, binding threads persist through the evolutionary process, making it impossible to differentiate between teams from the same county.
So, in the case of Kerry footballers (1975-’86), the big question is where they stand against Dublin 2011-’20, using the peak years of both as the benchmark. Similarly, with Kilkenny and Limerick hurlers, who had the most successful teams over this particular time span? Were Kilkenny’s four-in-a-row team (2006-2009) better than Limerick’s current crop, who have won four of the last five finals? Of course, in their case, the story may be a long way from completion.
Kerry footballers completed a four-timer in 2004-’06-’07-’09, while there are also several treble winners, albeit not all having been achieved in consecutive years: Dublin 1974-’76-’77 and Tyrone 2003-’05-’08 (football); Kilkenny 1972-’74-’75, Cork 1976-’77-’78, Kilkenny 1979-’82-’83 and 2000-’02-’03 (hurling).
The aim is to calculate the merit of each squad and how they stand vis-a-vis each other. Since so much has changed over the years, it’s far from an exact science but there are basic principles which apply in every era.
Ultimately, it’s about the talent in each squad and how it compares with others. Training methods and general preparation have advanced exponentially over the years; so too have tactical systems and all the other ingredients that go into the modern game.
Despite that, there are constants. If players from the 1970s or 1980s were trained to modern standards, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t be just as good, no more than if players from today were transported back to less sophisticated times, they too would cope well with the different demands.
Some examples. In football, the 50-year era starts with the Offaly team which completed the All-Ireland double in 1972, having brought Sam Maguire to the county for the first time a year earlier.
Does anybody believe that the likes of Willie Bryan, Martin Furlong, Eugene Mulligan, Tony McTague, Kevin Kilmurray and others wouldn’t be outstanding players in the modern era?
Bryan won the Footballer of the Year award in 1972, having crowned a fine season with a superb midfield performance against Kerry in the All-Ireland final replay.
It wasn’t as if Kerry were weak around the middle, where Mick O’Connell, one of the best players of all time, and a young John O’Keeffe, were on duty. All three would be outstanding in any generation.
And if Stephen Cluxton, Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny, Con O’Callaghan and James McCarthy, key members of the Dublin team that completed the six-in-a-row in 2020, were born at a different time, they too would have made a big impact.
In hurling, the goalkeeper’s role in the modern game is repeatedly emphasised, almost as if it’s a scientific wonder which mere mortals can’t grasp. Yes, it has changed, but to suggest the ’keepers are much better than their predecessors is nonsense.
They may play a more influential role tactically, but that’s only because that aspect of play has changed. As for shot-stopping, were there ever two better goalkeepers than Noel Skehan and Ger Cunningham?
They hold the distinction of being chosen as Hurler of the Year in 1982 and 1986 respectively, an award that no goalkeeper has since won. They were chosen essentially for their saves, but would have no difficulty adapting to modern-day requirements. The same goes for many others.
Starting on Monday, when we begin the football rankings countdown, we will take GAA fans on a nostalgic journey back over the last 50 years, with All-Ireland winners as the central, although not exclusive, theme.