Sunday 25 February 2018

Dublin dominate as Pat Spillane names his top 30 players in Gaelic football

Brian Fenton (left), Cian O'Sullivan (centre) and Paul Geaney (right).
Brian Fenton (left), Cian O'Sullivan (centre) and Paul Geaney (right).

Pat Spillane

Christmas is a time for reflection and debate, as well as for eating and drinking.

There are bar stool debates about best teams, best matches and best players. One of the questions I’m often asked is to name my top 30 current players.

So how do you judge the best players?  This is the criteria I used - in order of importance.

Skill, consistency, possessing the x-factor intelligence, athleticism, pace, role within the team, composure, leadership, decision making on the ball and finally whether he’s a team player.

So here’s my top 30:

1 Brian Fenton (Dublin) The prototype midfielder, he has established himself as Dublin’s key player. He is the engine that drives them forward, exhibiting all the qualities which have made Dublin such an outstanding side. He recovered from an early season wobble to play a pivotal role in their All-Ireland triumph.

2 Cian O’Sullivan (Dublin) He reminds me of ex-Kerry captain Seamus Moynihan in terms of his match intelligence, composure and ability to read the game. He’s the brains of the Dublin team and their key player in defence, the transformation of which post-2014 turned a very good side into a great one.

3 Paul Geaney (Kerry) The game’s most consistent forward in the last couple of seasons. Has all the attributes: intelligence, ball winning ability and he is accurate with both feet – he scored 4-71 in 2017. He was the only Kerry player who performed against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final replay

4 Lee Keegan (Mayo) Ticks so many boxes, he gives Mayo the x-factor.  He’s versatile, dynamic and aggressive. Can do a man-marking job as he did against Ciaran Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final or operate as an attacking wing back.

5 Con O’Callaghan (Dublin) On the basis of his extraordinary exploits this season – he scored 2-12 from play in the championship – it might seem odd that I don’t rate him higher. But he has played just one full championship season.  Repeat those feats in 2018 and he will move nearer the top of my list.

6 James McCarthy (Dublin) He brings everything that Jim Gavin demands from his players: athleticism, pace, ball carrying, leadership, versatility and aggression. Switching him to midfield was just the tweak that Dublin needed last season.

7 Conor McManus (Monaghan) Superb in the International Rules series, he consistently torments defences even though his team often struggles. Among the top three forwards in the game.

8 Jack McCaffrey (Dublin) Like Lee Keegan, he has the x-factor. His electric pace is vital to Dublin’s counter-attacking game. He was missed by Dublin when he was forced off early in the All-Ireland final.

9 Dean Rock (Dublin) We don’t give free-takers the credit they deserve. Rock is one of the greatest free-takers in the modern era. He delivered under pressure in the All-Ireland final when he was also the team’s highest scorer from play in the final with a 0-4 contribution.

10 Keith Higgins (Mayo). He would be the first player on my team-sheet because he’s a warrior with a heart of gold. He’s consistent and versatile, being equally effective as a sweeper, man-marker or as an attaching half back.

11 Paddy McBrearty (Donegal) He’s now Donegal's best player. Physically strong, he’s an excellent ball winner and has the most accurate left foot in the game.  He ploughed a lone furrow for Donegal last year.

12 Ciaran Kilkenny (Dublin) Regardless of whether you call him the point guard, the conductor or the schemer, he directs the Dublin attack.  As Kerry and Mayo discovered last year, teams who successfully man-mark him greatly enhance their chances of beating Dublin.

13 Chris Barrett (Mayo) An old fashioned teak tough defender who emerged as one of the game’s best man-markers in last year’s championship. He was Mayo’s best player in the All-Ireland final.

14 Stephen Cluxton (Dublin) It was a disgrace he didn’t get an All Star. He has redefined the role of goalkeeper with his kick outs, leadership and role as a quasi-sweeper. When he eventually hangs up his boots Dublin will be vulnerable.

15 Peter Harte (Tyrone) Their most versatile player, he is equally effective as a wing forward or wing back. The pivotal figure in their transition game. Stop him – as Dublin’s John Small did by legal and illegal means last year - and Tyrone struggle.

16 Aidan O’Shea (Mayo) Gaelic football’s ‘marmite man’ - pundits either love him or hate him. I love him. Arguably he had his best ever championship last year when his strong running, physicality and versatility – he featured at full back in the two All-Ireland semi-finals against Kerry – stood out.

17 James O’Donoghue (Kerry) Talent-wise I rate him as highly as the Gooch. Granted he has had more than his fair share of injuries but if he wants to make the same impact as Gooch, he will have to be more single-minded and focussed.

18 Colm Cavanagh (Tyrone) He was one of the most consistent players in last year’s championship and Tyrone's best player by a distance. He has perfected the role of sweeper but brought more variety to his play last year by getting forward more often.

19 Diarmuid Connolly (Dublin) He is one of the best half forwards in the modern era so why is he so far down the list? Quite simply, his poor discipline and a series of less than impressive performances in All-Ireland finals go against him.

20 Mattie Donnelly (Tyrone) A classy performer, he’s versatile, speedy and can play in either defence or attack.  At his best when running against opposing defences.

21 Michael Murphy (Donegal) Having being in my top three since 2012 he now drops down to 21. The reason is simple – last year he started to show signs of wear and tear.  Still a big player but must be deployed on the edge of the square.

22 Paul Murphy (Kerry)  Mr Versatile he can be used in a variety of roles: man marker, link man or wing forward.  Given his slight stature he is arguably the best pound for pound footballer in the country.

23 Andy Moran (Mayo) The 2017 Footballer of the Year is coming into his 34th year and it will be a big ask to expect him to be as effective this summer as he was last year.

24 Enda Smith (Roscommon) Last year’s Player of the Year in Connacht is a stylish, athletic and high fielding midfielder.

25 Padraig Hampsey (Tyrone) I was really impressed by his performances last year – particularly in the Ulster championship where he secured two Man of the Match awards.  Likes to roam forward from centre back and can score

26 Kevin Feely (Kildare) The team’s best player in the 2017 championship, he is accurate both from play and frees. Looks like the prototype midfielder.

27 John Heslin (Westmeath)  If there was a transfer market in Gaelic football he would be playing with one of the top teams now.  A super player, he can win his own ball and is accurate from play and frees.

28 Paul Mannion (Dublin) Back to his brilliant best last summer. Blessed with lightening pace, he is a brilliant finisher. He added a new string to his bow in 2017 with his unselfish defensive play - particularly against Tyrone.

29 Ian Maguire (Cork)  His performance for St Finbarrs in the drawn Cork club final against Nemo was the finest individual performance from a club player in 2017. A midfielder in the mould of Brian Fenton – athletic and stronger

30 Caolan Mooney (Down) His decision to return from Australia and rejoin the Down squad was one of the main reasons for their improvement last summer. He inspired the team with his driving runs from wing back.

Read Pat Spillane every weekend in The Sunday World.

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