Only one current player makes our toughest gaelic football XV of all time
You need to be tough to pay Gaelic football, but the warriors of the past no longer stalk the fields. Dermot Crowe picks his toughest GAA XV of all-time.
Maybe they don’t make them like that any more. You still need to be tough to play Gaelic football. But the larger-than-life characters we used to see — most of those are gone. Our 15 of the toughest has ten counties represented, three deceased, and one still playing.
1. Martin Furlong (Offaly)
Long-serving Offaly goalkeeper and triple All-Ireland winner who was fearless protecting his goal, flying out to clear the danger come what may. Emigrated to the US after retiring in the 1980s.
2. Paddy McCormack (Offaly)
The Iron Man from Rhode won All-Ireland medals in 1971 and ’72. He also played in the 1961 All-Ireland final and while he was full-back when Offaly broke through in ’71, he played in every position for the county.
3. Mick Lyons (Meath)
Beats stiff competition on the basis of his cold-blooded command of the square when Meath re-emerged in the 1980s to win back-to-back All-Irelands. Natural heir in a line of great Meath full-backs including Jack Quinn and Paddy ‘Hands’ O’Brien.
4. Niall Cahalane (Cork)
Of Lyons’ vintage and a hard and confrontational figure who often inspired Cork and his club Castlehaven. Ferocious man marker who played in all defensive positions for his county.
5. Brendan Lynch (Roscommon)
Undaunted member of the All-Ireland-winning teams of 1943 and ’44. Shortly before he died at 92 in 2014, he had attended the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the win of ’43. A retired Garda Chief Superintendent, he had been living in Bray.
6. Tim Kennelly (Kerry)
The late Tim ‘Horse’ Kennelly was a popular farmer and publican who won five All-Irelands, including as captain in 1979. Starred in Kerry’s win over Roscommon in 1980. His death at just 51 in 2005 caused huge shock in GAA circles.
7. Pat ‘Red’ Collier (Meath)
Standing at 5’ 6’’ and well under 12 stone, Collier made up for his lack of physique with a fierce will and determination. Retired at 28 two years after winning an All-Ireland with Meath in 1967. In his playing days he worked in manual labour for Cement Roadstone.
8. Phil ‘Gunner’ Brady (Cavan)
Midfielder in the Polo Grounds in 1947 when Cavan won the All-Ireland, who also played full-back and featured in the final wins of ’48 and ’52. From Mullahoran, strong and brave and unyielding.
9. Brian Mullins (Dublin)
Tough and dogged midfield presence for Dublin in the 1970s who returned to write a second chapter after a car accident had threatened to end his career. Not one to turn the other cheek, sent off in the 1983 All-Ireland final.
10. Colm McManamon (Mayo)
When Mayo re-emerged in the 1990s they thrived in the physical stakes and none more than McManamon. At 6’ 2’’ and 14 stones, a powerfully built athlete and with a long-lasting engine.
11. Tom Long (Kerry)
Played in the centre of defence and midfield but won his two All-Irelands at centre-forward in 1959 and full-forward in 1962. His battle with legendary hard man Lar Foley in the semi-final in ’62 is still talked about, with Long scoring 1-3 from play. Retired in ’64 at only 28.
12. Larry Tompkins (Cork)
Captained Cork when they retained the All-Ireland in 1990 and played the last 15 minutes, scoring 0-2, despite rupturing medial and cruciate knee ligaments. Came back from that, then tore the cruciate in his other knee three years later, and worked his way back from that too.
13. Peter Canavan (Tyrone)
Smallest man on the team but lacking nothing in courage and aggression. Fought fierce battles with opponents over a long career and eventually got his reward when Tyrone broke through in 2003. Had to be exceptionally tough to last as long as he did, at the level he did.
14. Michael Murphy (Donegal)
Murphy has had to adapt to modern demands. Started out as a brilliant, and more svelte, inside forward and his early goal from that position led Donegal to an All-Ireland win in 2012. One of the most closely-marked players in the game who still wields enormous influence.
15. Colm O’Rourke (Meath)
Long career in which he overcame frequent injury and, in the case of the 1991 All-Ireland final, viral pneumonia when he came on after half-time and almost changed the course of a game in which they trailed by 11 at one stage.
In the early days when Gaelic football was finding its feet and wrestling matches were commonplace, contenders for a team representing the toughest players of all time were probably in rich supply. Generations and various evolutions later, the task of settling on 15 is one laden with pitfalls. No doubt holes will be found in the argument for virtually every chosen line, eyebrows raised at some inclusions and omissions. We are prejudiced by what we know and don’t, and what we have seen or heard, and have not.
The players of the modern era may be sanitised cousins of the glorified warriors who stalked the Gaelic football fields in the decades before them. We don’t know for sure. We know the modern player is fitter. Unquestionably that he is faster. More tactically adept. More skilled. More powerfully built and sculpted as a general rule. But the criteria here in choosing players is influenced by character too and what lies within. What players were made of.
In the 1930s and '40s Armagh had a player called Jim McCullough, who moved around a lot through work and had a spell playing with Fermanagh. But on the pitch he was usually to be found either at full-back or centre-back. He is a credible contender for inclusion on this team although we rely on old newspaper reports and oral testimonies in the absence of stronger visual evidence.
The former GAA president Alf Murray told a story about McCullough from a day Armagh played Cavan. Murray, a young centre-forward, was getting a lot of heavy treatment in the early stages. Spotting this, McCullough left his station and moved up the field. Approaching Murray he said, “drop back there to centre half-back for ten minutes”. Murray followed orders while McCullough did a bit of sorting out before returning ten minutes later to declare, “Ye can go back up there now, you will have no more bother.”
Some of these stories are part of the mythology and may succumb to poetic licence in the retelling. That does not mean they don’t reflect the true character of the player involved. In another match a novice playing corner-back beside McCullough was getting a roasting. McCullough called him over and is reputed to have said, “Hey young fella, the next time your man gets the ball don’t lunge in, just shepherd him towards the square.” When the forward gained possession his marker stood off and coaxed him towards the square where McCullough according to one account “poleaxed” him.
In selection we have tried to focus on players who were intrinsically hard and uncompromising rather than lawless and wilful rule-breakers — though sometimes those lines become blurred. Football long ago had less of the scrutiny and policing which the modern game is subjected to, meaning fewer repercussions and more free rein for the player of a mind to bend the rules and take liberties. Older generations lamented the loss of physicality from football and the passing of the archetypal strong man, the fearless warrior they adored as much as the tidy finisher. Many of those hard men were good footballers too, of course.
A strong contender for full-back is Humphrey Kelleher of Cork, winner of an All-Ireland in 1973. In The Southern Star’s ‘Gleanings from the Gaels’ column after his death in 2005, the columnist penned the following tribute: “Humphrey belonged to an era now gone from Gaelic football, an era when the hard man was part and parcel of Gaelic football. An era when the classy forward had to be a brave man to survive. Now it is easy to be a classy forward with all the protection from the rules and the referees.”
He added ruefully: “We are genuinely sad that men like Humphrey Kelleher have been literally ruled out of our games. Give me the era when men were men.”
But the game still throws them up. Meath had an abundance of tough and fiercely competitive footballers in recent times, notably during the successful period under Seán Boylan, and the All-Ireland final meetings in the late 1980s with Cork were not for the faint-hearted. Liam Harnan, Gerry McEntee, and later John McDermott, revelled in the physicality of the games. Colm O’Rourke got sandwiched between Eamonn Heery and Keith Barr in the final game of the 1991 four-match series and he had to leave the field but came back on. It would have caused an outcry in the concussion chamber if he were to reappear now.
“I went down like a sack of spuds, was carried off, never remembered coming back on and only had knowledge of the first half from watching the tape later,” he revealed a few years ago. “My wife Patricia had our young daughter Elaine in the stand. With the bit of commotion going on around me on the ground she enquired of her mother, ‘Is he dead?’ It did feel like it.”
O’Rourke had all the attributes: the skill, the brain, the power and the courage to deal with any situation — well almost any. A much smaller man, Peter Canavan, had much of that grit too, taking incredible punishment and being able to give some back too, knowing the importance of standing his ground, knowing that bigger men would pounce on the slightest hint of fear. He was a brilliant ball player but the package came with the steel needed to survive the physical merry-go-round of Ulster and beyond.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps those physical traits are too. There is the universally accepted truth that Mick Lyons was hard and seemingly unbreakable. It is meant as a compliment — for the most part. But his position has more competition on a team like this than any other position on the field.
Most of the contenders, you’ll find, are found somewhere around the full-back line. A position like full-back, stepped in tradition and so closely identified with Lyons and his ilk, does not have the same resonances it used to. Players don’t command the territory that way anymore and there are full-backs of much greater versatility now operating there, to the point where a species once home of the classic alpha male has become more androgynous.
The further you go up the field the thinner the hard man choices appear to be. The hardest men, at least in the popular perception, were at the back. And in full-back you had a litany of these redoubtable figures — Lyons, Kelleher, Paddy McCormack, Martin Griffin, Sean Doherty, Peter Ford, and so on.
McCormack was part of an Offaly full back line that won two All-Irelands in 1971 and ’72. He was given the title of the Iron Man from Rhode by Eugene McGee and he stood out because of his strong build and no-nonsense management of the traffic. He also sported a terrific eye-catching quiff; he looked the part. Some will tell you Offaly had harder than that and that the name is misleading, but when asked about it 20 years ago, McCormack had this to say: “I was a bit tough I suppose. We were no angels — put it that way. There was ne’er an Offaly man a coward. We were always a good, hard and fair team. There were no questions asked afterwards. It would take a good rap to put you down; we were as hard as fucking nails.”
McCormack played in every position for Offaly including goals. A former Armagh footballer I spoke to told of a challenge match they played against Offaly around that time, in the early '70s. “The match was in Tullamore early in the year, it was only a challenge, and we were young fellas, and all the rest, and McCormack was playing and Jesus Christ he would have killed ye! Larry Kearns from Crossmaglen, a big tall lad who played left-footed, was full-forward and we landed a few big high balls in the Offaly square, and Larry went in and scored a goal. And McCormack tells him if he goes near the square again he will kill him.”
Think of Ulster and the intense rivalries and tough men that environment invariably bred, all the more when Ulster seemed to be the limit of their ambitions. Brian McEniff talks of Martin ‘Rambo’ Gavigan (“great shoulder on him”) from his All-Ireland-winning team of 1992, and the captain Anthony Molloy, fellas who would back away from nothing, and from more recent times, Michael Murphy. And Martin Griffin, the former Donegal full-back too. “He was a tough man,’” says McEniff. “He dug the roads, a naturally tough man.”
Paddy Moran of Dublin also comes up. There is a story about Moran having a grip of Colm O’Rourke’s jersey for the first 10 minutes of a Leinster final, prompting O’Rourke to eventually turn around and punch Moran on the nose sending blood and snots everywhere — but Paddy still didn’t let the jersey go. Or the one about Pat O’Neill stitching himself up at half-time after he suffered a deep wound before going back out to rejoin the play. Like an outlaw in one of those westerns removing the bullet and carrying on about his business.
Mickey John Forbes is a name that resonates around Tyrone, a hardy customer from Ardoe — a part of the country that seems to have an inordinately high proportion of tough men. There is the story of Forbes coming up to Brian Mullins one day and announcing himself, “I am Mickey John Forbes, the hardest wee man in Ulster football,” and Mullins answering less elaborately, “I am Brian Mullins”.
Another name that invariably crops up in these discussion is Pat ‘Red’ Collier of Stamullen and Meath who won an All-Ireland in 1967. Collier first played for Meath in 1961 and developed a reputation as a colourful character. He has strong wing-back competition, Páidí ó Sé being one in that mould, and the aforementioned Pat O’Neill. Eamon Tavey, left half-back on the Monaghan team that won Ulster for the first time in 41 years in 1979, was no quiche-eater by all accounts. Nor was Dan McCartan of Down. But Red Collier — he had the name and the look, with his red unruly hair. In the ’67 final he ran into the Cork player Mick Burke and the collision didn’t do Meath’s prospects any harm. They recovered from a slow start to win the title, having lost the final the previous year. Red also toured Australia in 1968 and is said to have made his mark there too.
A few years after this, 1974 to be precise, the year Dublin were resurrected, the GAA introduced a number of key rule changes which helped alter the way football was played. The handpass was reintroduced and would become a strong feature of matches in the 1970s. The square was enlarged and the third-man tackle abolished which gave goalkeepers greater protection.
The chosen goalkeeper here is Martin Furlong, who won three All-Irelands with Offaly, the last as a veteran in his mid 30s in 1982 when also crowned Texaco Footballer of the Year, the first recipient in that position since Billy Morgan in ’73.
For much of his career Furlong didn’t have that protection but never flinched under the high ball and developed a reputation for a level of bravery that paid little heed to his own personal safety or that of others. He broke his own player John Smith’s ribs going for a ball once in the square.
“He’d kill you,” Matt Connor told Michael Foley for his book Kings of September. “He was fierce brave. If he went for a ball, he went for a ball. At club championship level there would have been people afraid of him.” In the 1981 All-Ireland final, Furlong flattened Eoin Liston when both were going for a ball delivered in by Mikey Sheehy. Liston was a big man but Furlong came from the blindside and took him out. He wasn’t back up in ten.
Peter McGinnity cites Tavey of Monaghan, and also Gerry McCarville and Fergus Caulfield, a tenacious corner-back, and Dan McCartan. Brian Mullins too, hard not least for how he recovered from a serious car crash to play in another All-Ireland final. “Obviously, the game has changed and it is more a running game now,” says McGinnity, an All-Star in 1982 for Fermanagh. “If you can’t run and you can’t run fast you are going to be found out. Dan McCartan had football, but he could be as tough as you like, and James McCartan senior was tough as well. I have been trying to forget about these boys for the last 30 years or so (laughs).”
Pete McGrath admits Dan McCartan would have “gone through you” but wasn’t the sort to go looking for trouble. If it came he did not blink. He also mentions Paddy O’Rourke, All-Ireland-winning captain in 1991. “Very hard physical player,” says McGrath. “People went down the centre at their own peril.”
Galway might be associated with stylish football but in the 1930s (when they won two All-Irelands) full-back Mick Connaire was considered to have been a player who, while not dirty, would go “wild when vexed”. Bobby Beggs, a native of Dublin who played for Galway, also belonged in that hard man’s league. A genuine hard man on the great Galway team of the 1950s was left full-back Tom ‘Pook’ Dillon. He knew no fear; he played it hard but was unscrupulously fair and is said to have always respected his opponents. A hard-working farmer he is now in his early 90s and living in his native Ahascragh. In the 1960s Galway centre half-back Sean Meade loved to mix it.
Brendan Lynch flies the manly flag for Roscommon, part of the back-to-back All-Ireland winning teams of the 1940s, and acknowledged by all in his presence as incredibly tough and resilient. Mayo football star Eamonn Mongey, when asked to name the toughest player in Ireland, chose Lynch.
Left full-back John Egan of Offaly was considered to have one of the hardest shoulder charges of any defender. Another getting honourable mention is Tom Conlon, a powerfully-built member of the Louth full-back line when winning the 1957 All-Ireland.
And then there was Phil ‘Gunner’ Brady of Cavan. In July, 1950, New York faced Cavan in a National League final at Croke Park. Ten of the Cavan men had featured in the Polo Grounds three years earlier but New York, led by Roscommon’s Bill Carlos, were all over them in the opening half. In Paul Fitzpatrick’s book, The Fairytale in New York, which covers the Cavan All-Ireland win in the Polo Grounds, he tells a story of how Brady’s sister, then resident in New York and dating one of the New York players, had written in concern to her mother in Mullahoran asking that she plead with Gunner not to get involved in any rows with her new partner, Tom, a Mayo native, in the league final in 1950.
Inevitably, despite her wishes, Tom and Gunner clashed and the referee sent both off. The story goes that the pair walked off arm in arm, laughing at the good of it.
Of the Offaly team that won the All-Ireland for the first time in 1971, apart from McCormack, Nick Clavin and Eugene Mulligan were extremely tough. Kerry had Tim ‘Horse’ Kennelly and while they were credited with bringing much of the science to football in the earlier years, some teams felt their physical venom too, such as the handpassing Antrim in 1946, when Kerry hit them hard and often late and got the result.
Conor Gormley had many of the traditional stopper attributes while playing centre-back for Tyrone, as had Keith Barr in his heyday with Dublin. Frank McGuigan too was well able to ‘handle’ himself, and played for many years in America, where the football was notoriously rough and tumble. But each county had someone to fit the bill. In Leitrim, they would think of Frank Holohan, Ollie Honeyman and Seamus Quinn.
In Wicklow, ‘Red’ Pat O’Byrne who played with Aughrim and Wicklow in the 1980s had a hard reputation which had wider appreciation when he played during the compromise rules series in 1986, ’87 and ’90. In that vein Derry’s Brian McGilligan was another formidable presence, whose strength gained the grudging respect of opposing Australian sides.