Rather than grow a moustache or take the pledge in November, I’ve decided to pick my top 30 current Gaelic footballers.
I know what I am letting myself in for. This article invariably raises the hackles of the anonymous keyboard warriors.
So, I am bracing myself for the usual online onslaught.
Last year I missed out on doing it because the championship only got under way in November due to Covid.
But it’s a measure of how fortunes fluctuate in football that there are just 12 survivors from my 2019 list.
Let me explain a few ground rules – the list is not compiled solely on the basis of how the players performed in 2021.
Rather, it is a list of the 30 players I consider to be the best in the game over the last few years.
Some of the players had poor games in 2021, or their teams didn’t perform.
But, for me, form is temporary, whereas class is permanent.
So, I would appreciate fewer barbs about my selection being pro-Kerry or anti-Ulster.
Of course, the list is subjective, and everybody has the right to disagree with it.
In choosing the list I’m very much influenced by the way Gaelic football has evolved.
The best and most valued players in Gaelic football now operate in the middle third of the field.
In soccer they are known as ‘box-to-box’ players. The difference with the GAA guys is that they have a hell of a lot more ground to cover than their soccer counterparts.
It is no coincidence that eight of the players I’ve chosen fit that criterion.
And, in a further nod to modern-day Gaelic football, I have included two goalkeepers.
Their role has evolved so much for the past 20 years that they have become a pivotal figure on teams.
So here it goes:
1. DAVID CLIFFORD (KERRY)
Absolutely no Kerry bias here. Clifford is the best footballer in Ireland, even though he hasn’t won an All-Ireland medal.
He might have been held scoreless in the Munster final, but he almost single-handedly beat Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final. I’m convinced that had he played in extra time Kerry would have won.
2. BRIAN FENTON (DUBLIN)
I make no apologies for including six Dublin players.
Six years on the treadmill finally caught up with them this summer.
But Fenton is the king of the middle third. He has all the attributes I alluded to earlier – as well as an ability to score.
3. CIARAN KILKENNY (DUBLIN)
A heads-up intelligent footballer, who is the ultimate team player.
Strong on the ball, he was arguably Dublin’s best player this year.
4. KIERAN McGEARY (TYRONE)
Tyrone’s best player in the 2021 championship, he is favourite to be named Player of the Year.
Kieran can play anywhere. His tackling is unbelievable, and he is a superb link player.
Scored five points from play in the championship, with his 0-3 against Donegal being particularly significant.
5. LEE KEEGAN (MAYO)
What a warrior and leader. Appears to be getting better with age, and he was the one Mayo player who took the game to Tyrone in the All-Ireland final.
Sadly, the way things are going for Mayo – they get Cillian O’Connor back for 2022, but lose Oisín Mullin – Lee may well go down in history, along with Roscommon’s Dermot Earley, as one of the two greatest players never to win an All-Ireland medal.
6. CONOR MEYLER (TYRONE)
I doubt if any other player could match his stamina.
I’d love to see a read-out of his GPS statistics.
A brilliant link player and ball-carrier, he successfully kept Ryan McHugh (Donegal), Ryan McAnespie (Monaghan), Paudie Clifford (Kerry) and Paddy Durcan (Mayo) at bay in this year’s championship
7. PADRAIG HAMPSEY (TYRONE)
The best of the modern-day defenders. He is athletic, physical and is Tyrone’s ace man-marker.
He policed Thomas Galligan (Cavan), Michael Murphy (Donegal), Conor McManus (Monaghan), Sean O’Shea (Kerry) and Tommy Conroy (Mayo) this season.
None of them beat him, and he also scored in Tyrone’s last three championship games.
8. BRIAN HOWARD (DUBLIN)
One of Dublin’s better players this year. He is the kind of versatile performer all top teams now need – as he can be equally effective at half-back, midfield or wing-forward.
But Dessie Farrell probably needs to settle on one position for Howard if they are to retake Sam Maguire in 2022.
9. NIALL MORGAN (TYRONE)
The ultimate modern goalkeeper-cum-sweeper.
He is very composed on the ball and gives the team extra options when he comes outfield.
Niall has mastered his kick-out and is an accurate long-range free-taker.
10. PADDY DURCAN (MAYO)
Alongside Keegan, he is Mayo’s most influential player.
Paddy is at his best when driving forward from the half-back line – as he did magnificently in the second half of the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin.
11. PETER HARTE (TYRONE)
I think when he played under his uncle Mickey, he suffered due to his versatility and was never at his best when positioned up front.
Now settled into his best position as an attacking half-back, he had a magnificent 2021 campaign, highlighted by his brilliant block on my nephew Killian in the All-Ireland semi-final.
12. SEAN O’SHEA (KERRY)
By his own seriously high standards, Sean did not have a good semi-final.
But Peter Keane’s decision to play him closer to the danger zone worked this year.
He was the highest scorer in the championship (2-29), with 1-10 of that coming from play.
13. RIAN O’NEILL (ARMAGH)
A class act, he would walk on to any of the top three teams. Rian is a great ball-winner, and is very accurate from both frees and play.
14. NIALL SLUDDEN (TYRONE)
Another Tyrone player who has the qualities needed to prosper in the modern game.
The ultimate team player, he can defend, link up the play and is very unselfish.
15. DARREN McCURRY (TYRONE)
Resurrecting McCurry’s career was one of the best decisions made by the new Tyrone bosses Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan, along with their switch to a kicking game.
McCurry scored 1-30, including an excellent 1-16 contribution from play.
16. STEPHEN COEN (MAYO)
I rated him one of the best minor players of all time when he captained Mayo to an All-Ireland title in 2013.
But this was the first year he really flourished at senior level – operating in a variety of roles including being a man-marker, driving forward and setting up scores.
17. CON O’CALLAGHAN (DUBLIN)
Judged by his own exalted standards, it was a disappointing year for the Cuala ace.
But, on form, this guy is simply unstoppable. He scored 2-7 for his club Cuala last Sunday, which suggests a rest has done him good. 2022 inter-county defences be warned.
18. JAMES McCARTHY (DUBLIN)
Even though he is in the autumn of his career, what an inspirational footballer ‘Jamesy’ has been for Dublin.
He was the first of the GAA’s ‘box-to-box’ performers and the Dubs will find it very difficult to replace him when the 31-year-old finally hangs up his boots.
19. SHANE WALSH (GALWAY)
One of the greatest sights in Gaelic football is that of Shane Walsh in full flight with the ball.
He was having a super championship until he was ‘taken-out’ near the end of the first half of the Connacht decider.
A great player, Shane would be one of the most coveted GAA players if there was a transfer market.
20. RORY BEGGAN (MONAGHAN)
His kick-outs, his ability to sweep, his free-kicking and the block he made on Mattie Donnelly in the Ulster final again marked him out as one of the most influential players – never mind goalkeepers – around.
21. BRIAN KENNEDY (TYRONE)
Kennedy and his midfield partner Conn Kilpatrick are a pair of prototype midfielders.
Physically imposing – they are both well over six-foot tall – they possess huge engines and link the play very effectively.
Credit the management for sticking with them after one or two hairy outings each – they produced the goods on All-Ireland final day.
22. CONN KILPATRICK (TYRONE)
23. GAVIN WHYTE (KERRY)
Restored to his best position after a silly dalliance at wing-forward in 2020, White had his most effective season yet in a Kerry jersey.
Since Jack McCaffrey stepped away, he is the fastest attacking back in the game.
24. MATTIE DONNELLY (TYRONE)
He has probably played better in previous seasons but is still one of the team’s most valuable assets.
Perhaps only Brian Howard can match Mattie’s versatility – he can operate as a sweeper, at midfield or as a holding player up front and is one of the team’s on-field leaders.
25. PADDY McBREARTY (DONEGAL)
Donegal are a fading force. But when they succeed at getting the ball into McBrearty, his trusty left peg delivers a score.
Paddy’s winning point in the dying seconds against Derry this year summed up now valuable he is.
26. PAUL MANNION (DUBLIN)
For the first time ever my top 30 includes a player who has hardly featured at county level for two years.
However, I’ve watched him often enough playing for Kilmacud Crokes this autumn to still rate Mannion as one of the top five forwards in the game. Dublin need him back.
27. RYAN O’DONOGHUE (MAYO)
Aside from his penalty blip in the All-Ireland final he had an outstanding year, improving as the season progressed.
Mayo’s best forward, he comfortably assumed the free-taking duties in the absence of the injured Cillian O’Connor.
And Ryan has played a pivotal role in helping Belmullet reach the Mayo final.
28. PAUDIE CLIFFORD (KERRY)
Hands up: I was surprised at how well he performed this year.
His link-up play was magnificent and he won a clutch of Man of the Match awards in the Munster series. Once Conor Meyler negated his influence in the semi-final, Kerry struggled.
29. PADRAIG O’HORA (MAYO)
Though he experienced a torrid time against Darren McCurry in the All-Ireland final, overall he had a really solid season – highlighted by that brilliant performance against Dublin.
30. MATTHEW RUANE (MAYO)
Had a very disappointing All-Ireland final but up to then he really impressed with his athleticism, hard running and scoring exploits.