Saturday 17 March 2018

Peter Canavan picks his top 10 footballers in the country and Michael Murphy eclipses all

Donegal playmaker leads elite bunch of star men who make their teams tick

Michael Murphy, Donegal
Michael Murphy, Donegal

Peter Canavan

Perhaps it is because they already have been involved in two high-profile championship matches already, but it has become clear that Michael Murphy is the most influential footballer in Ireland at the present time.

It set me thinking on what a list of the ten most influential - in the strictest sense of the word - footballers in the country might be.

Let's start with Murphy. Any serious team that wishes to beat Donegal simply has to man-mark him. Murphy destroyed Armagh because they decided they were going to leave him unmarked in the middle of the pitch. Big mistake.

Nobody can control a game in the middle sector as well as Murphy.

A sign of a true leader is when the chips are down. Against Tyrone this year and the last five minutes against Armagh last year when they needed direction and leadership, it was Murphy who provided the impetus to get them over the line.

Donegal's system is so sophisticated that they warrant further players on the list.

Like Paddy McBrearty. Without his skill-set at full-forward, Donegal would have to employ Murphy on the edge of the square and lose his contribution to turnovers and transitioning.

He is 21 now, and I was a long time playing championship football before I had played what he has.

It appears that Rory Gallagher recognises his scoring potential. His first option is now to take on his marker and try and get his shot away, something that brought him 1-24 throughout the National League.

The final Donegal man to make the list is Frank McGlynn.

When we were in our prime, Conor Gormley was able to perform so many tasks in our defence. Be it man-marking their best forwards, sweeping, coming forward to get crucial scores, he was able to do anything. Donegal have that in Frank McGlynn.

His pass for Christy Toye's point in the preliminary round against Tyrone is an early candidate for pass of the season. He and Karl Lacey perform very similar roles, but McGlynn gets the nod through his energy.

The reigning All-Ireland champions had to reach for a figure from their past to stay alive last summer, and how glad Eamonn Fitzmaurice must have been that Kieran Donaghy's appetite for football is still strong.


Whenever Mick O'Dwyer was asked who was his most important player on his Kerry team, he always said Eoin Liston. Not only was he able to take points and score goals, but he brought men into the game.

Donaghy is like that, with his spatial awareness. While Bomber had John Egan and Mikey Sheehy either side of him, Donaghy has O'Donoghue and the Gooch, and is blessed with quick hands from his basketball experience.

Nobody would dispute what Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton has brought to the game.

As a goalkeeper, he is found a lot of the time outside the 21-metre line, the first sweeper-keeper in a Manuel Neuer sense. Some teams can win without their better players playing well, but if Dublin see Cluxton having a poor game, they will panic.

Further upfield, you have two similar players in Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly, but I think Connolly's artistry sets him apart.

There have been question marks over his temperament, but he came into his own last year against Donegal when things weren't going well. The tide had turned, but there was one Dublin man taking the game to them and playing to the highest of standards.

In what wasn't one of Dublin's finest hours, it was one of Diarmuid Connolly's greatest games.

Staying with the 'Big Four', we come to Aidan O'Shea and Keith Higgins of Mayo.

I said last week that Mayo need a strong target man at full-forward and I put him there in my tactical graphic. He put the fear of God into Finian Hanley last Sunday and his presence was directly responsible for the goal that won the game. He caused chaos; three Galway men were retreating towards their own goal and Manus Breathnach caught sight of O'Shea. If it had have been anyone else he would have lifted the ball and gone on. The fact it was O'Shea charging through made him think twice.

Another factor Mayo have to consider is how to get the optimum from Keith Higgins.

If he gets more help in a sweeper or two, then he will grow into an even more effective link-man and he has been Mayo's most consistent player in recent years.


Cork are searching for an identity at the minute, but Brian Cuthbert should model his side on their talisman, Colm O'Neill.

Coming back from three cruciate ligament injuries is a sign that he has all the right qualities and is made of the right substance. In various games in the National League this year he was double-teamed but was able to win his own ball, shrug men off for fun and kick points off his left and right foot.

Closer to home, Monaghan have a similar player in Conor McManus.

His performance against Dublin in the league semi-final this year was as close to perfection as you can get from an inside forward. His movement off the ball was excellent.

It may be a subjective list, based on the here and now, but I also feel pained to leave off Cillian O'Connor, and, to an extent, Paul Flynn. I will revisit the topic at the end of the championship!

My current top ten

1. Michael Murphy (Donegal)

He is, without doubt, the most complete footballer in the game at the minute in terms of versatility, leadership, work rate off the ball, his use of possession and his scoring ability, he has it all.

2. Diarmuid Connolly (Dublin)

His performance in the club final last year is unlikely to be trumped. The quality, his ease of movement, it was a graceful performance. His balance and use of both feet makes him so difficult to mark.

3. Aidan O'Shea (Mayo)

He is a player in form, robust, and his positioning will have a huge bearing on whether or not Mayo win the All-Ireland or not. To mark him, you need to be physically very strong.

4. Kieran Donaghy (Kerry)

In league games this year, Kerry wouldn't have beaten Tyrone up in Omagh, or Dublin in their visit to Killarney, only for Donaghy's performances where he won crucial ball and laid it off.

5. Conor McManus (Monaghan)

His strengths lie in his evasion skills, being able to create half a yard of space for himself just to get a shot away, and his free-taking is only surpassed by Murphy.

6. Stephen Cluxton (Dublin)

He has broken all the rules and guidelines for goalkeepers. Any long balls coming in he is always quick off the line and he always makes himself available off the defenders for a pass.

7. Frank McGlynn (Donegal)

In a couple of years his forward play has come on and the angles he runs has taken defences apart. He has scored a goal in the 2012 Ulster final coming from deep, and has done it time and time again.

8. Colm O'Neill (Cork)

He is a supreme marksman, but it goes beyond hitting frees. He has the ability to bring in his fellow forwards and I can't wait to see what kind of summer he has.

9. Keith Higgins (Mayo)

Incredible reading of the game allows him to play his man from the front. He is the ultimate sportsman; hard-hitting, ultra-competitive, fantastic hands, excellent ball-handling and for a small man he has a great leap.

10. Paddy McBrearty (Donegal)

If you take him out of the Donegal attack, going on the first two championship games this year, Donegal would have struggled. I think they have got to the stage where they rely on him greatly.

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