Wednesday 15 August 2018

The Top 50 footballers of 2017 - Eight Dubs among the 20 best performers

Who will be Footballer of the Year from four nominations that feature two goalkeepers, one midfielder and a corner-forward? Despite losing the All-Ireland final, will it go to Mayo for a  second successive year or will Dublin collect the top individual honour?

Mayo's Andy Moran takes the top spot. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Mayo's Andy Moran takes the top spot. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

1 Andy Moran (Mayo) When, rather surprisingly, he was replaced after 48 minutes against Galway in the Connacht semi-final in June, nobody could possibly have predicted the dramatic season that lay ahead for him and Mayo.

Mayo lost by a point (Moran's absence as they powered forward with the strong wind in the final quarter was probably costly) that day but far from being a sign of terminal decline, the defeat reinforced Mayo into a harder unit than ever before. Nobody represented that mental and physical toughness more than their 33-year-old No 15, who delivered some remarkable performances. He scored 3-23, all from open play, in Mayo's eight games after the Connacht semi-final, delivering his best performances against Kerry (twice) and Dublin, scoring a total of 2-9 in their three games. Those are the type of tests that define a player's season and when, backed up by what he did in the other games too, it takes him to the No 1 slot 14 years after making his Mayo debut.

2 James McCarthy (Dublin)

For all Dublin's playing riches, they are not over-endowed with natural midfielders, but with lots of options in McCarthy's former operations area across the half-back line, Jim Gavin switched him to the centre to partner Brian Fenton. It worked exceptionally well. But then McCarthy is such a natural talent that he could adapt to most positions. He was ultra-consistent all season, reserving his top performance for Dublin's biggest test in the All-Ireland final. The most crucial part came in the second half when Mayo were shaping like a side that had the whiff of victory. Indeed, they might well be All-Ireland champions now if McCarthy hadn't intervened so powerfully. He was outstanding in the final quarter when, in addition to winning a lot of possession, he scored an inspirational point.

3 David Clarke (Mayo)

Last year's All-Star goalkeeper is in an intriguing contest with Stephen Cluxton for this year's honour (which will be decided by journalists) and for the Player of the Year, where players will decide between the pair, plus Moran and McCarthy. Clarke has solid claims on all fronts. He had an even better year than 2016, taking his shot-stopping to new heights. That applied throughout league and championship, right up to All-Ireland final day when a save from Paul Mannion kept Mayo in the game at a crucial stage in the second half. He was even better in the replayed semi-final against Kerry. It's fashionable to criticise his kick-outs, even if the evidence is not as convincing as the claims. He did very well with them in the final against Dublin except for the last one but then he had little to aim at, since most of his targets were being fouled.

4 Stephen Cluxton (Dublin)

He won the last of his five All-Star awards in 2013, but has put himself in a strong position to set a record for a goalkeeper (it's currently held by John O'Leary, who won five awards between 1984 and 1995) after an excellent season. I have him marginally behind Clarke, largely on the basis that the Mayo man had more to contend with. The Mayo defence improved substantially as the championship improved but, up to then, Clarke had had been busier than Cluxton. In fairness to Cluxton, he was extremely good when the occasion demanded, including in the All-Ireland final, with his save from Jason Doherty in the second half a possible game-saver. He gets a lot of credit for his kick-outs and rightly so most of the time, but had difficulties with them in the first half of the All-Ireland final.

5 Dean Rock (Dublin)

These are his scoring stats for the year: Total (league & championship): 3-78 (0-67 from frees and '45s). They would have been higher if he hadn't been black-carded against Kildare in the first half of the Leinster final. Since the majority of his scores come from placed balls, there's a tendency to categorise him as a kicker only but that's not an accurate reflection of his true value to Dublin. He was their top scorer from open play (0-4) in the All-Ireland final, a day when his steely temperament helped him to point the match-winning free in the final minute. He is the most reliable free-taker in the game under extreme pressure, a talent that creates additional chances from play as opponents know that conceding a free in an area within a 50-metre range will almost certainly lead to the concession of a point.

6 Paul Geaney (Kerry)

Kerry's poor performance against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final replay left their season flat, leaving their league success (they ended Dublin's long unbeaten run in the final) and the Munster title as no more than brief happy memories from April and July respectively. Despite Kerry's All-Ireland disappointment, the year was far from the write-off some in the county would have you believe. After all, they would have been in the All-Ireland final if Bryan Sheehan's radar been fully operational late in the drawn semi-final with Mayo. Nor did everyone in the county underperform this year. That certainly applies to Geaney, who scored a total of 4-71 (0-48 frees) in league and championship. He was Kerry's most consistent performer in the two semi-final clashes with Mayo, scoring a total of 0-17 (0-5 from open play).

7 Con O'Callaghan (Dublin)

He scored 2-20 (2-12 from open play) in what was his first full senior championship campaign. His goals against Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final and against Mayo in the final were clear examples of the variety the 21-year-old Cuala man brings to his game. He galloped through the centre before firing to the net early on against Tyrone while his deft finish even earlier in the final against Mayo was an example of refined skill at its best. And when Dean Rock was black-carded in the Leinster final, he took over the free-taking duties, pointing six and adding another six from open play.

8 Keith Higgins (Mayo)

His dismissal on a straight red card in the first half against Galway may have cost Mayo the Connacht semi-final but having served a one-match ban, he was the heart of Mayo's great run which took them so close to All-Ireland glory yet again. Excellent against Kerry in both semi-final clashes, he was solid against Dublin too in the final. At the age of 32 and 12 years after making his inter-county debut, he is still one of Mayo's top performers.

9 Paul Mannion (Dublin)

His game is becoming increasingly multi-dimensional. His pace and awareness in the attacking half have been in evidence since he made his debut in 2013 and now he brings another asset in the form of a defensive presence when the occasion demands. That was especially evident against Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final when his tracking back and tackling were straight from the opposition's play book. He had little to do on the defensive side against Westmeath in the Leinster semi-final so it was all about attack, an area where he excelled. Even allowing for the opposition's chaos, it was still quite an achievement to score 0-8 from play.

10 Aidan O'Shea (Mayo)

Like Keith Higgins, his season took off in the All-Ireland qualifiers, where he played a significant part in the run which took Mayo to the All-Ireland final. Apart from the drawn All-Ireland semi-final clash with Kerry, where he was posted at full-back to mark Kieran Donaghy, he imposed himself in most games, including the All-Ireland final. He faded somewhat late on but had been a powerful presence up to then.

11 Colm Cavanagh (Tyrone)

He wore No 8 but it certainly wasn't a traditional midfield role as he spent much of his time galloping back into defence, positioning himself in front of the 'D' as extra cover. And when Tyrone were in possession, he joined the forward raids as often as he could. The ultimate team and system player, he was ultra-consistent all year.

12 Michael Fitzsimons (Dublin)

It looked a few years ago as if he might be losing his place in Dublin's defensive pecking order but he stuck with it and has had his resilience rewarded. He struggled early on against Andy Moran in the All-Ireland final but so would any defender. Fitzsimons improved as the game went on and came close to reaching the heights of previous games in the second half.

13 Ciarán Kilkenny (Dublin)

Lee Keegan did an excellent marking job on him in the All-Ireland final but Kilkenny still made a decent contribution. His influence was far more pronounced earlier in the championship, when he was very much at the eye of most of Dublin's attacking storms. He also enjoyed a very consistent National League campaign.

14 Tom Parsons (Mayo)

He has had mixed fortunes in a senior career that stretches back to 2008 but this was a season he will remember with as much satisfaction as if possible after ending up on the wrong side of yet another one-point defeat in an All-Ireland final. He grew in influence as the year progressed and had some very effective outings in Croke Park.

15 Kieran Donaghy (Kerry)

He spent so long on the pitch in Croke Park after Kerry's defeat by Dublin in last year's All-Ireland semi-final that many (and possibly even himself) thought it might he had played his last game there. He hadn't. There was a rejuvenated look about him this year, even if it had an unfortunate ending when he was red-carded late in the semi-final replay against Mayo.

16 Kevin McLoughlin (Mayo)

His role demands that he visit every sector of the pitch but he still managed to contribute 2-9 to Mayo's championship total, making him their third highest scorer from play behind Andy Moran and Cillian O'Connor.

17 Peter Harte (Tyrone)

He had a bad day against in the All-Ireland semi-final against John Small, whose brand of man-marking should have attracted more critical attention from referee David Coldrick. Harte had been very effective in the run to Croke Park.

18 Colm Boyle (Mayo)

Boyle and Chris Barrett played a huge role in Mayo's revival after the defeat by Galway in June. Boyle added attacking flair to the defensive side of his game, best illustrated by a smashing goal in the drawn semi-final against Kerry, which he followed up with a man-of-the-match performance in the replay. The policy of withdrawing him in the second half was baffling but presumably Stephen Rochford had his reasons.

19 Chris Barrett (Mayo)

Mayo's best defender with Lee Keegan in the All-Ireland final, Barrett was consistently good prior to that too. Tenacious and tight-marking, he restricted some of the best forwards in the game to limited rations.

20 Cian O'Sullivan (Dublin)

Nobody reads the game better than O'Sullivan, providing him with the happy knack of being in the right place most of the time. It's a real skill, one which he has perfected over several seasons.

21 Lee Keegan (Mayo)

He had to peak early in the season with Westport for their successful bid to win the All-Ireland intermediate title. His form dipped a little after that but he regained power and influence as the season went on and finished very strongly, apart from the drawn semi-final against Kerry when he had a quiet day. He did a copybook marking job on Ciarán Kilkenny in the final and showed his scoring prowess with a great goal.

22 Paul Murphy (Kerry)

A solid season, irrespective of where he was deployed, except in the first half of the semi-final replay against Mayo. However, he recovered well. He did an excellent marking job against Lee Keegan in the drawn game. He also played a big part in Kerry's league success, especially in the win over Dublin in the final.

23 Pádraig Hampsey (Tyrone)

Everyone remembers Tyrone's power failure against Dublin but they had been very good up to then. Hampsey was one of their better performers against Dublin, having been earlier been excellent during Tyrone's successful Ulster campaign.

24 Jack McCaffrey (Dublin)

His early departure in the All-Ireland final disrupted Dublin, who missed his energetic forward runs. Tyrone felt the full brunt of them in the semi-final, as indeed did others earlier on.

25 David Moran (Kerry)

Overlooked for an All-Star nomination, which is difficult to fathom. A top contender for player of the season after Kerry's league win, he was good in the championship too all the way to semi-final replay against Mayo, where he found it hard to get into the game. It's hard to believe there are six better midfielders in the game.

26 Brian Fenton (Dublin)

Three All-Ireland medals in his first three seasons and still to experience a defeat in the championship - it's quite a record for the Raheny man. He had a quiet season than last year but was still a big contributor to Dublin's treble.

27 Cillian O'Connor (Mayo)

So close to being the hero in Mayo's last two All-Ireland final appearances, only to be let down by wayward free-kicks at the end. Had a solid, rather than spectacular season.

28 John Small (Dublin)

He has fitted neatly into the Dublin structure as defined by Jim Gavin. Aggressive in his marking, busy in general play, he likes to get forward through the smallest opening and is usually productive on those attacking jaunts.

29 Kevin Feely (Kildare)

He had a consistent season, with probably his best performance coming against Dublin in the Leinster final. How a player fares against the top teams is the real test of his talents and temperament. Feely passed on both fronts.

30 Jason Doherty (Mayo)

If he had beaten Stephen Cluxton with a second-half goal chance in the final, would Mayo now be All-Ireland champions? Like so many of his colleagues, he grew with the season in the second coming.

31 Philly McMahon (Dublin)

Dublin supporters have come to expect a high degree of reliability from McMahon and he delivered it against this year.

32 James O'Donoghue (Kerry)

Man of the match against Cork in the Munster final, his form dipped against Galway and Mayo (drawn game). He didn't start the replay but impressed as a sub in the second half.

33 Paddy McBrearty (Donegal)

Many Donegal players under-performed this year, especially in the championship, but McBrearty was one of the few who fought the good fight in the Ulster Championship and later against Galway in the qualifiers.

34 Tiernan McCann (Tyrone)

Like so many of his colleagues, he found the going very tough against Dublin in the semi-final but still managed to do reasonably well. He did much better in the Ulster Championship.

35 Jonny Cooper (Dublin)

Not as conspicuous as in previous seasons but utterly dependable all the same, as indeed he has been for a long time.

36 Enda Smith (Roscommon)

Excellent in the Connacht Championship but Mayo planned specifically for him in the All-Ireland quarter-final, limiting his influence in the drawn game before Roscommon suffered a collective power failure in the replay.

37 Niall Sludden (Tyrone)

One of Tyrone's better performers on a day of general malfunction against Dublin, he did well in Ulster and earlier on too.

38 Brendan Harrison (Mayo)

He didn't reach the heights which earned him an All-Star last year but did little wrong either.

39 Tadhg Morley (Kerry)

He had a very good league and was solid enough in the championship too, although like all his Kerry colleagues he ran into problems against Mayo in the semi-final replay.

40 Conor McManus (Monaghan)

Judged by previous seasons, he wasn't quite as effective but he deserves to be assessed on the basis of what he did this year. A marked man - often illegally so - he still made a decent contribution to the Monaghan cause.

41 Jamie Clarke (Armagh)

He contributed handsomely to Armagh's revival in the qualifiers before they were demolished by Tyrone in the quarter-final.

42 Seán Armstrong (Galway)

One of the few Galway players who came close to challenging Kerry in the quarter-final, he had a good year overall.

43 Conor Devaney (Roscommon)

Very good in the Connacht Championship but found it much harder against Mayo in Croke Park.

44 Caolan Mooney (Down)

After a few very disappointing championships, Down improved throughout the summer, with Mooney very much to the forefront.

45 Daniel Flynn (Kildare)

He was prominent in the Leinster Championship but will regret missing a great goal chance early in the second half at a time when Kildare were working hard to rein in Dublin's lead.

46 Niall Morgan (Tyrone)

Tyrone conceded only seven goals in 12 league and championship games - Morgan's steadiness in goal played a big part in that.

47 Fintan Kelly (Monaghan)

Finished off a good campaign by being one of Monaghan's best players in the ultimate test against Dublin in the quarter-final.

48 Seán Murphy (Carlow)

An imposing presence at midfield, he proved against Dublin and Monaghan that that he can deliver against Division 1 opposition. Colleague Paul Broderick also did well this year.

49 Connaire Harrison (Down)

Like Caolan Mooney, he was very prominent in Down's revival last summer.

50 Mattie Donnelly (Tyrone)

Struggled against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final but that doesn't wipe all out all the good work he did earlier on.

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