And so to the super 20. We started with a cast of thousands and worked it down to 465, comprised of the top 20 in every county.
The next step involved reducing it to 80, 20 each from the four provinces, before completing the process today with the top 20 nationally.
The No 1 spot goes to Jack O’Shea, the super-charged Kerry midfielder who delivered at such a consistently high level in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. Six successive All Stars (1980-85) was an amazing personal achievement, beaten only by winning the Footballer of the Year awards in four of those years.
Kerry colleagues, Pat Spillane and Mikey Sheehy, who between them won 16 All Star and two Footballer of the Year awards, fill second and fifth positions respectively, with the modern generation coming between them.
Peter Canavan and Stephen Cluxton operated at opposite ends of the pitch, but both exerted major influence, not just in the manner they discharged their responsibilities, but also with the leadership they provided. Cluxton is, of course, still active so his story still has some way to run.
As ever with an exercise like this, dozens of brilliant players were omitted, so it’s only fair to name a group (in no particular order) who came closest to making the final 20: John O’Leary, Graham Geraghty, Martin O’Connell, Anthony Tohill, Billy Morgan, Dermot Earley, Martin Furlong, ‘Bomber’ Liston, Kieran McGeeney, Lee Keegan, Ja Fallon, Greg Blaney, Michael Donnellan, Martin McHugh, Mickey Linden, Mickey Kearins, Tony McManus.
20 Tomás Ó Sé (Kerry)
Uncle Páidí and brothers, Darragh and Marc lose out in the top 20 – that’s how tough the competition is – leaving Tomás to fly the O Sé flag. It’s in good hands. Fellow-Kerryman, Seán Murphy was selected at right half-back on the Teams of the Century and Millennium, but if an update took place now, Tomás O Sé may well replace him.
19 Brian Fenton (Dublin)
Played 34; Won 32; Drew 2. That’s the phenomenal record set by Brian Fenton since making his championship debut in 2015. His contribution to the five-in-a-row triumph in underlined by a personal achievement haul, featuring four All Stars and a Footballer of the Year award. It’s some return at the age of 27, but then the Raheny midfielder looked the real deal right from the start.
18 James McCarthy (Dublin)
Only a small number of Dublin supporters were in Killarney on the first Sunday in February 2010 when Pat Gilroy’s new-look team beat reigning All-Ireland champions Kerry. Those who were present saw a 19-year-old wing-back make an impressive debut. James McCarthy was on his way. In the intervening decade, he has been an ultra-reliable component – whether at half-back or midfield – on the best Dublin team of all time.
17 Trevor Giles (Meath)
When Dublin beat Meath by ten points in the 1995 Leinster final the career of one Skryne man (Colm O’Rourke) ended just as another was about to take off. Giles was a different type of player to his club colleague, but was equally influential for most of the next decade, during which he won two All-Irelands, three All Stars and a Footballer of the Year award.
16 Pádraic Joyce (Galway)
When Galway needed a goal against Kildare in the 1998 All-Ireland final, their 21-year-old full-forward delivered. And, in the 2001 final, when they needed someone to unlock a Darren Fay-led Meath defence that had conceded only five points against Kerry in the semi-final, their 24-year-old No.14 did it ,scoring 0-10 (0-5 from play). There were lots of other days too when Joyce found the answers, but then he was a big-day performer, which is the ultimate test of any player.
15 Séamus Moynihan (Kerry)
“Welcome to the big time, Séamus”. Moynihan’s first Munster final carried quite a shock for the 18-year-old midfielder aboard the Kerry team that lost the 1992 Munster final to Clare. Things could only get better, albeit not until 1996, when Kerry next won the Munster title. Moynihan was playing at midfield at that time, but it was as a wing-back and full-back that he really excelled over the next decade for the Kingdom.
14 Colm O’Rourke (Meath)
He always claimed that he never liked playing corner-forward, “where you are always under pressure from some ugly beast of a corner-back who doesn’t wash his teeth or use under-arm spray”. Corner-backs weren’t exactly enamoured with Colm O’Rourke either, as he was no dinky little trickster, but rather a hard-nosed enforcer with a sniper’s eye. The combination served Meath exceptionally well for nearly 20 years.
13 Seán Cavanagh (Tyrone)
Things were certainly changing for the better in Tyrone in the years after 2000, with exceptional young talent maturing quickly and slotting in comfortably alongside the experienced players. Seán Cavanagh was a new wave performer, bringing a high energy game to the middle third as part of Mickey Harte’s pressure game. A 16-season career which yielded a harvest of three All-Irelands, five All Stars and a Footballer of the Year highlighted Cavanagh’s footballing ability.
12 Maurice Fitzgerald (Kerry)
What a time for Maurice Fitzgerald to arrive in the Kerry dressing-room. It was full of big names, but by 1988 decline had set in. Kerry won only one of the next eight Munster titles. Fitzgerald’s delightful talents were on view even in the bad times before really blossoming when the next talent surge arrived in 1996/97. Without question, he was one of the most gifted players from a technical perspective of his generation.
11 Michael Murphy (Donegal)
In late 2010 Jim McGuinness looked around the Donegal dressing-room after taking over, he saw plenty of experience. But when it came to choosing a captain, he ignored it and instead opted for a 21-year-old Michael Murphy. He is still captain, having led his county through its most successful decade. Nobody has done more to make all that happen.
10 John O’Keeffe (Kerry)
From the pivotal position of centre-back to midfield to No 3, a busy road well-travelled by a man who brought a more scientific approach to full-back play than had been the norm up to then in the evolution of Gaelic games. It worked. Apart from winning seven All-Ireland medals, John O’Keeffe was the All Star full-back four times (1975, 1976, 1978 and 1979) having won his first award as a midfielder in 1973.
9 Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper (Kerry)
One of the few Kerry forwards of the last 30 years who would have forced his way into the great team of the 1970s/80s, ‘Gooch’ had it all. From his first big championship outing as a 19-year against Cork on a wet, windy day in June 2002 to April 2017 when he retired with five All-Ireland medals, eight All Star awards and a Texaco Footballer of the Year award, he enriched the game with his personal brand of skill and class.
8 Larry Tompkins (Cork)
The best ‘free transfer’ in Gaelic games history, Cork were the beneficiaries when he fell out with the Kildare county board over an air fare in the mid-eighties. His natural talents and mental toughness were exactly what the Rebels needed after suffering years of tyranny under Kerry’s heavy hand. Larry Tompkins was a major driving force in the transformation, which yielded two All-Ireland and seven Munster titles.
7 Brian Mullins (Dublin)
Brian Mullins injured his foot before the 1974 All-Ireland final. Medical opinion was that he wouldn’t be fit. Heffo insisted he would. Mullins not only played against Galway, but made a big impact, especially in the closing stages. For Heffo to gamble on playing a first season rookie with fitness doubts showed how much he trusted the 19-year-old. His faith was well-founded.
6 Matt Connor (Offaly)
“He was a genius. We won’t ever see a better forward than Matt. Everyone loved him, even fans of opposing teams. He rose above county boundaries because of the class he brought to the game. For a big, strong man, he had the grace and balance of a ballerina” – Seamus Darby’s description in his autobiography. It’s hard to argue with that.
5 Mikey Sheehy (Kerry)
Who else would have thought of going for goal from that famous free against Dublin in the 1978 All-Ireland final? It summed up Mikey Sheehy, the ultimate poacher, who read the play so well that he always seemed to be a few seconds ahead of the defence, a massive advantage for any forward. His strike rate from pressure frees was another powerful weapon in the Kingdom’s armoury.
4 Stephen Cluxton (Dublin)
No individual footballer in the history of the game has been credited with changing a facet of play to the degree Cluxton is recognised for re-shaping the planning, execution and impact of kick-outs. “Drive the kick-outs as far as you can,” was Kevin Heffernan’s simple instruction to John O’Leary before his first game in 1980. Goalkeepers don’t hear that anymore (not often anyway) and Cluxton has played a huge part in the new age approach to restarts. He’s an excellent shot-stopper too and tops it all off with leadership know-how. Also, his long-range free-taking was important for Dublin until Dean Rock arrived.
3 Peter Canavan (Tyrone)
When Seán McLaughlin’s last minute point was disallowed (Peter Canavan adjudged to have handled ball on the ground) against Dublin in the 1995 All-Ireland final, denying Tyrone a replay, their fans feared the worst. It was only Tyrone’s second time in an All-Ireland final – when would they be back? Canavan never stopped believing and the more Tyrone lost, the harder he tried. His leadership was almost as important as his scoring in ushering in their great era early in the new Millennium.
2 Pat Spillane (Kerry)
He opened up new possibilities about how wing-forwards could play. The No 12 on his jersey was for identification purposes only and certainly no indication of where he might be located at any particular time. He roamed wherever the mood took him and, once in possession, thrived on taking on the opposition. An exceptional point-taker, often from difficult angles, he made it look easy. It wasn’t, but that’s where the hours of practise came in.
1 Jack O'Shea (Kerry)
“He had a Rolls Royce engine and so much skill and determination that he needed no instructions. Off you go Jacko, do your thing. He hardly ever missed a game from challenge to championship. He just wanted to play football and he did it so well for so long. Six successive All Stars in such a demanding position (midfield) says it all about his consistency. Jack O’Shea was, without question, the best midfielder I ever saw” – Mick O’Dwyer in his autobiography. It says it all really.
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Peter Canavan may be looking over his shoulder, checking on Michael Murphy’s whereabouts but, for now at least, he is still in front. Whether he stays there remains to be seen as Murphy’s career still has some way to go.
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Mayo (11), Galway (8) and Roscommon (1) have played in 20 All-Ireland SFC finals between them since 1970, winning two, drawing three and losing 15. The only wins were in 1998, when Galway beat Kildare and three years later when they overpowered Meath.