Kilkenny changed everything between 2000 and 2009: most All-Ireland titles in a decade, most Hurlers of the Year and most All-Stars.
The triumphs rolled on for the first five years of the next decade too, making it the most successful 15 years by any county in hurling history.
It wasn’t as if the 1970-2000 period was unproductive either – yielding eight All-Ireland titles, including three back-to-back successes.
It’s a remarkable half-century, during which they won as many All-Irelands as Cork, Tipperary and Limerick combined and more than double the total accumulated by Galway, Clare and Wexford.
Kilkenny’s riches are reflected in our top 20, with a ‘Magnificent Seven’ led by Henry Shefflin and DJ Carey. Eddie Keher, Tommy Walsh, JJ Delaney, Noel Skehan and TJ Reid also feature. That’s five more than Cork, Tipperary, Galway, Clare and Limerick, while Offaly, Wexford and Waterford have one each.
A look at the list of outstanding talents who are omitted underlines how difficult this exercise is.
There are, no doubt, many who will argue that some from Jimmy Barry-Murphy, John Connolly, Frank Cummins, Ger Henderson, Peter Finnerty, Pádraic Maher, Liam Dunne, Johnny Dooley, Joe McKenna, John Fenton, Richie Hogan, Tony Browne, Eugene Coughlan, ‘Brick’ Walsh – and indeed others – should be included.
They may be right, but, ultimately, it comes down to subjective judgements.
After a lengthy analysis and review process we’re happy to put forward the case for our elite top 20.
20 Ray Cummins (Cork)
Full-forward on the Team of the Millennium, although not on the Team of the Century (1984) despite having finished his career, this may seem like a low rating. However, many others have made strong cases since 2000. Also this is a 1-20 exercise, not a team selection where the players are compared against others in the same position as opposed to a ranking order.
19 Tony Doran (Wexford)
Success came early, having won League (1967), Leinster (1968) and All-Ireland senior medals by the age of 22. He was Hurler of the Year in 1976, but by the time he retired in 1984, his All-Ireland count was still on one. That doesn’t subtract from his remarkable input to the Wexford cause, which saw him score 131-179 in 187 games.
18 TJ Reid (Kilkenny)
TJ’s career still has some way to go and on the basis of his form in recent seasons there’s every chance his star will rise even higher. Just as well for Kilkenny (although not the opposition) that he didn’t follow through on his initial thoughts about quitting the county panel in 2012 when he was frustrated over his on-off role for the Cats.
17 Eoin Kelly (Tipperary)
In 2010, the year Tipperary ended Kilkenny’s five-in-a-row pursuit, he won his sixth All-Star, matching Nicky English as the county’s top award winner. It ended a great decade for Kelly, whose scoring rate was so important. English and Kelly were selected as corner-forwards on a Munster 25-year team, chosen in 2009.
16 Eamonn Cregan (Limerick)
What to do when you’re not happy with the defence coming up to an All-Ireland final? Limerick’s response in 1973 was to switch Cregan, All-Star No 15 in the previous two seasons, to centre-back. It worked too as he played very well in the win over Kilkenny. Seven years later, he won a third All-Star at left full-forward. His versatility made him one of the best hurlers of his generation.
15 Noel Skehan (Kilkenny)
The only ’keeper in our top 20, Skehan is a worthy rep of the art. Seven All-Stars in 12 seasons between 1972 and 1983, including five in a row (1972-’76), proves the point. He remained as Kilkenny’s No 1 until the age of 39 in 1985 when he opted out not due to dipping form but because he had lost his appetite for the inter-county game.
14 Brian Lohan (Clare)
Anthony Daly, who played with Lohan for many years before dealing with him as Clare manager, had no doubt about his merits. “Pound for pound, the best player I ever played with. He had an aura about him. Any time he cleared a ball, it was like another fella clearing three balls. The crowd went crazy,” wrote Daly. Clare fans enjoyed that feeling on many occasions in his 13-year career.
13 JJ Delaney (Kilkenny)
“You could play him anywhere in defence. It’s as if his hurley acts as a lightning conductor for the ball, guiding it safely into a secure hand. He has every quality you want in a defender, whether in the air or on the ground,” said DJ Carey of his colleague. And, as so many opponents discovered during difficult days against Delaney, DJ was right.
12 Pat Hartigan (Limerick)
The All-Star selectors couldn’t get enough of him after the scheme was launched in 1971, selecting him at full-back for five successive seasons. In 1973, the last time Limerick won the All-Ireland before 2018, he was the only nominee for the position. That he dominated such a difficult position for so long says it all about his talents. Unfortunately, an eye injury ended his career in 1979.
11 Joe Cooney (Galway)
Whether with club (Sarsfields) or county, Cooney brought an impressive sense of elegance and composure in a career which stretched from 1984 to 2000. A prolific scorer, he had also exceptional vision and awareness of what was around him. He won five All-Stars and a Hurler of the Year award in his first six years with Galway.
10 Ken McGrath (Waterford)
He is the only member of our top 20 selection without an All-Ireland SHC medal, but that’s the only difference between him and the others. An inspiring figure in a variety of positions for the Déise men during a 15-year career, his best performances came at centre-back where he exerted a ferocious sense of power and determination on every facet of play for his county.
9 Seánie McMahon (Clare)
Would there have been a Banner glory story if McMahon hadn’t played on with an injured shoulder in the 1995 Munster semi-final at a time when Clare had used all their subs? It typified a mentality which he developed further later that year, ending year as Hurler of the Year, and throughout his high-achieving career.
8 Joe Canning (Galway)
Together with TJ Reid, he is the only current hurler in our top 20, so if a similar exercise is carried out in five years, he may have a higher rank. Joe has been a force of nature since his dazzling array of talents emerged in his juvenile days with Portumna. The upward graph continued, making him one of the real stars of his generation.
7 Nicky English (Tipperary)
“I felt we were going nowhere. I remember thinking that evening that I was never going to win anything with Tipperary” – English reflecting is his autobiography how he felt in the summer of 1986 after another championship exit. A year later everything changed and nobody did more than on the pitch than English to fashion a new Tipp era.
6 Brian Corcoran (Cork)
Brian Corcoran’s adaptability was exceptional as he moved from corner-back to centre-back to full-forward, winning All-Stars in the three roles and Hurler of the Year awards in both defensive positions. His return from premature retirement was crucial in providing the extra edge which saw Cork win the All-Ireland double in 2004-’05.
5 Tommy Walsh (Kilkenny)
He makes it four out of the top five for Kilkenny after a career where his command of various positions won him nine All-Star awards in successive years. Six were at wing-back (five right, one left), one each at midfield, No 4 and No 12. That’s versatility and consistency of the highest order in a career that also saw him win the Hurler of the Year award in 2009.
4 Eddie Keher (Kilkenny)
Left full-forward on the Teams of the Century (1984) and Millennium, he plied his trade at a time when forwards didn’t get as much protection from the rules or disciplinary processes as nowadays, but still managed to outwit most defenders whatever approach they took. Consistently accurate from play and frees, he reserved many of his best displays for the biggest occasions – always a sign of top pedigree.
3 Brian Whelahan (Offaly)
“I’m inclined to just name Brian and leave it at that, since no explanation is necessary.” That was DJ Carey’s comment in his autobiography on a team he selected from players he had played against during his 15-season career. That’s the respect one of Kilkenny’s finest had for Whelahan and it was replicated all around the hurling fraternity for the Team of the Millennium left half-back.
2 DJ Carey (Kilkenny)
He still has his supporters for a No 1 vote, on the basis that he was a classier craftsman than Shefflin. They also point out that, whereas Shefflin’s career started at a time (1999) when Kilkenny’s supply lines were heading for record levels, Carey didn’t have anything like the same level of support, over the previous five seasons in particular.
1 Henry Shefflin (Kilkenny)
There will never be unanimity when it comes to 'best of' selections, but Shefflin would certainly command a high proportion of votes in any poll for No 1 over the past 50 years. That takes us to the next questions: was he the best of all time? And who from the Team of the Millennium forward line (Christy Ring, Mick Mackey, Jimmy Langton, Jimmy Doyle, Ray Cummins, Eddie Keher) will he supplant when the 150th anniversary selection is made in 2034? Cummins could be the one. Of course, by then, there are likely to be other changes too.
You can vote on our selections below or send your own top 20 list, as well as any issues or disagreements you might have with our rankings, to firstname.lastname@example.org
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