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Jack O’Shea: How high king of midfielders set the gold standard that has yet to be equalled

Hall of Fame Award: Kerry legend is not only considered to be the best player in his position but the best footballer in any era

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Kerry football legend Jack O’Shea accepts his Irish Independent Sportstar Hall of Fame award

Kerry football legend Jack O’Shea accepts his Irish Independent Sportstar Hall of Fame award

Kerry legend Jack O'Shea captured six All-Stars, seven All-Irelands and four Texaco Footballer of the Year awards throughout his illustrious career. Photo: Sportsfile

Kerry legend Jack O'Shea captured six All-Stars, seven All-Irelands and four Texaco Footballer of the Year awards throughout his illustrious career. Photo: Sportsfile

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Kerry football legend Jack O’Shea accepts his Irish Independent Sportstar Hall of Fame award

BRIAN FENTON’S phone beeped to convey a message he didn’t instantly recognise, not long after he had been named PwC GAA/GPA ‘footballer of the year’ for a second time in early 2021.

But when he began to read the text and realised who it was, a sense of shock hit him.

Jack O’Shea offering congratulations to the man most people see as the greatest challenge to his status as the greatest midfielder of all time.

“That was a lovely moment,” recalled Fenton. “I texted him back. I obviously never saw him play but he’s always regarded as the gold standard, and something you’re always trying to achieve.”

With a father from Spa outside Killarney and still very much wrapped up in green and gold matters, despite his city allegiances, Fenton knew the weight such a text would carry in his household, even after one has welcomed so much success and glory in the previous six years.


Validation

If Fenton was seeking validation for how far he had come as a footballer, there it was staring at him from a screen in his hand. As a young man, he remembered the ripple of excitement Jacko had created among a Kerry crowd long after his playing days had ended as he walked up past them along a Hogan Stand sideline during a Croke Park game, his father Brian senior, normally reserved in these situations, rising with the others around him to acclaim an icon in a county laden with icons. That’s the indelible impact he had, a popularity forged by the energy and attitude he took to the game and his life in general.

For just about everyone, Jack O’Shea is the greatest midfielder there has been. For almost as many more, he’s the game’s greatest player too.

The ‘Irish Independent’ has made a few assessments on this to mark anniversaries and occasions over the last couple of decades and each time the same conclusion was reached - that the Cahirciveen man was No 1.

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Twice Martin Breheny has recognised him thus, first when he selected the top 20 players from each county from the previous 50 years in a May 2020 feature before distilling those lists down to the top 20 overall and then again in early 2021 when compiling the greatest in the All-Star era.

Before that, the ‘Irish Independent’s’ top 125 footballers to mark the GAA’s 125th anniversary of the Association in 2009 had Jacko in top spot, a consistent mark by every approach.

What made him so great as to afford him such recognition? The records, phenomenal even by those set in the recent era of Dublin dominance, present as the most compelling evidence for those who can’t summon memory.

Six successive All-Stars between 1980 and 1985 were a measure of consistent brilliance but even that pales beside four Texaco ‘Footballer of the Year’ awards in, 1980, ‘81, ‘84 and ‘85 in that period. Think of that in the context of the players of that era that shared the same dressing-room as him. In every one of the four years that Kerry won an All-Ireland title in those six years, he was recognised above all those other luminaries as the best.

“He had a Rolls-Royce engine and so much skill and determination that he needed no instructions. Off you go Jack, do your thing,” his legendary manager for all seven of his All-Ireland medals, Mick O’Dwyer, wrote in his autobiography ‘Blessed and Obsessed.’

One of the things that struck O’Dwyer was O’Shea’s sheer consistency. For much of his playing career he lived in Leixlip, with whom he played with St Mary’s having led the Cahirciveen club of the same name in the 1980s, and getting up and down to Kerry wasn’t as convenient by car as it is now. Yet Jacko rarely missed a match, whether it was a challenge or championship, sitting out just one against Clare in the 1982 Munster semi-final in the middle of 53 championship appearances from 1977 to 1992.

In an interview with Tomás Ó Sé for the ‘Irish Independent’ in 2020, Jacko would attribute hunting in the mountains of south Kerry as a young man, near his Cahirciveen home, for building reserves of power and athleticism that, he figures, helped his body to absorb pressure and ward off injury.

In his youth, he ran cross country and once finished fourth behind future two-time world champion John Treacy in a provincial schools event.

Living across the road from the pitch in Cahirciveen shaped him too in those formative years. Once or twice a week O’Dwyer and one of the other great Kingdom icons, Mick O’Connell, would meet for kicking practice and Jacko would assume the role of ball boy, affording him personal tutorials with football deity.


Breakthrough

Having won an All-Ireland minor title in 1975 and following up with three successive All-Ireland U-21 titles from ‘75 to ‘77, Jacko made his breakthrough on to the senior team just as Dublin were tightening their grip.

But as much as Dublin brought revolution to the game, so too did O’Shea (right), with his box-to-box mobility and detachment from the conventional catch-and-kick game. Together with Pat Spillane, he brought individual mobility to new levels that took Jacko into scoring territory unheard of for a midfielder before him.

From 53 championship games, he scored 11-55. That return and consistency rarely if ever dipped during the league when, despite Kerry’s indifference to the competition in some years, Jacko’s drive for it would remain constant, as 16-110 from 102 games would suggest. Mixed into that were converted penalties and frees but that shouldn’t dilute the new dimension he brought to the game, one that endures to this day.

For 15 consecutive championship games, from the All-Ireland final defeat to Offaly in 1982 to the All-Ireland semi-final replay win over Monaghan four years later, he never failed to land at least one score.

In the 1984 All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, he hit five points from play, virtually unheard of at that level from a midfielder. A year earlier, Cork ended Kerry’s championship interest in dramatic fashion with a late goal in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, but by then Jacko had mined 4-1 from his two games. With Kerry adding a three-in-a-row from ‘84 to ‘86, after their dominance had been interrupted by Offaly and Dublin in the preceding years, he amassed 4-19 from 13 games.

Even when the light was beginning to die on the great Kerry team in 1987, there was 2-5 from three games in Munster that year. In time, scoring midfielders like him would become more commonplace, from Derry’s Anthony Tohill to Tyrone’s Sean Cavanagh and currently Fenton. But Jacko’s benchmark still remains out of grasp for everyone.

He forged a strong midfield partnership with Seanie Walsh in his early years, helping to break the dominance that Brian Mullins and Bernard Brogan had held through ‘76 and ‘77, and then struck a new alliance with Ambrose O’Donovan through the three-in-a-row.

It was inevitable by 1986, as Ireland embarked on a first ever international rules tour to Australia, that he would lead the Kevin Heffernan’s squad, Ireland won the series and when they returned four years later to repeat the success, he was ‘player of the series’. By then he was just short of his 33rd birthday.

He was named on the GAA’s ‘team of the century’ in 1984 but curiously didn’t make the ‘team of the millennium’ 16 years later, a decision that was roundly debated and disputed. It’s just over 40 years since Kerry completed their last four-in-a-row, beating Offaly on a day he set the tone with a stunning finish for a goal that was the day’s crowning glory.

That seems like a good time to recognise him now as our Hall of Fame recipient.

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