ROLLING DOWN MEMORY LANE – EP. 9

Brendan Reilly was one of the stars of Meath’s All Ireland SFC win in 1996. Not just because he kicked the winning score therein either. He was the fulcrum of their attack throughout that unforgettable summer long ago. Thus, his omission from the All Star selection that year was one of the most glaring in the history of the concept.

Something thankfully rectified the following year when he was even more pivotal to proceedings during that campaign as they spent a large amount thereof fighting against a tide of attrocious refereeing.

But then, these types of selections are often highly fickle. There have been plenty like Brendan was in ’96. How, for example, was Seamie Callanan overlooked for Hurler Of The Year in 2016? Or equally, why did it take so long for Stephen Cluxton to be properly acknowledged as the most influential player of his generation, never mind a particular season?

Looking back, 1996 was very much a bittersweet time. No doubt that seems strange given that it was the first Meath All Ireland win in which I was fully invested. However, there was a double dose of a bitter aftertaste. On the one hand, our lads were apportioned a top-heavy percentage of the wrap for the ‘dust up’, even though the other side – and they admitted this themselves afterwards – were the instigators of the few minutes of silliness.

More pertinently from a personal perspective though, in essaying over the score which chalked up the county’s sixth Sam Maguire triumph and wrote himself into the history books, he sustained an injury which not only ruled him out of the remainder of the local club championships. At a point when we were actually going well. Eventually Seneschalstown stopped us in our tracks at the penultimate hurdle. Agonisingly by a point.

Now, we could rightfully signpost being bereft of the services of Brenny and Enda McManus – on a bit of a ‘holiday’ having delivered one of the more memorable rebukes in the little spot of bother – but then, our opponents had to go into battle without (Colm) Coyler and Graham (Geraghty), so that side of things probably balanced itself out.

Jim Reilly jumping for the ball with Phil ‘Gunner’ Brady of Cavan in the 1954 All Ireland Semi Final with Peter McDermott (in cap) awaiting the break

IN THE DUG-OUT

On a personal level, apart from what was happening on playing fields near and far, the other major fillip was that it happened to be the first summer during which I had the use of a powered wheelchair. Meaning that, as well as all the Meath and Dunboyne games at nearly every level, I’d generally be up in the field every night watching some team or other training.

What was rank hesitation on my part regarding the latter part of what became my routine was twofold. On one hand, it wasn’t known whether onlookers were permitted at training sessions at club level – they were very much off-limits with the county team – and, secondly, the thoughts of being above on my own, particularly early and late in the season, didn’t make much appeal.

Well, there needn’t have been any worry on either score. Our senior football mentors at the time – Gerry Cooney, Kieran Clince and Roger Watters – immediately took me under their collective wing and instantly made me feel part of everything. Which in itself was the instigation of my name going forward for the position of P.R.O. at that year’s A.G.M.

However, there was an extra bonus garnered from the nights spent up watching the training. What can only be described as another treasured part of my life education. Fears of being on my own up at the training were a city mile and a country mile away from being an issue. Funny thing was, it didn’t appear to matter whether it was high summer or the depths of winter – in the dugout was the place to be.

Where you could usually find people such as Seamus Lynch, Aidan Curley, Oliver Brady, Pat ‘Spoggy’ Kelly, Sean McManus, Brian Smyth, Paddy McIntyre Snr or Jim Reilly in situ. Not always at the same time, but a rotation of some of the above.

Mind you, there were often nights when a man would nearly have to jostle for a spot. Particularly with a contraption the size of mine! Doesn’t it nearly go without saying, though, that those were were the best of times.

On one such evening, which must have been in the late autumn or early winter of ’96, when he was sure he’d a big enough audience assembled, Jim set me a challenge. I’d been extolling the virtues of his third son’s prospects regarding the forthcoming All Star selection. As we now know, he was absolutely robbed that season, but, thankfully justice prevailed 12 months on.

The proud father was non-commital as to his offspring’s chances, but told me he’d give me £10 if I could put together an All Star team without including any of our lads. When the task was completed the former breadman was true to his word.

Just to make a good story even better, the sum of money was speculated on a horse Noel Meade had given the county team use of as part of fundraising efforts to get them a well earned and deserved team holiday. And didn’t it go and win!

For the record the All Star selection minus Meath which was compiled was as follows: Finbarr McConnell (Tyrone) ; Ken Mortimer (Mayo), Kevin Cahill (Mayo), Fay Devlin (Tyrone) ; Seamus Moynihan (Kerry), Seamus McCallan (Tyrone), Eamon Breen (Kerry) ; Liam McHale (Mayo), Brian Stynes (Dublin) ; James Horan (Mayo), Paschal Canavan (Tyrone), Ger Cavlan (Tyrone); Maurice Fitzgerald (Kerry), Peter Canavan (Tyrone), Ray Dempsey (Mayo).

The practical non-existance of current sport has bestowed a soul with plenty of time to think. That’s not always a good thing by any means. In this instance though to some extent at least, time has been put to productive use via what you see before you.

It can be amazing the thoughts that occur to you, or recur, when you’ve a bit of extra time for pondering. They don’t have to be all bad either. Recently, the realisation came to me how many fairly major events in my life Jim was linked to. Allow me to explain.

Obviously, the All Ireland win in 1996 and when Dunboyne hoisted the Keegan Cup two years later. Even aside from those easily guessed, the night of the official opening of our pitch on May 16th 1993 and the occasion of Brendan’s wedding to Gillian in December of 1999. Even though yours truly was only at the ‘Afters’, it’s an occasion there will forever be grattitude for the opportunity to attend.

Naturally, firstly to Brendan and Gillian for the invitation. Also, however, I will be forever grateful to Sean McManus whose photography on the evening allowed the capturing of special moments with heroes, many of whon later became valued friends.

Of all the snaps taken that night, though, with the passage of time, it’s actually the one of Jim and I that has become the most treasured. Similar status is afforded to one of myself with former Meath Co Committee Chairmen Conor Tormey, Brian Smyth (RIP) and Fintan Ginnitty (RIP). Taken at a function in our clubhouse in 2013 to mark Brian’s 90th birthday and lifetime of contribution to the G. A. A. Despite his best efforts, Jim was never able to dissuade me from backing horses, even though he was a keen and astute punter himself!

What did fascinate him, though, and he was by no means alone in this, was the fact that I was not only interested in but passionate about farming. If I’d €5 for every time someone asked me how somebody in a wheelchair could be interested in farming I”d either have several horses in training or be living on a farm, either somewhere in the Golden Vale or some of the great farming parts of England like Gloucester or Bedfordshire.

Anyway, once he realised that my interest in and knowledge of farming were both genuine, cattle prices of the day, how cattle were doing and the like always came up whenever we met.

However, hay making time was the big one. As it used to be for any of us lucky enough to have territory close by where such things took place. Every year, he’d say to me “We’ll have to get some of the lads to bring you over when they’re at the hay”.

Alas, we never did get to organise that trip over to their place when they were baling and loading the hay. However, it is often recalled with very mixed feelings that the day Jim passed away – June 21st 2013 – was the day we got a herd number ourselves again. I often wonder what he’d think if he knew yours truly is now (or should that be was?) farming in my own right, with my brother’s invaluable assistance, it must rapidly be added.

With still no sign of current sport anywhere on the horizon, there’s been a lot of time for thinking. For some of us, that isn’t a good thing. At all. Thus, emotions have been stirred here, for a multiplicity of reasons. Foremost among the more positive – if equally poignant – was recalling the task Jim had set me all those years ago.

Now, according to what Leo Varadkar said in the latest of his exhaustive round of media appearances on the Late Late Show there is a possibility of G.A.A. championship matches taking place in August – albeit behind closed doors. While initially the idea would’ve been jumped at by way of having some, any, sport to watch. The more it was considered, though, it became obvious that such would be tantamount to going into a chipper, seeing others ordering hordes of food and you not being allowed have anything yourself.

VICIOUS CIRCLE

To that end, and never in my lifetime was it envisaged the following would be uttered here, but, the G.A.A. are to be applauded for coming out recently and saying that it’s highly unlikely there would be a programme of games before the conclusion of the financial year. Then again, I am acutely aware of the vicious circle that creates owing to the massive void it leaves in people’s lives. None more so than my own.

Even from a writing perspective, having such a sizable chunk taken out of one’s life – by which I mean sport in general, not just hurling and football – invokes a necessity to be inventive when it comes to generating material. Which is why Jim’s challenge to me nearly a quarter of a century ago came back to mind.

Several times over the years, attempts have been made, in my head at least, to assemble what in my view was the best combined Meath teams of the Sean Boylan era and/or my lifetime. Would there be a difference between the two? Possibly, but very minimal. In fact, on the day Sean stepped down as manager in August of 2005, a go was had at fulfilling the former of the criteria listed above and posted on my Bebo page, the aforementioned social media spot being the place to be at the time. Only after several metaphorical pieces of paper were scrunched up around my wheels!

That said, there would be fair confidence that the assembled crew could have handled the best of the rest of the country might have thrown at them:

CORMAC SULLIVAN (ST PATRICK’S)

An earthquake of a collision between Vinny Murphy of Dublin and Cormac Sullivan

ROBBIE O’MALLEY (ST COLMCILLE’S)

MICK LYONS (SUMMERHILL)

MARK O’REILLY (SUMMERHILL)

GRAHAM GERAGHTY (SENESCHALSTOWN & CLANN NA NGAEL)

ENDA MCMANUS (ST PETER’S, DUNBOYNE)

MARTIN O’CONNELL (ST MICHAEL’S)

GERRY MCENTEE (NOBBER & SUMMERHILL)

JOHN MCDERMOTT (CURRAHA & SKRYNE)

TREVOR GILES (SKRYNE)

Commander-in-Chief and his on-field First Lieutenant

TOMMY DOWD (DUNDERRY & WOLFE TONES)

PJ GILLIC (CARNAROSS)

COLM O’ROURKE (SKRYNE)

BRIAN STAFFORD (KILMAINHAMWOOD)

BERNARD FLYNN (ST COLMCILLE’S & ST JOSEPH’S/LAOIS & MULLINGAR SHAMROCKS/WESTMEATH)

It will be openly admitted, mind you, that a different version of the above could be arrived at 20 times in one day. So as you can imagine, the mission I most recently assigned myself as a means of keeping my own mental health some way straight and maintaining a flow of content here was an even more daunting one.

30 YEARS A-WATCHIN’

Three decades have passed since I attended my first football match (club or county) – a National League semi final between Meath and Cork on April 14th 1990. With Jim’s little wager on the mind a lot recently, the decision was made try and scale an even greater peak – try and put together the best 15 county players the one seeing eye has been cast over in that score and a half years. While inserting one familiar caveat – none of our own!

GOALKEEPER

In Meath we have been blessed to have ‘bred’ – or converted in some cases – a line of wonderful custodians. From Sean McCormack to Mickey McQuillan, Conor Martin, Cormac Sullivan, David Gallagher, Brendan Murphy and Paddy O’Rourke. However, as this is a Meath-free zone the net needs casting considerably wider.

There’s no doubt, big Finbarr from Tyrone would be right up there. So too his ‘little’ brother Paschal. I’d have to give consideration to a pair of the great characters of the game, Armagh’s Benny Tierney and Shane ‘Cake’ Curran of Roscommon. So too Niall Morgan of Tyrone and Neil Collins from Down, whose miracle save from Bernard Flynn broke Meath hearts in 1991.

In the end, however, it goes back to a dilemma which cropped earlier in this reflective exploration. Between two magnificent, unflappable Dubs. I’ve confessed elsewhere within these annals that it was genuinely felt for a long time that John O’Leary would never be bettered.

Truth is, he may not have been were his fellow contendes all ‘Normal’ goalies. And by that, absolutely no disrespect is meant to many exceptional guardians of the nets.

However, the inescapable truth is that STEPHEN CLUXTON is not normal. Or, put in a more complimentary way, what he is wasn’t normal. Until he, perhaps unknowingly, forced it to be the ‘new normal’, to employ one of that man Leo’s favourite spin phrases.

Cluxton is my kinda guy. Rather than doing things by the book, he wrote his own manuscript. Strip away the fact that, in terms of the rudiments of custodial duties, he is currently without equal.

The following is not meant to in any way paint in a poor light any of the other outstanding custodians out there – and they are numerous in number – but, the Parnells clubman has had a transformative effect on the grand old game. Not so much a trend setter as revolutionary force of nature.

Consider that, in 1995 then Dunboyne U16 manager Eamonn Gilligan transferred David Gallagher from midfield to between the posts. Primarily on the premise of his ability, with the aid of rugby boots it must be added, to drive the ball well the far side of centre field.

From there, he of course went on to enjoy considerable success in front of the nets with club, county and country. Captaining the county to their last U21 title at Provincial level in 2001. As well as being part of the senior panel, initally that is, between 1999 and 2006. The latter named season in an outfield capacity.

On a couple of occasions thereafter, he made shock returns to the county colours. Once during Seamus McEnaney’s second and unfortunately final season in charge and then during the early part of Andy McEntee’s tenure. As someone who also had quite a hiatus away from the county scene in between all that, he would be extremely well placed to offer insight on how the game had evolved in that period.

Stephen Cluxton has transformed how Gaelic Football is played

“Nowadays it’s all about placement and positioning. Locating your target and hitting it. A bit like rugby, it’s about possession and territory. If you lose possession now, you may not get it back for a long time” says the big plumber who has nearly seen and done all there is to do in the game.

Having spent the vast major of his career playing outfield at club level, he’s uniquely placed to comment on how the role of the numbers eight and nine have altered seismically owing to the Coolock man making the role of a shot stopper a science all to itself. Yes, Brian Fenton is a hark back to the old style generals of the half way line in the mould of Brian Mullins, but to encapsulate the ‘new’ domain of the midfielder, perhaps look to people like Donal Vaughan from Mayo, Cian O’Sullivan of Dublin or Graham Reilly when stationed there by Meath.

Hard running, link play and quick transitioning are all considered mandatory duties for middle men in the modern game. And that is entirely down to Cluxton whose propensity to aim restarts at Paul Flynn, Claran Kilkenny, Dean Rock et al has forced all comers to re-evaluate their methodology regarding their central sector pairing.

Factor in, now, that a once stand alone asset in his repertoire – assuming free taking responsabilities – with pinpoint accuracy and deadly efficiency has not only made him his side’s indispensible prized asset but also the most complete and influential player the game has seen in decades.

RIGHT FULL BACK

Again, here, one is reminded of Robbie O’Malley and Mark O’Reilly. But, luckily, to stick within the parameters of the goal here there is absolutely no shortage of contemporaries of both men to run the rule over.

From Robbie’s time, people like Mick Deegan of Dublin, Tony Nation from Cork, Kildare’s Davy Dalton, Kieran McKeever of Derry and Billy Kenny from Wicklow were performers of the highest calibre, while from the time O’Reilly was one of the best in the business to date there has been a plethora of exceptional exponents of corner back play. From aforementioned characters like Mortimer, Dalton and Devlin, to slightly more modern times which have seen bastions of defending like Marc O’Se from Kerry, Davy Byrne of Dublin, Clare’s Seamus Clancy, the McNulty brothers from Armagh and Paddy McGrath from Donegal.

Yet, for me, the nod here has to go to RYAN MCMENAMIN of Tyrone. ‘Ricey’, a holder of three Celtic crosses, was my kind of player, wonderfully talented but also equipped with the firebrand streak that all the top ones have. Possibly never got that credit he deserved due to his all-on combative style, but I’ll tell you one thing, the game would be a lot better now if it was similar to ‘Ricey’s heyday.

FULL BACK

For the third consecutive position, Meath would have been well endowed with contenders here had my selection criteria not precluded there inclusion. Mick Lyons, Darren Fay, Kevin Reilly and the current incumbent Conor McGill have all been the nation’s best in the No. 3 slot during their respective stints therein. Ever without them, there’s ample competition when one thinks of stars such as Dublin’s Gerry Hargan, Matt Gallagher of Donegal, Seamus Quinn (Leitrim), two-time All Ireland winner Gary Fahy from the city of the tribes, not to mention Conor Deegan nestled above in the Mourne Mountains.

Tragically, we can only imagine how masterful Cormac McAnallen may have gone on to be when re-moulded to the position by Mickey Harte but the early indications had been very enticing. At that time, Tyrone and Armagh were the best teams around by some distance, thus the unique, legendary Francie Bellew was entirely meritorious of forensic consideration.

Indeed, part of me is torn for having to overlook the Crossmaglen colossus, but, with so many exalted performers to choose from all over the field, like any of these things, there were always going to be unlucky omissions and fabulous Francie falls into that category for sure.

With the competition for places in the half back line in particular hellishly hot , room had to be made for the first man from the Kingdom in the lineup, SEAMUS MOYNIHAN. The Glenflesk great was of a similar era to Graham Geraghty and equally as versatile and effective as my dear friend. Towards the end of his career full back had become a major trouble spot for Kerry (it still is) and as is often the case in these situations he ended up being a star there too

LEFT FULL BACK

When I was growing up, Meath-Dublin clashes were the highlight of every summer. And, within the overall rivalry, there were duels between players which assumed lives of their own too. Gerry Hargan’s annual tangle with Brian Stafford, Mick Kennedy’s many jousts with Colm O’Rourke and the conundrum between Eamon Heery and David Beggy as to who was marking who. ‘Rourky’ also had many bruising battles with the fine but fiesty Niall Cahalane of Cork.

I was about to say moving to more recent times, but, dear God, it’s 22 years since Tomas Mannion was – along with Gary Fahy – part of an exceptional back three for Galway. Both incarnations of Kerry’s Tom O’Sullivan(s) deserve mention as do Cork man Anthony Lynch, Tony Scullion of Derry and Keith Higgins from Mayo.

In the end, though, the one seeing eye couldn’t look past MICK FITZSIMONS. As was the case with Kerry, for all that Dublin have had an embarrassment of riches in playing talent for the best part of the last decade, it would be wagered that even they would even admit themselves that, if there was one glitch in their awesome machine, it is, or at least was, in their full back line.

Rory O’Carroll was billed as the next in a fine line of full backs encompassing Hargan, Dermot Deasy and Paddy Christie. To be fair, the Kilmacud Crokes clubman had made the edge of the square his own. However, when he left for New Zealand, the deficiencies returned.

Which resulted in Jonny Cooper and Davy Byrne and Philly McMahon and Cian O’Sullivan all having a go at the pivotal spot before Cuala’s Fitzsimons nailed it down and in so doing became one of the top performers in the sector in recent seasons.

Mick Fitzsimons solved a problem in Dublin’s full back line

RIGHT HALF BACK

This is another position where several changes of heart had to be negotiated such was the treasure chest of talent available for the particular berth. Initially, it was thought Paul Curran of Dublin would be an absolute certainty for this berth.However, and this is in no way meant as a degrading of a player and person I was and am very fond of, there are other half backs in the country who were central figures in so many dramatic moments they simply could not be overlooked.

As well as Curran, Declan Meehan from Galway, Kildare’s Amthony Rainbow and Lee Keegan from Mayo deserve special mention. Having said that, there are a special within the Dublin panel who have been fulcrums of the tidal wave of success they have engineered over the last decade. And JAMES MCCARTHIY has been the conductor of the orchestra for most of it.

CENTRE HALF BACK

Starting out on this marathon job, gut feeling was that Kieran McGeeney would be as impassible for selection as he was on the field. But, for all that, with No. 6 being the vital position on a team, it stands to reason there would be a minefield of contenders from which to choose. On a given day, there would be no hesitation at all including the Dublin half back triumvirate of the 1990s – Paul Curran, Keith Barr and Eamon Heery en bloc such was their efficiency.

Such a stance would, however, almost sinfully, ignore some warriors who were not only giants of the position but celebrated warriors within the game as a whole. Admittedly, I only saw the tail end of Martin Gavigan’s career, but you don’t earn the acronym ‘Rambo’ without being battle hardened. Elsewhere, Henry Downey was one of the foundation stones upon which Derry’s All Ireland win of 1993 was founded. Likewise, Leitrim’s unforgettable annexation of Connacht in 1994 was based largely around Declan D’Arcy.

If sentiment was allowed play a part, the spiritual leader of the Lilywhites Glenn Ryan would be a shoo-in. What a player he was. Were somebody ever looking for a definition of the term ‘Warrior’, simply show them a photo of the Round Towers man and/or a video of his ultimately fruitless heroics in the trilogy against Meath in 1997.

In literature, the Greek Tragedies are a very big deal. Without wanting to be patronising though, Mayo football could justifiably have their own tome of similar sorrows. However, rather than focus on that, far better be it to salute their redoubtable spirit and no little skill. How often have they been the punch drunk pugilist who keeps getting off the canvas?

Mention was made earlier about how centre back is the pivot around which most teams are built. Throughout the last three decades, Mayo have been absolutely blessed to possess towers of strength in the spine of their lineup. From TJ Kilgallon to James Nallen and onto the current holder of the shirt, COLM BOYLE.

Colm Boyle: One of the driving forces behind Mayo’s never-say-die spirit

Many a player would not have persevered through some of the injuries which have beset the Garda from the Davitts club over the years. Let alone bounce back from the trauma of scoring an own goal in an All Ireland Final. Yet that’s exactly what he has continued to do. When their backsides were in the bacon slicer against surprise packets Meath last July, it was the diminutive defender who drove forward – literally and metaphorically – to save the bacon, driving over a majestic score.

For how many years have been saying now that surely Mayo can’t keep coming back? Time and again, however, they continue to defy the masses, defy logic, defy science and even Father Time himself. You know, if any good were to come from this COVID-19 debacle, an elongated break from football might be just what this admirable team – and decorated soldiers like Boyle in particular – need to recharge, rejuvenate and go to war once more.

LEFT HALF BACK

At the outset here an admission – Martin O’Connell will always be regarded as the finest No. 7 I’ve cast an eye on. As he can’t be selected however, a bit of pondering was required. Make no mistake mind you, there was absolutely no shortage of worthy options. Starting with four fine sons of Ulster, Donegal’s Karl Lacey, DJ Kane of Down, Derry’s Gary Coleman and Tyrone man Philip Jordan would jump off any page at this location.

A firey flyer: Tomas O’Se never afraid to get his point across on or off the field

Reference was made earlier the fact that there would be absolutely no problem including the Dublin ensemble from the early to mid 1990s in its entirety, Eamon Heery being the last of the aforementioned trio. In 1998, Ray Silke may on paper have been the Galway squadron leader, but, regarding their defence at least, Sean Og De Paor was definitely their on-field general and came within a short head of getting the nod.

Joining him in the photo finish will be Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey. Undoubtedly an automatic selection at another time (Were I to sit down and go at this again tomorrow, for example!) he just misses out because, allowing myself a bit of sentimental licence, I couldn’t in all consciousness leave out TOMAS O’SE.

Aside from being one of the most medal-laden performers the game has seen – outside of the capital – he’s another who, if this corner were to patent what’s considered the ideal player: versatile, abbraisive and combative – would be on the teamsheet rapid!

MIDFIELD

And so, we arrive at the bear pit! A forest of giants. Each imposing and unwavering. Akin to a few other positions, some of the native regiment spring to mind first – Hayes, McEntee and McDermott. But again I must abstain.

Some old adversaries of the first heralded deadly duo jump straight into the mix however. Shay Fahy of Kildare and later Cork, Dublin’s Paul Clarke and Jack Sheedy, the late Eamon Burns from Down and big Brian Murray in the hills of Donegal. Big Mc had a few contemporaries with whom he would’ve had multiple tangles as well.

Paul Bealin and Ciaran Whelan representing the boys in blue, Ciaran McManus from Offaly, Paul McGrane of Armagh, and who could forget the few jousts with Liam McHale in the green and red of Mayo. Over the years, very opponents could’ve been said to have bettered the big beef man, but if any did, Anthony Tohill (Derry) and Kildare’s Niall Buckley may have been them.

Kildare’s Niall Buckley

Buckley was one of the finest athletes and all round footballers to illuminate the game during his all too brief years donning the all white. His loss to them – and to the game at large – was incalculable in the years which followed.

Having written all of the above, it may seem somewhat ironic that the man with whom Big John’s battles are most recalled is DARRAGH O’SE. In a similar scenario to his brother in the previous position, picking this team without him simply wasn’t an option.

One is not actually sure how many times the two Herculean figures actually did cross swords in total. An epic encounter on my birthday 20 years ago in Thurles will forever be imprinted on the memory. As, unfortunately, is the greatest yet most costly display ever witnessed from a Meath team. In the All Ireland semi final of 2001 when our finest fetcher mopped the floor with the man from An Gaelteact.

However, time has proven that result to be a freak. For numerous reasons. Thus, to properly understand and acknowledge the merited status of the nephew of the late, great Paidi, you must understand the quality of peers other than McDermott the selection did battle against throughout his career.

Nicholas Murphy and Derek Kavanagh of Cork, Cavan’s Dermot McCabe, Kevin Walsh and Sean O’Domhnaill from Galway, David Brady and Ronan McGarrity representing Mayo, John McEntee and Paul McGrane on behalf of Armagh, Ciaran Whelan and Sean Cavanagh.

What’s in a name: Darragh O’Se was bred to be a good footballer and went on to be a legendary one

To partner O’Se at centre field, there was nowhere near as much deliberation required. Simply as it had to be BRIAN FENTON of Dublin. For a player to have lost only one Championship encounter over the course of about five seasons says as much about the individual player as it vouches for then majesty of those around him.

No secret has been made of the fact that yours truly is a massive fan of the Raheny clubman. Particularly his style of play which is reminiscent of that employed by Liam Hayes when Meath were in their pomp.

It should also be pointed out that Fenton has had plenty of high level performers to compete against. Competitors including Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea, David Moran of Kerry, Neil Gallagher (Donegal), the Red Hands of the Colm and Sean Cavanagh and Kevin Feeley for the all whites.

Having faced and conquested them all, repeatedly in some cases, Fenton is already on course to cement his status as the most accomplished central player of his generation, and not even Corona is likely to jolt that.

RIGHT HALF FORWARD

First of all, it will be admitted that for the entirety of the forward division, there have been positional switches from where players might be most associated with. Simply owing to the reality that some players absolutely could not be left out even though there may be multiple deserving candidates for each slot.

In any other area, Dublin’s Paul Flynn would merit accreditation as one of the players of the decade or indeed the last quarter century. Were a poll conducted on the subject, he might still do. Awarding the gong without scanning the form of all the runners in the field would be indefensibly unfair.

Whatever one might think of Paul Galvin in a lot of ways, his on-field flair, panache and latent ability meant he was never less than an enthralling watch for what felt like an all too brief period.

For how long was Charlie Redmond fundamentally irreplacable to the Dubs? Similar value could have easily been affixed to Down’s Ross Carr during the early to mid 90’s. Sports punditry is often full of memorable quotes. Recalled for good and bad reasons.

“If Tyrone win an All Ireland with Brian Dooher on the team I’ll eat my hat”

COLM O’ROURKE

Mention was made on these pages not that long ago of how Eamon Dunphy is seldom found wanting in that department. From “Niall Quinn is a creep”, to “Michel Platini is crap”, and onto my personal favourite, about Sunday Times excellent football writer Rod Liddle: “That fella left his wife and ran off with some young wan”.

That is not to say that the GAA media don’t have crackers of their own. Who could forget Pat Spillane’s diagnosis of “Puke football” on Tyrone, or Joe Brolly asserting that parents would be better to “Let the kids play tennis” owing to what he perceived the aforementioned county were ‘doing’ to football.

In many ways, though, the O’Neill County had had the last laugh first. Knowing Colm O’Rourke’s propensity for sticking to the facts coupled with a dry, droll sense of humour, he’d be the last one I’d expect to drum up memorable one liners, but, it’s doubtful he’ll ever live down declaring “If Tyrone win an All Ireland with Brian Dooher on the team I’ll eat my hat” – I never did ask him how it tasted!

The first time I ever heard of the wing forward vet was on the day of Meath-Tyrone game in 1996. To be honest he didn’t impress me much as a footballer at first. Himself and Ciaran ‘Dinky’ McBride looking far more adept at being drama queens. On rare occasions, mind you, first impressions aren’t the correct ones. What’s more, sometimes it’s nice to be wrong.

By the time he retired, Dooher was one of my favourite players. A hard-working fighter – in the good sense – and born leader. If every team had a player made up of the same particulars, they couldn’t go for wrong. And yet, having written all that he isn’t my selection.

Michael Donnellan was a wonderful player, amazing to watch, whose career surely ended prematurely due to injury

Sometimes, on the other hand, we as viewers are blessed that first impressions are lasting. Long lasting. That was definitely the case with Galway’s MICHAEL DONNELLAN. For Christmas in 1998, the late Sean Nealon gave me a gift which I always treasure. Even more so now from a poignant point of view. Namely, Pat Comer’s magnificent documentary from within the Galway panel that season, A Year ‘Til Sunday. Which charts the Tribesmen’s journey from the time John O’Mahony was appointed as manager right through to when his charges lifted the Sam Maguire.

Now, I’ve always been a huge fan of such ‘fly on the wall’ programmes – like the one which followed the Irish rugby team prior to and during the first two bouts of the oval ball code in Croke Park or, even more so, BEING AP which followed the astounding Toombridge, Co Antrim man throughout his last few months in the saddle.

Comer’s collation is still tops by the judgement of the one seeing eye in this seat. It’s hard to know which was more impressive, the combined efforts – if differently styled – of O’Mahony and his Captain as motivational speakers or Donnellan’s grasp of Galway’s rich footballing tapestry combined with his own family’s legacy which has left an indelible mark on same.

Or actually, it could, and more than likely is, neither. Rather, the clips of the selection at his mesmeric best. There’s one clip on YouTube of the Dunmore MacHales star scoring his first point in the 1998 All Ireland Final against Kildare and you’d have to wonder did Ryan Giggs see it because it was unquestionably Gaelic football’s forerunner to the wondrous strike the Welsh wizard essayed home against Arsenal the following year.

It nearly feels disrespectful saying unfortunately here, but, when re-located to midfield for the 2001 campaign, Meath bore the full brunt of his brilliance. Leaving aside the fact that it represented the biggest abomination of a performance ever seen from a Meath team which made nearly the whole Galway outfit look as dazzling as Sean Purcell in his heyday, it was still Donnellan who made them tick. I certainly wouldn’t have minded seeing more of him from a neutral perspective, just not that day!

CENTRE HALF FORWARD

If one was employing a different set of parameters here, Trevor Giles would, almost automatically, get the nod. It is what it is however. Given the closeness of rivalry which used to stand between Meath and Dublin, it should come as little surprise that the first port of call here is to current Dublin boss Dessie Farrell. Fairly lively behind him would be the man he is currently situating thence, Ciaran Kilkenny, but for now at least, my eye is drawn to the Na Fianna club man.

It’s hard to know whether embarrassment or shame or not being so hard on oneself and seeing the following for the laugh it now is, represents the most appropriate reaction but, for reasons which have never been fully deciphered, the occupant of this seat sort of turned into a bandwagon Dublin fan in Farrell’s debut summer of 1992. The only conclusion which can be arrived at is twofold: firstly, I’d never experienced Meath being out of the championship so early and owing to youthful stupidity thought there was a need to support one team or another when actually going to games.

The second reason was actually more relevant and wholly genuine. One of the side effects of my Cerebral Palsy is severe spasticity. In other words, when the limbs stiffen up and stretch out like boards, often without warning. To anyone looking on it must seem like the whole body is jumping at the same time. Which essentially it is.

Without question, the two arch causes of what can only be described as ‘episodes’ are (1) sudden movements by me or around me and (2) to an even larger degree, sudden, loud noises. Which meant that, in terms of the second trigger, the massive roar which greeted counties coming out onto the field and/or major scores was pure hell.

Especially when the wheelchair section was down where it still should be, in front of the Nally Stand, in Croke Park. Particularly if the ‘home’ team happened to be up against a ‘new’ opponent. See Clare and Donegal in 1992, Derry 1993 and Leitrim in ’94 for reference. Ulster sides seemed to bring the most deafening followings with them.

Unlikely as it might seem with the two shades of blue encamped beside us on Hill 16, the go-to method of hoping the noise could be quelled – besides enlisting the services of the trusty Walkman, was to hope Dublin won and so silenced the other crowd. Thinking of all that recalls the All Ireland Final of 1992 when Paddy Cullen’s side – most of the country – were stunned by Donegal.

That September day ended up being one of very mixed emotions. On the upside, it was the first showpiece I ever attended, and, a very memorable one from a local and Meath viewpoint. Christy Moore’s young recruits captured the county’s second All Ireland MFC in three years. Something made extra special by the presence of Dunboyne’s Denis Gallagher (and Dunshaughlin’s Brian O’Rourke and Paul Shankey from The ‘Wood who would years later become dear friends to me) on the panel.

Regrettably, that was where the good story ended. Bad enough that it was the last time the Tom Markham Cup spent a winter by the Boyne, to compound the disappointment, dad and I missed our sensational late winning goal – scored by Mickey Farrelly, who, when last looked up was teaching in China – as he was assisting me with what can only be discreetly described as a ‘Nature Accident’ caused by, you’ve guessed it, the roars of the Donegal crowd backing Armagh in the Minor.

Very little is actually recalled of the senior game. Bar, that is, one of the strangest pieces of trivia ever encountered. The fact that Matt Gallagher of the eventual winners never kicked the ball during the entire game . Incidentally, his direct opponent Vinny Murphy didn’t score either.

Declan Bonner’s final point and joyful saluting towards the Hogan Stand was all that was recalled until one of a few great friends from the Hills, Peter Gallagher, gave me a copy of the match video. The most informative nugget garnered from watching which was the terrific display by Martin McHugh.

Having watched it, naturally a bit of research was done into the career of the little Kilcar magician. Revealing that he was, in fact, one of the finest players of his generation. Similar sentiments could equally be utilised to describe the current Dublin boss. To my mind, he was very unlucky not to get Footballer of the Year in 1995. Certainly our lads were on the wrong end of his best ever display in an Arnotts jersey.

Ja Fallon was another who earned serious consideration for the vacancy on the ’40’. Ditto Joe Kavanagh of Cork, Tyrone’s Brian McGuigan and Kildare’s Johnny Doyle. That’s some array of attacking acumen in a paragraph. Not to mention Greg Blaney a star of the County Down.

Colm Cooper was the G. A. A. equivalent of Lionel Messi

It says a lot about the man who takes the role at No. 11 role when the star studded cast outlined above were only deemed extras when put into the mixing bowl. If there was one reason to regret not being even a little bit older, it would have to be not having the opportunity to see Matt Connor in action.

The great man from Walsh Island – whom I’ve got to know over the years after fate left us both on life’s same path – was and indeed still is by many observers regarded as the greatest ever exponent of his craft. In this fan cum pundit’s opinion, his claim on that crown is tenuous at best, if still there at all.

That being the case because from the time he arrived on the scene, all of Gaeldom and much of the broader sporting world became transficed by the aura and deeds of the incomparable COLM COOPER.

I’ve always felt that a fairly accurate measurement of someone’s stardom is when they become recognisable by their nickname, without mention of their proper ‘tag’ at all. Particularly if that holds true with people who have no knowledge of or interest in the person in question’s area of expertise.

Those guidlines certainly fit the bill in the case of ‘The Gooch’. At this juncture, I should make an admission which will probably have a lot of people questioning the notion that your columnist considers himself a half decent judge of these things.

Fact is, there was a time when it was wondered what all the fuss about the Dr Crokes player was. Yes, it is now realised what a catastrophic gaffe on my part that was. If there was one paltry factor which could sheepishly be introduced as a haphazard form of self defence, it would be that the red marauder was especially seen at his entrancing best when moved out from tthe corner to the berth being allocated here.

That still wouldn’t remove all the egg from a certain puss. Nor should it. Matt Connor was offered a few stanzas earlier by way of somebody of realistically comparable status. Maybe, mind you, to locate a star of even near the same standing, a diversion into another code is required.

Perhaps the nearest a soul would get to arriving at a star of even near equal greatness would be to say that Cooper is to Gaelic football what Lionel Messi is to soccer. Put simply, a genius. The most complete player there has been since God was a gossan. You’d have to wonder did he in fact exit the big stage too soon.

Looking at some of what he has produced in the black and amber of the Kilarney club since hanging up the green and gold silks, I for one wouldn’t fancy marking him!

LEFT HALF FORWARD

Sean Cavanagh was one of the most versatile players in recent history

Mention was afforded earlier to the reality that, given the absolute deluge of talent there is to work through in order to give all contenders as fair a hearing as is possible, a few players may have to be shifted out of their more recognised territory as a means of getting as many of them into the fray as possible. To begin with, though, two men who actually did by ply their trade in the allotted slot more than anywhere else – former Dublin manager Jim Gavin and current Mayo one James Horan.

I’ve always been a great believer that there are good players in every county in Ireland but due to being with less prominent counties they often don’t get the exposure or credit they deserve. Here, I’m thinking of greats like Leitrim’s Mickey Quinn, Eamonn O’Hara from Sligo, former Clare forward Ger Keane, the late Scott Doran of Wexford and ex-Wicklow tallisman Kevin O’Brien.

The above list doesn’t include all the ones that could fall into the category, Stephen Kelly of Limerick for example. Or, for that matter, Oisin McConville of Armagh. For now, for this attempt at such a selection process (and remember what was said early on about the likelihood of opinion changing multiply), they must all concede the No. 12 jersey to Tyrone’s SEAN CAVANAGH.

When it’s taken into account that the mighty man from Moy started out as a corner forward when just graduated from Minor before going on to wear every jersey from 8 to 15 under Mickey Harte’s stewardship. It was always felt that if yours truly could have been a footballer it would have been stationed at either midfield or full forward.

Either of which were probably the subject’s most effective parking bays. But, in order to arrive at the best and fairest final list possible, he’s out on the wing. There is one reason why – despite what’s in the lines immediately preceding this one – his stationing out on the wing is actually very apt. Namely, the Sean Shuffle.

For as long as can be recalled, the former Tyrone captain has been using the same jinking run and dummy – feigning to go one way before cutting back in and usually converting. Even though everyone in the ground and watching on TV knew exactly what was coming next, everybody always ‘bought’ it.

After lavishing voluminous praise on Cavanagh, it does have to be said that there hasn’t always been unanimous positivity around him. Like a few of his kinfolk before him, there was a hysterical reaction in some quarters to a bit of what was no more than normal and ecpected rough and tumble in th game against Meath in 2007.

To be fair to the player, though, he was, unfairly in my view, scapegoated in the ridiculous frenzy to usher through the confusing, polarising and, largely, unwanted Black Card dictum. In Meath we know all too well about trial by television, but the instigation of the frustrating, maddening stipulation can be traced back to Joe Brolly’s typically hysterical reaction – see reference to tennis courts above – to Sean’s halting of Conor McManus of Monaghan in the embers of a game some years ago.

I’ll tell you one thing, if I was involved with or a supporter of a team and one of our players had any opportunity to counteract an advancing threat but flunked it, they would have some grovelling and explainimg to do. And there’d by no objection to having someone of Cavanagh’s ilk aboard any day of the week!

RIGHT CORNER FORWARD

It will hardly come as a shock that, were it permissible, Mr O’Rourke would have this jersey enshrined without a contest. However, maybe the caveat being employed is for the best as there are a plethora of eligible electable exponents of corner forward play. From a man mentioned here already, incumbent Donegal boss Declan Bonner, to Joe Brolly, Derek Savage of Galway, Armagh’s Stephen McDonnell to Cillian O’Connor of the green and red.

An admission will be made here that one of the major no-nos – in horse racing parlance – was committed here. By which I mean changing horses mid-race, when originally formulating this team in my mind, Mickey Linden was automatically in straight away at No. 13. That may, in fact have been unlucky for him because it occurred to me that, on account of the durability, skill and no little class, Mayo were completely underrepresented.

That, then, of course, threw up another maze from which extrication had to be achieved. All down to the fact that Mayo had several worthy contenders for the spot themselves, from Ciaran McDonald to Conor Mortimer to the aforementioned free scoring ace from the Ballintubber club. In the end, though, ANDY MORAN simply could not be overlooked.

Andy Moran was a classic antidote to the nonsense of county managers jettisoning older players too early

While mild surprise at his accreditation as Footballer of the Year a couple of seasons back was understandable because it meant the snubbing of Stephen Cluxton, Moran’s worthiness of such acclaim could never be debated. If anything, I think a bit like good wine Moran got better with every season he was there.

If memory serves me correctly, the Ballaghdereen native actually began his inter county career around the half back line. He was there, as in on the team, for even more of when Croker represented Heartbreak Hotel for the county. For all that, in the twilight of his career, as they strove for that elusive balance between heroics and heartache, although perhaps not officially listed as skipper, in every other way he was the captain of the good ship Mayo.

Even before the GAA season, all other sport and life as we knew it was extinguished, there had been murmurings that affable Andy might after all alter his decision to abdicate. While there’s a realisation he could be in his 38th year before action resumes, it was be no major shock to see the gym owner adorn the big stage one more time. Neither Mayo fans nor neutrals would have any objection to that!

FULL FORWARD

If you thought midfield was a bear pit of competition, then jostling for position on the edge of the square will be an absolute minefield. With, initially at least, most of the mine shafts in Ulster. Nearly all of of the nine counties up above have or had recognised stars stationed closest to goal. In Antrim it was Kevin Madden, Armagh had Ger Houlihan and Ronan Clarke, Monaghan had Declan Smyth for much of the 1990s, Fermanagh boasted Raymie and Rory Gallagher, Cavan revolved around Jason and Larry Reilly and Down could call on Peter Whitnell and Benny Coulter.

All of that is without even exploring the rest of the country. Players such as Ray Dempsey and Alan Dillon T.D. from Mayo, Roscommon’s Paul Earley, his nephew Dermot in Kildare, Padraic Joyce for Galway, the Kerry quartet of Liam Hassett, Dara O’Cinneide, Kieran Donaghy and Declan O’Sullivan and a Dublin cluster of Mick Galvin, Conal Keaney, Diarmuid Connolly, Vinny Murphy and Kevin McManamon.

Had there not been self-imposed restraints in place, Brian Stafford would surely have been high up in calculations but, by now, you have probably noticed who hasn’t been mentioned as well as – or maybe more so than – who has. The above line of thought brings the likes of Tony Boyle and Michael Murphy into the picture while Stephen O’Neill from Tyrone and the Derry duo of Seamus Downey and Paddy Bradley were given sufficient thought too.

Have ye figured it yet? Who’s not there? The penultimate posting on this grueling yet intriguing expedition goes to none other than the individual known simply as ‘Peter The Great’. For so long, PETER CANAVAN was the Tyrone team.

No man is an island but Peter Canavan was the Tyrone team for so long until proteges like Stephen O’Neill came along

Ironically, it was during the time when he was on his own, so to speak, that he delivered what was, to this spectator at least, his best ever display on a football field. That being the day his team were either beaten by Dublin or absolutely robbed due to the ineptitude of Paddy Russell, whichever way you want to look at it.

Having said that, during or at the end of that particular season, I’m honestly not sure which, a purchase was made entitled ‘101 Great Gaelic Football Scores’. The hurling version was also acquired. Whilst narrating the production, Jimmy Magee, God rest him opined that the small in stature sharpshooter could have a highlights video all to himself. He wasn’t wrong!

‘Impact sub’ is one of those buzz phrases which often crop up. We in Meath would like to think Jody Devine was the first of the species, though the gteat Wexford hurler Billy Byrne assumed the same role for Liam Griffin that same season, 1997.

Going back to football, in much more recent times, Dublin’s McManamon has been astoundingly impactful in the role. So much so that, like our Jody, starting him was never as springing him off the bench.

However, not for the first or last time in his career, the teacher wrote his own script. Prior to the coumty’s first All Ireland Final appearance for eight years in 2003, the Tyrone captain and spiritual leader was a major injury doubt. Which premeditated one of the greatest managerial moves ever made.

There has always been a suspicion in this seat that the decision to start Canavan, then withdrawing the tallisman before sending him back into the fray to guide the vessel home had some input from the man himself as well. Even if it hadn’t, it gave the most glorious moment in his career the exclamation mark it deserved.

As did his goal in the 2005 finale in terms of his entire marvelous innings in the white and red. Indeed, that ‘major’ was seminal in itself in that it had all the hallmarks of the passing of the baton to the anointed replacement. Yes, Owen Mulligan gave the final pass rather than the other way around, but, in dispatching the pivotal score, what better sign off could he have had?

Mind you, speaking of changings of the guard, judging by the form lines of his forrays into management thus far, with Cavan Gaels, Fermanagh and the Tyrone U-21 team, he is surely the chosen one to take the senior reins when the grumpy old man steps aside or is assisted in so doing.

LEFT CORNER FORWARD

And so, we reach the final stop on this magical memory journey. In ways I’m glad. Because, while it has been great recalling incalculable number of top class performers the sole seeing lens has been fortunate enough to scan over in the last 30 years, there’s nearly a sense of upset and even guilt at having to leave some top class performers out.

There was, after all, an admission very soon after the tapes went up to start this marathon gallop that one could commence another compilation tomorrow and arrive at another completely different combination.

That feeling endures right up to the last jersey available. For example, from Dublin alone there’s Bernard and Alan Brogan, Barney and Dean Rock and Paul Mannion. Up north, like the previous alottment, nearly all units have worthy nominations.

Conor McManus for Monaghan, the two Endas of Derry – Gornley and Muldoon – CJ McGourty and Paddy Cunnigham representing Antrim, Jim and Oisin McConville, Diarmuid Marsden and Jamie Clarke on behalf of Armagh and ‘Wee’ James McCartan in the Down corner.

Taking a concorde trip round the country, we add Mattie Forde, Dessie Dolan, Paul Barden, Declan Browne, Paul Kerrigan, Paul Taylor and Emlyn Mulligan into the wok and give it a stir.

Like most positions on this team, Kerry have multiple candidates for the last seat at the dance. Incorporating Johnny Crowley, Bryan Sheahan, Darran O’Sullivan, James O’Donoghue and, yes, David Clifford.

Allowing for a small bit of sentimentality as the voyage comes into shore, I can’t look past a man who undoubtedly inspired all of the above, lined out alongside some of them and is guiding more of them as a Kerry selector. The incomparable MAURICE FITZGERALD.

Maurice Fitzgerald kicked the greatest point I’ve ever seen, in Thurles in 2001

Don’t ask me how this happened, but, even before noticing it with Bernard Flynn, Maurice Fitz was the first player I remember seeing kick the ball with equal brilliance off either boot. Including off the ground.

Throughout my three decades watching matches, it has always been maintained that Kevin Foley’s goal against Dublin was the greatest score ever witnessed. On mature recollection, its status may have to be amended ever so slightly.

It will forever be the favoured ‘major’ but having been fortunate enough to be in Thurles the day he swung over that last kick winner against Dublin in 2001, it’s scarcely likely a better score will ever be seen. Add to that his superb slaloming strike against Armagh and the fact that he – almost – beat Mayo in 1997 and was still lining out with his club up to last years, perhaps best to borrow from The Memory Man in summation – Different Class.

FOGRA: The above line up took a lot of long days and late nights to construct. It was done for a bit craic and hope wouid be that it will be seen as such. There will be an accompanying post on our Boylan Talks Sport Facebook page later today and I look forward to seeing your versions of similar selections.

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