The Sunday Tribune picked its teams of the decade last weekend. Some good reading in it
Stars Who Burned The Brightest
The past 10 seasons have produced more than their fair share of giants in both hurling and football, but Enda McEvoy and Kieran Shannon selected the very best of the best for their teams of the decade
Yes, yes. You’d have picked an infinitely better team yourself, that goes without saying. No Brendan Cummins? No Ollie Canning? No Joe Deane? No Paul Flynn? No… well, whoever preference and provenance prompt you to want it to be? Please, fire away. Knock yourself out. A pencil, a sheet of paper and your very own Hurling XV of the Decade can be yours, all within the space of five minutes, no deep thinking necessary. But for the record, just let us acquaint you with the criteria we adopted.
There were two main provisos. First off, to be in the running a player had to have consistently produced an elevated calibre of performance for more than half of the decade. That was tough on Cha Fitzpatrick, who we yearned to pick for his gorgeous minimalism, but three nine-out-of-10 championship seasons in succession weren’t enough. The second heading was rather more nebulous. Relevance.
Harsh as it may sound, success counted. Does the possession of a cache of All Ireland medals render someone a better hurler than a contemporary from another county who possesses none? Clearly not. On the other hand, doing one’s stuff time and time again on a winning team ensured a breadth of achievement that was necessarily of importance. Hence Ollie Canning’s failure to make it; through no fault of his own, his portfolio didn’t quite match up to that of the other contenders. The Tribune’s Hurling XV of the Decade is more about what one did than what one was. If you deem that to be unfair, reach for the pencil and paper.
1. Damien Fitzhenry (Wexford)
The most hotly contested position, what with Davy Fitz’s longevity and Donal g Cusack being a better goalie at the end of the decade than he had been at the beginning, and the ultimate judgment call. Say that Brendan Cummins should be here instead and we won’t cavil. But Fitzhenry had the most wonderful litheness and agility about him, he made improbable saves over and over again, his displays in the 2004 All Ireland semi-final and 2008 National League quarter-final remain lodged in the memory and he changed the outcome of two All Ireland quarter-finals with his expertise from placed balls. What’s more, he accomplished all of the above on a team that won one piece of silverware during the decade.
In contention: Brendan Cummins (Tipperary), Donal g Cusack(Cork)
2. Michael Kavanagh (Kilkenny)
Appeared in eight All Ireland finals in the decade and finished a winner in seven of them. Who now remembers that his first two September appearances ended in defeat and personal despair? A pure stickman and the most heads-up of defenders. Always appeared to have time in hand and usually started the race from A to B ahead of the other guy. Recovered from a sticky summer in 2004 to regain his place and hasn’t been budged since. Unquestionably assisted by having yer man from Tullaroan in front of him for the past four seasons. Still, we kept expecting him to be burned for pace at any moment and he kept proving us wrong.
In contention: Brian Murphy (Cork), Eoin Murphy (Waterford)
3. Noel Hickey (Kilkenny)
The statistic endures; he wasn’t there for the 2005 All Ireland semi-final, the last time his county were beaten in the championship (and he wasn’t there again versus Tipp last month on the day the winning run very nearly came to an end). Coincidence? Not in the least. Won his first All Ireland at 19 and promptly became one of the foundation stones of the black and amber magisterium. Suffered only one nasty afternoon in all that time, versus Cork in 2004. Good on the ground, quick on the turn and was careful not to vacate space. Subtly ruthless; skated on thin ice on a number of occasions but never ended up falling through.
In contention: Diarmuid O’Sullivan (Cork)
4. JJ Delaney (Kilkenny)
Tidy, economical, formidable in the air and a master at getting his hurley in in the tackle. Would have been Hurler of the Year in successive seasons had Kilkenny retained the McCarthy Cup in 2004; came close again in 2008. Though he began in the corner and force of necessity pressed him into service on the edge of the square this year, left-half back was his true home. The most understated of superstars. Sorry, Ollie.
In contention: Ollie Canning(Galway)
5. Tommy Walsh (Kilkenny)
The least understated and anonymous of superstars. Tony Browne, a fine hurler and a marvellous servant, would have been an admirable choice. But Walsh, an All Star in seven successive seasons and on four different lines of the field, has been a phenomenon. Nothing more to add, unless it’s that he hails from a place that gave two players to the Team of the Millennium and he carries the torch with a sure hand.
In contention: Tony Browne (Waterford), John Gardiner (Cork), Eamon Corcoran (Tipperary)
6. Ken McGrath (Waterford)
A permanent, ingenuous joy. Not totally machine-tooled for centre-back but possessed the full panoply of implements for the job right and left, power in the air, the anticipatory eye and mobility to sweep across his own half-back line, a raking clearance bar perhaps the ability to impose himself on an opponent bent on a stifling job. Lacked a smidgen of composure at times, but the memory of his late fetch from the skies to secure victory against Cork in 2004 is imperishable.
In contention: Ronan Curran (Cork), Senie McMahon(Clare)
7. Sen g Hailpn (Cork)
Not an absolutely automatic choice, given that he wasn’t a better hurler than JJ Delaney and for a period in 2004-06 wasn’t even the best hurler on his own half-back line. But how can one tell the story of the noughties without telling the story of hAilpn and the drive, honesty and rigour he brought to Cork’s sheet-anchor unit? Became as accomplished a hurler as he was an athlete and in his constant quest for self-improvement succeeded in adding the art of pointscoring to his palette. On the evidence of his form this summer, the clock shows no signs of winding down.
In contention: Mark Foley(Limerick)
8. Jerry O’Connor (Cork)
Odd to think that he was a supporting actor until 2004, his contribution to the 2003 All Ireland final being that of a sub who scored a late point. But Newtownshandrum’s rise lifted his boat and Donal O’Grady was smart enough to give him the rein to reprise his club duties on the intercounty stage. Reinvented the role of the midfielder, thereby rendering obsolete the guys content to play their position within a 10-metre radius. When he dropped back Cork had seven defenders. When he accelerated forward they had seven attackers. For three summers, in a team full of big hitters, there was no more important player.
9. Derek Lyng (Kilkenny)
A junior club hurler when he arrived on the scene and one of Brian Cody’s greatest successes. Most of the work he did, like getting his hands dirty and his body in the way, went unseen. The part that was visible was the upfield surges that in 35 championship outings yielded a staggering 0-34 from play; his swing was functional but inordinately accurate. A furniture remover rather than a furniture maker, but no less valuable to his team for that.
In contention: Colin Lynch (Clare), Tom Kenny (Cork), Michael Walsh(Waterford)
10. Ben O’Connor (Cork)
A Ferrari in the form of a hurler. What would life have been like for Cork this decade without the gifts from heaven that were himself and his twin? Even when he wasn’t playing give-and-go with Jerry he had the light feet, penetration and accuracy often from tight angles on the touchline in Thurles to do it by himself. Lovely freetaking style that caressed rather than lamped the sliotar over the bar. Found the net in successive All Ireland finals, steaming onto Diarmuid O’Sullivan’s monster clearance in 2005 for the goal that gave the holders an early advantage they would comfortably hold onto, and beat Brendan Cummins at his near post for a crucial goal in the 2006 provincial decider.
In contention: Dan Shanahan(Waterford)
11. Henry Shefflin (Kilkenny)
It’s easier to remember his failures. There was the 2001 All Ireland semi-final, when he allowed himself to be dragged into a digging match by Gregory Kennedy; 2005, his one poor championship season; the inexplicable but ultimately irrelevant miss from a free in front of the posts three minutes from the end of the 2006 final. And that’s about the height of it. His praises have been sung too often to require another airing here. Found the net in 11 consecutive championships and his scoring record now stands at 22-370 in 48 appearances, 19-112 of it from play. Hurler of the Decade and no questions asked. Anyone out there who genuinely believes that Shefflin hasn’t surpassed Mick Mackey, let’s be having you.
12. Eddie Brennan (Kilkenny)
Once upon a time there was a forward who was fast, exciting and frequently headless. Often he left defenders panting in his trail and belted home unstoppable goals; often he took wrong options and ran up blind alleys. But went from managing two points in four All Ireland finals to scoring the opening goal in the next two, and didn’t shine in this year’s renewal yet hit three points in the first half. Still fast and exciting but, with 24-59 from play in 41 championship outings, headless no longer. The end.
In contention: Eoin Kelly (Waterford)
13. John Mullane (Waterford)
The most unlikely individual journey of them all, from skinhead cornerboy to national treasure. A hurling life played out in primary colours, from hitting three goals in one Munster final to getting sent off in the next one to dying with his boots on in the All Ireland final. Clocked up 12-100 in 38 championship outings. Made mistakes, learned from them and eventually discovered that being content to do one’s bit was the real way of answering the county’s call. A walking instance of how sport’s lessons can change a life for the better. Well, boy? Very well.
14. Martin Comerford (Kilkenny)
His county’s most important non-redhaired forward of the decade. The stats show he managed a total of 6-61 in 37 championship outings, but even taking into account high days such as his 1-4 in the 2003 All Ireland final and his 2-4 against Dublin this year, scoring particularly in view of his hit-and-miss technique was never what Comerford, the domestique of the Kilkenny forward line, was about. All dash and legginess and unpredictability, he carried water, found gaps and created space. Always deadly from five yards, closed out the decade with the winning goal in the All Ireland final.
In contention: Paul Flynn (Waterford)
15. Eoin Kelly (Tipperary)
Snake hips, molten wrists and point upon point upon point, 99 of them from play in the championship. Memories? Plenty. His first half against Waterford at Pirc U Chaoimh in 2002. His first half against Kilkenny in successive All Ireland semi-finals. The 14-point salvo versus Limerick in 2006. Even the minor sensation engendered by his eclipse by Ollie Canning in Salthill in 2003. His display at Croke Park last month constituted a gratifying illustration of the old saw about the permanence of class. Shefflin was the first forward onto our team. Kelly was the second.
In contention: Joe Deane (Cork)
PICKING the football team of the decade was a lot like the football decade itself. In many ways it was hugely democratic as counties like Westmeath, Fermanagh and Wexford had their greatest era in nearly 100 years. But when it actually came to handing out the prizes and separating the champions from the contenders, our team was dominated just like Sam Maguire itself by the Big Three. That’s one of the most striking aspects of both our team and All Star selection. While these past couple of years there’s been so much talk about whether Kerry or Tyrone were the team of the decade, the importance and prominence of Armagh is near the fore here.
In all our team features six Kerry men, with a further six being nominated, while Tyrone and Armagh each have three players on the team and eight in total nominated. Dublin, Cork and Derry complete the team. Six other counties had at least one nomination, but such was the savagery of the competition, the likes of Sligo’s Eamonn O’Hara, Laois’s Joe Higgins, Monaghan’s Tommy Freeman and Donegal’s Adrian Sweeney didn’t even make our top 45 players.
Galway were unfortunate not to have anyone make the side itself but their failure to reach an All Ireland semi-final this past eight years cost them. Also conspicuous by their absence are Darren Fay and Peter Canavan, but only for the reason they would have made the 1990s team when their contributions were more sustained than their sporadic though sometimes brilliant '00s output.
1. Stephen Cluxton (Dublin)
It would be wrong to say he hasn’t put a foot wrong since breaking onto the Dublin team as a teenager in 2002. His tempestuous sending off against Armagh in 2003, the short kickout against Tyrone in '05 and the turnover against Kerry late on in '07 all shaped the outcome of those games. But those few moments of error apart, yeah, he’s barely put a foot wrong. Probably the best shotstopper in the game and possesses easily the best kickout in the game, even though by August its favourite targets tend to have been well copped by vigilant quarter-final opponents.
In contention: Paul Hearty (Armagh), Diarmuid Murphy (Kerry)
2. Ryan McMenamin (Tyrone)
The most aggravating corner-back of recent times but also the most consistent and complete, personifying Tyrone’s capacity to go from blanket defence to blanket attack in a flash. The snarls and theatrics unfortunately will be remembered outside of Tyrone long after the football ends but he couldn’t be denied his three All Irelands and three Ulsters and he can’t be denied his spot here.
In contention: Tom O’Sullivan (Kerry), Michael McCarthy (Kerry)
3. Graham Canty (Cork)
Full-back play changed this past decade; going from a position played about halfway between the two corners to somewhere between the old square and the corners. Francie Bellew will probably go down as the last archetypal full-back but Barry Owens with his two All Stars was an even better and more natural number three and we didn’t see enough of Owens through injuries and illness. Canty suffered his own injuries and setbacks, but along with Seamus Moynihan he was the best footballer to play full-back this decade and personified the resilience of a Cork team that has kept coming back to reach five consecutive All Ireland semi-finals.
In contention: Barry Owens (Fermanagh), Francie Bellew (Armagh)
4. Marc S (Kerry)
Another McMenamin without the antics. Kerry have produced some exceptional corner-backs this decade but the youngest S has been the most enduring and the most complete. When we think of how Kerry epitomise total football, we think of Marc S, sweeping across his line, leaving corner-forwards on their backside with a shimmy and a solo, before dashing up the field to set up or even take a score.
In contention: Anthony Lynch (Cork), Sen Marty Lockhart (Derry)
5. TomS S (Kerry)
His famous uncle was probably the wing-back of the last millennium but a point we made about three All Irelands ago could Pid in his prime really have been any better than Toms in his? Probably the most remarkable thing about Toms is that his prime has been an entire decade, from when he blotted out Michael Donnellan in 2000 right up to Paul Kerrigan in 2009. Maybe not even the S of the decade but in these eyes, the defender of the decade.
In contention: Davy Harte (Tyrone), David Heaney (Mayo)
6. Kieran McGeeney (Armagh)
The centre-back of the decade, no question, but a lot more than just a centre-back; McGeeney was the most influential player of the decade. When Armagh won the 2002 All Ireland, they forced Tyrone and Kerry to step up tactically, mentally, holistically and for all their talent, Armagh would not have won the All Ireland without McGeeney. The Roy Keane of Gaelic football, even if he was a tad more discreet in his dealings and disagreements with his manager.
In contention: Conor Gormley (Tyrone), Aidan O’Mahony (Kerry)
7. Seamus Moynihan (Kerry)
Conor Gormley is the one other defender of the noughties that could play anywhere from number two to seven, but Moynihan’s game was so well-rounded, he could have played anywhere from two to 15. He was more than that too he was perpetual motion, a spiritual leader, a virtual life-force for a generation of Kerry players. When Kerry were in crisis this summer, Moynihan was a key figure in steadying the ship with his discreet observations from the bank and the stand. Kerry’s next manager in waiting?
In contention: Philip Jordan (Tyrone), Aaron Kernan (Armagh)
8. Darragh S (Kerry)
The one player on this team where no surname or nickname is required his first name will do. We’ve often heard how high fielding is a dying art; Darragh kept it alive. We’ve heard how difficult it is to win an All Ireland in the modern era; Darragh has won six, as many as Cork have in 125 years. This decade showcased many marvellous midfielders but at some stage or other Darragh either out-fielded, outplayed, outsmarted, bullied or outlasted them all. He may never have won the Footballer of the Year but he was the Footballer of the Decade.
In contention: Ciarn Whelan (Dublin), Nicholas Murphy (Cork)
9. Sen Cavanagh (Tyrone)
He burst onto the scene in 2002 as a full-forward and won Player of the Year from there as well in 2008 but in the intervening years Cavanagh won three All Stars from midfield as the second coming of Jack O’Shea. The one thing levelled against Darragh in recent years was that his legs weren’t the quickest, but with Cavanagh alongside him, he would no longer have to worry about that. That mobility and scoring power is why the Moy man edges out totems like McGrane, Walsh, Whelan and Murphy.
In contention: Paul McGrane (Armagh), Kevin Walsh (Galway)
10. Brian Dooher (Tyrone)
The Darragh S of wing-forward play; a lot of fliers have come and gone since Dooher won Ulster Player of the Year for 1996, yet here he still is, shaping the outcome of Ulster and All Ireland titles. As Damian Lawlor puts it in his new book Working on a Dream, with Dooher, it’s like he has a twin brother on the field, while his point-taking and distribution still hasn’t received its due credit. Paul Galvin has had an exceptional decade for Kerry but it was Dooher who redefined how the position and football itself should be played in the 21st century.
In contention: Paul Galvin (Kerry), Michael Donnellan (Galway)
11. Declan O’Sullivan (Kerry)
Brian McGuigan and Ciarn McDonald played some of the most delightful football of the decade but unfortunately injuries and sabbaticals robbed them off too many years, and ultimately, a spot on this team. Declan O’Sullivan is the most cultured footballer of his generation, so cultured, he not only has a cultured left foot but a right one as well. Ever since he broke onto the scene in 2003 as a 19-year-old, only once has there been a season where he hasn’t dictated either a Munster or All Ireland final.
In contention: Brian McGuigan (Tyrone), Ciarn McDonald (Mayo)
12. Oisn McConville (Armagh)
The most important and indeed best club footballer of the decade, the best free-taker of the decade, and one of the best clutch players of the decade; how could you not have him on the team of the decade? Between club and county, he has won five All Irelands and an astonishing 14 Ulster medals. Whatever about the former, the latter will never be repeated again.
In contention: Alan Brogan (Dublin), Dessie Dolan (Westmeath)
13. Colm Cooper (Kerry)
Like hurling, football has been blessed with a red-haired genius of a forward to adorn the decade. Through a combination of Kerry and Killarney’s rich football tradition and the outrageous talent and imagination of a young Cooper, Gooch has extended the possibilities of how football can be played. He’s essentially the first street Gaelic footballer, coming up with moves the game hasn’t seen before. True, he’s been peripheral enough in two of Kerry’s last three All Ireland wins but a measure of his and Kerry’s brilliance is that in 2002, 2005 and 2008 when the Kingdom were All Ireland runners-up, Cooper was an All Star and Player of the Year nominee. And lest you forget, he’s only 26.
In contention: Matty Forde (Wexford), Declan Browne (Tipperary)
14. Paddy Bradley (Derry)
The most contended position of all, and quite likely the most contentious selection as well. Between the backdoor, a calendar-year national league and the wide expanses of the new Croke Park, it has been a glorious decade for forward play. Bradley may now have gone nine years without even reaching an Ulster final but his accuracy, scoring power and consistency still eclipses more feted and honoured players.
In contention: Ronan Clarke (Armagh), Kieran Donaghy (Kerry)
15. Stevie McDonnell (Armagh)
The best goalscorer of the decade who developed into one of its greatest point-takers as well. He may not have had the fake series of a Gooch or an O’Neill but his capacity to win dirty ball and kick scores week in week out, from wet miserable Sundays in Crossmaglen to sun-basked Croke Park, was extraordinary. Stephen O’Neill had a strong claim for this spot, but McDonnell’s contributions were as lethal and more sustained. After he won his first All Ireland, his goal was to win another and become the next Sen O’Neill. He’s fallen just short of the first goal but the second has been realised.
In contention: Stephen O’Neill (Tyrone), Pdraic Joyce (Galway)