Three All-Ireland-winning captains fill top spot as Martin Beheny has assembled a list of the top 20 footballers from each of the nine Ulster counties in the last 50 years.
The last 40 years, in particular, have been very successful for Ulster, with no fewer than five counties, Armagh, Derry, Donegal, Down (2) and Tyrone (3) winning All-Ireland titles, while Derry (five), Tyrone (two), Down, Monaghan, Armagh and Donegal all won league titles.
Cavan won an Ulster title in 1997 and Fermanagh qualified for the All-Ireland semi-final for the first time in 2004, leaving Antrim as the only county who didn’t get among the main action in the last 50 years.
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Donegal manager, Brian McIver was clearly of the view that ‘if they’re good enough, they’re old enough’ when he handed 17-year-old Michael Murphy a starting place against Leitrim in an All-Ireland SFC qualifier in 2007.
Murphy rewarded him by scoring 1-1 in a tense struggle which Donegal won by two points in extra-time.
A close call, but as Donegal supporters left Carrick-on-Shannon they were convinced they had seen the start of something special.
They were right. Thirteen years later, Murphy has established himself as probably Donegal’s greatest player of all time and with his career still having some way to go, there will be more opportunities to reinforce that assessment.
Capable of playing anywhere from No 8 to 15, his excellent technique is backed up by strength and leadership qualities.
Plus, of course, he brings a high degree of accuracy off frees.
Somewhat surprisingly, he has only three All Star awards, all in different positions (14, 11, 12). His versatility is a major plus for Donegal but it may have come against him in All Star selections.
Colleague, Karl Lacey has four All Stars, won in three different positions in defence during an outstanding career which earns him our top rating for Donegal defenders.
Jim McGuinness moved him from corner-back to centre-back, a hugely beneficial move as it enabled him to roam forward more often. He was Footballer of the Year in 2012 when the county won their second All-Ireland.
We have rated him at No 3, with second place going to Martin McHugh, Footballer of the Year at the end of Donegal’s history-making season in 1992 when they won the All-Ireland title for the first time.
He was then in his 12th season with Donegal, having done so much to keep the All-Ireland ambitions afloat, often in very disappointing times.
That was underlined by their All Star famine which lasted from 1983, when McHugh was chosen at right full-forward, until 1990 when Joyce McMullan took the No 12 slot.
Donegal: 1. Michael Murphy, 2. Martin McHugh, 3. Karl Lacey, 4. Tony Boyle, 5. Anthony Molloy, 6. Colm McFadden, 7. Neil McGee, 8. Kevin Cassidy, 9. Neil Gallagher, 10. Ryan McHugh, 11. Frank McGlynn, 12. Brian McEniff, 13. Martin Carney, 14. Barry McGowan, 15. Manus Boyle, 16. Séamus Bonner, 17. Pauric McShea, 18. Matt Gallagher, 19. Paul Durcan, 20. Adrian Sweeney
Five All Stars and a Footballer of the Year award would be enough to earn top spot in every county except Kerry, Dublin and Tyrone. Seán Cavanagh is the unlucky one in Tyrone, edged out by Peter Canavan, who has a similar haul.
Cavanagh’s supporters will, no doubt, claim that his high-octane game all over the pitch took him ahead of Canavan, who spent most of his time poaching close to goal.
So why opt for Canavan at No 1? To a certain degree, it comes down to the timing of their careers. Cavanagh arrived on the scene early in the new Millennium at a stage when the best squad in Tyrone history was coming together.
He, and others from the younger set, completed the picture which was unveiled in a glorious kaleidoscope of colour when Tyrone won the All-Ireland title for the first time in 2003 with Canavan as captain. That was entirely appropriate after all he had done for more than a decade.
Canavan and his colleagues experienced many disappointments in the 1990s, but kept believing their day would come. That’s not easy in counties who haven’t won All-Ireland titles and demands real mental toughness which Canavan had in abundance.
That was crucial as Tyrone built towards a new world which emerged in 2002 and ’03, when they won both Allianz Leagues and the All-Ireland title (2003) for the first time.
Cavanagh was mentally strong too, but unlike Canavan, he knew no real hardships before finding himself with an All-Ireland SFC medal.
Eugene McKenna, one of the stars of the previous generation, might well have been the first captain to lead Tyrone to an All-Ireland title if he wasn’t forced off with an injury during the 1986 final against Kerry.
It was a serious setback for Tyrone who faded as Kerry regrouped after falling seven points behind early in the second half. McKenna was a powerful performer in a career which yielded two All Stars.
Tyrone: 1. Peter Canavan, 2. Seán Cavanagh, 3. Eugene McKenna, 4. Stephen O’Neill, 5. Philip Jordan, 6. Brian Dooher, 7. Frank McGuigan, 8. Conor Gormley, 9. Kevin McCabe, 10. Brian McGuigan, 11. Ryan McMenamin, 12. Owen Mulligan, 13. Mattie Donnelly, 14. Enda McGinley, 15. Joe McMahon, 16. Damien O’Hagan, 17. Peter Harte, 18. Plunkett Donaghy, 19. Colm Cavanagh, 20. Pascal McConnell
Would Derry football history have been different if Anthony Tohill hadn’t broken a leg during his Australian Rules stint in Melbourne in 1990/91?
A lengthy absence damaged his chances of being retained at a time of contraction among AFL clubs, so he returned home and headed straight for training with the Derry squad.
By 1992, they were League champions for the first time in 45 years and Tohill had picked up his first All Star.
A year later, Derry won the All-Ireland SFC title for the first time, with Tohill’s powerful input at midfield a major contributor. By the time he retired in 2003, he had won four All Star awards and played for Ireland in eight International Rules games against Australia, two as captain.
Having come close to losing Tohill to Australian Rules early in his career (he was approached again when his GAA career flourished), Derry had further concern in early 1995 when he spent two weeks with Manchester United.
That they even contemplated signing a 23-year-old with relatively little soccer experience was a source of great fascination at the time.
He wasn’t offered a contract, but one wonders how he would have got on if he had concentrated on soccer form the start of his career.
Tohill’s career with the Oak Leaf County was spent largely in the middle third of the pitch, whereas Tony Scullion was a specialist defender. One of the best markers in the game, he established a deserved reputation as a man for the big occasion and, with Tohill, shares the distinction of being the only Derrymen to have won four All Star awards.
Few corner-backs were honoured as much in the All Star scheme as Scullion, who played for Derry for 14 seasons.
High fielding, power and a great work ethic were among Brian McGilligan’s many attributes in a career where he partnered Tohill at midfield for several years. They took both midfield positions on the 1993 All Star team.
Derry: 1. Anthony Tohill, 2. Tony Scullion, 3. Brian McGilligan, 4. Enda Muldoon, 5. Enda Gormley, 6. Anthony McGurk, 7. Seán Marty Lockhart, 8. Henry Downey, 9. Joe Brolly, 10. Paddy Bradley, 11. Kieran McKeever, 12. Dermot McNicholl, 13. Peter Stevenson, 14. Seán O’Connell, 15. Mickey Moran, 16. Damien Cassidy, 17. Damien Barton, 18. Gary Coleman, 19. Damien McCusker, 20. Johnny McGurk
First obvious question: why is Seán O’Neill, who was chosen on the Teams of the Century (1984) and Millennium (2000), not ranked in the top four?
Answer: His inter-county career ended in 1975, five years into the timespan for this exercise. And while he continued to play well right to the end, most of the exceptional performances that makes him one of the top forwards in history came in the 1960s.
He still deserves a high ranking, but we have chosen four ahead of him. Between them, Greg Blaney, Mickey Linden, Colm McAlarney and Liam Austin played senior for Down for a total of 70 years.
Blaney gets top spot for the number of boxes he ticked in the list of requirement for a centre half-forward. Excellent vision, a direct runner, good ball-retainer, all underpinned by strength and courage.
“The ultimate No 11” was how Peter McGrath, who managed the Mourne County to All-Irelands in 1991 and 1994 described him. Blaney was the All Star No 11 in both years, having picked up his first award at left half-forward in 1983.
Linden played for Down from 1981 to 2003, remarkable longevity at such a high level. His pace and finishing made him a nightmare for corner-backs, some of whom went well beyond the legal limits in their attempts to reduce his impact.
His best season was 1994, which he finished with an All-Ireland medal (he scored 0-4 from play and set up a crucial goal in the final against Dublin), All Star and Footballer of the Year awards.
Success came early in McAlarney’s career when winning an All-Ireland title as a 20-year-old midfielder in 1968. Down dropped off in the seventies. It certainly wasn’t McAlarney’s fault as he continued to deliver, earning All Stars in 1975 and 1978.
Down: 1. Greg Blaney, 2. Mickey Linden, 3. Colm McAlarney, 4. Liam Austin, 5. Seán O’Neill, 6. James McCartan, 7. Benny Coulter, 8. Conor Deegan, 9. Ross Carr, 10. Paddy O’Rourke, 11. DJ Kane, 12. Paddy Kennedy, 13. Neil Collins, 14. Dan McCartan, 15. Barry Breen, 16. Eamonn, Burns, 17. Ambrose Rogers, 18. Brian Burns, 19. Brendan Mason, 20. Kevin McKernan
Armagh won only one All Star (Ger Houlahan, 1993) between 1982, when Joe Kernan took his second award, and 1999, when Kieran McGeeney and Diarmuid Marsden were honoured.
Three years later, Armagh won the All-Ireland title for the first time, with McGeeney as captain (he was later that year chosen as Footballer of the Year) and Kernan as manager. It’s a marginal call for No 1 on their playing careers with McGeeney getting the nod.
McGeeney was a major driving force, even during Armagh’s disappointing years, but it was in the new era from 1999 onwards that he really excelled as a centre-back and leader.
Kernan’s role as manager was equally important as he set about changing the county’s mindset, having earlier achieved it with Crossmaglen. The process was helped by his long experience as a player, which included reaching the 1977 All-Ireland final.
They were well beaten by a more experienced and cuter Dublin outfit on a day when Kernan, whose career lasted 16 years, joined the small club reserved for players who scored two goals in an All-Ireland SFC final and still ended up on the losing side.
Paddy Moriarty also ticked the versatility box, having been equally comfortable in defence and attack for the Orchard County. He has All Star awards to show for both, having been selected at No 15 in 1972 and at centre-back in 1977.
The next three places go to Oisín McConville, Steven McDonnell, and Paul McGrane, powerhouses from the great team of the noughties. Between them, they won six All Star awards and were unlucky not to have added a few more.
Jimmy Smyth, a great centre-forward in a 15-year career, had wonderful vision and an innate capacity to pick the right pass.
Brian McAlinden was one of the best goalkeepers of his generation and while All-Ireland and All Star glory eluded him, he was chosen on the best team of the 1980s, drawn from players who didn’t win All-Ireland medals.
Armagh: 1. Kieran McGeeney, 2. Joe Kernan, 3. Paddy Moriarty, 4. Oisín McConville, 5. Steven McDonnell, 6. Paul McGrane, 7. Jimmy Smyth, 8. Brian McAlinden, 9. Diarmaid Marsden, 10. Ronan Clarke, 11. Tom McCreesh, 12. Jarlath Burns, 13. Martin McQuillan, 14. Denis Stevenson, 15. Francie Bellew, 16. Ciarán McKeever, 17. Ger Houlahan, 18. Peter Loughran, 19. Enda McNulty, 20. Aaron Kernan
Of the 12 All Star awards won by Monaghan, Eugene ‘Nudie’ Hughes and Conor McManus have won six between them in a 3-3 split.
Who comes first? McManus, whose career still has some way to run, is certainly one of the best forwards of his generation, but we have opted for ‘Nudie’ at this stage on the basis of his versatility.
He won All Star awards at right-full back (1979) and left full-forward (1985 and 1988), joining an exclusive club reserved for players who have been honoured in both defence and attack.
‘Nudie’ was at right full-back when Monaghan powered their way to a first Ulster title for 41 years in 1979 before moving to attack on a team that won the county’s first League title in 1985, followed by Ulster titles in 1985 and 1988.
His days as a defensive rock were a big help as he sought to escape the vigorous attention of the close-marking brotherhood, especially in the Ulster championship.
McManus knows all about being a ‘marked man’ too, with opponents planning their defensive strategy around preventing him getting possession. Given the excellence of his finishing ability, that’s understandable, even if how they go about it isn’t always legal.
Ciarán Murray was one of the best centre-backs of the 1980s at a time when they tended to be less attack-minded than nowadays. He ignored that script, always seeking to go forward when he got possession.
He won an All Star award at No 6 in 1985, a year when Eamonn McEneaney was shamefully denied a similar honour in attack. He was the outstanding centre-forward that season, but was ruled ineligible arising from a dismissal in a seven-a-side tournament.
He was cleared to play in subsequent games on the same day but, bizarrely, was blocked from All Star selection under a ridiculous rule which prevented players who had been sent off – irrespective of the circumstances – from being considered for selection.
Monaghan: 1. Eugene ‘Nudie’ Hughes, 2. Conor McManus, 3. Ciarán Murray, 4. Eamonn McEneaney, 5. Paul Finlay, 6. Ray McCarron, 7. Gerry McCarville, 8. Rory Beggan, 9. Hugo Clerkin, 10. Tommy Freeman, 11. Paddy Linden, 12. Eamonn Tavey, 13. David Byrne, 14. Kieran Finlay, 15. Declan Loughman, 16. Dick Clerkin, 17. Paddy Kerr, 18. Darren Hughes, 19. Vinny Corey, 20. Drew Wylie
When Cavan reached the 1996 All-Ireland U-21 final and followed up a year later by taking the Ulster senior title for the first time since 1969, hopes soared in the county that a new and successful era was on its way.
Dermot McCabe, who featured on both that U21 (1996) and senior teams (1997), was one of the new breed of young talent who had merged with experienced hands to produce a well-balanced outfit. And with Martin McHugh in charge, expectations were growing rapidly.
It wasn’t to be. McHugh departed after the 1997 campaign, managerial strife followed, momentum was lost and apart from 2001, when Cavan reached the Ulster final, there wasn’t much for Breffni supporters to enthuse about.
McCabe did his best to lift the gloom with many excellent performances for Cavan, Ulster and Ireland (International Rules), but there were no rich pickings on the championship front. Despite that, his career will be remembered as one of the best in Cavan for a long time.
The same applies to Jim Reilly, who was such an influential figure – mostly at wing-back, but sometimes in attack too – throughout the 1980s.
There were times when Cavan looked as if they would make a breakthrough, but it never quite happened despite the best efforts of men like Reilly. The esteem in which he was held became apparent in 1993 when Eamonn Coleman, Brian McEniff, Peter McGinnity and Jimmy Smyth all chose him on an Ulster team drawn from the best players they had seen.
Stephen King was equally admired and respected in a 16-year career which reached its high point in his final season in 1997 when, at the age of 35, he captained Cavan to the Ulster title.
Time was running out for the midfielder whose career had often been disrupted by injury. Despite that, he never lost his enthusiasm for the Cavan cause and played a huge part in the 1997 Ulster success. He retired in February 1998.
Cavan: 1. Dermot McCabe, 2. Jim Reilly, 3. Stephen King, 4. Damien O’Reilly, 5. Steve Duggan, 6. Ollie Brady, 7. Gene Cusack, 8. Enda McGowan, 9. Peter Reilly, 10. Ronan Carolan, 11. Larry Reilly, 12. Ray Carolan, 13. Paddy McNamee, 14. Jason Reilly, 15. Anthony Forde, 16. Gearóid McKiernan, 17. Fintan Cahill, 18. Derek McDonnell, 19. Cian Mackey, 20. James Reilly
In his book, ‘Ulster – The Path of Champions’, published in 1993, Jerome Quinn asked a group of players, and managers to select the best Ulster team of their time.
Brian McEniff, Pete McGrath, Art McRory, Jimmy Smyth and Jim Reilly all chose Peter McGinnity, either at midfield or wing-forward.
McGrath labelled McGinnity a “Rolls Royce player, effortless in his movements”. Jimmy Smyth described him as a “class act who could play all over the place”, while the others were hugely complimentary too.
He was selected at right half-forward on that team, the position where he won Fermanagh’s first All Star award in 1982, but it was as a midfielder that he established a fine reputation in a lengthy career, during which he won three Railway Cup medals with Ulster.
The closest Fermanagh came to championship success in his time was in 1982 when they reached the Ulster final, losing to Armagh.
Otherwise, there were frequent first round exits, often as early as mid-May, which was very frustrating for a player of McGinnity’s quality.
He was ahead of his time in calling for a change to the system. In 1987, he proposed a secondary championship for teams beaten in the first two rounds of the provincials.
“Changes will come in the future, but they will be too late for me,” said McGinnity, who was 33 at the time. It was another 14 years before the All-Ireland qualifiers were introduced.
The qualifiers played a big part in offering Barry Owens, who we have chosen at No 2, a chance to raise his profile to such a degree that he became the first Fermanagh man to win two All Star awards.
Both were for his excellence at full-back in 2004, when Fermanagh advanced to the All-Ireland semi-final for the first time, and 2006 when they reached the Round 4 qualifiers. He was outstanding in both campaigns.
Fermanagh: 1. Peter McGinnity, 2. Barry Owens, 3. Paul Brewster, 4. Tom Brewster, 5. Marty McGrath, 6. Rory Gallagher, 7. Collie Curran, 8. Ryan McCluskey, 9. Raymond Gallagher, 10. Dominic Corrigan, 11. Seán Quigley, 12. Paddy McGuinness, 13. Jimmy Cleary, 14. Che Cullen, 15. Peter Greene, 16. Eamonn Maguire, 17. Ciarán Campbell, 18. Eoin Donnelly, 19. Pat McCann, 20. Mark Little
It was the only time in the last 50 years that Antrim football could boast of being ahead of Dublin, Tyrone, Armagh, Kildare, Donegal, Monaghan and 17 others while being equal with Kerry, Mayo, Meath, Cork, Sligo, Down. Only Offaly and Galway were ahead of them.
The eagerly anticipated announcement of the inaugural All Stars football team in 1971 brought great joy to Antrim when Andy McCallin was chosen at right full-forward. Nine counties were represented, led by All-Ireland finalists Offaly (4) and Galway (4) while seven counties had one each.
McCallin’s selection was a big boost for Antrim, who were doing reasonably well around that time. They reached the 1970 Ulster final – their last appearance until 2009 – losing to Derry, who also beat them in the 1971 Ulster championship.
McCallin’s wider exposure came in the Railway Cup where he won a title in 1971 in a full-forward line that also included Seán O’Neill (Down) and Gene Cusack (Cavan).
A dual star, who also played with the hurlers until the mid-1970s, his Antrim football career ended near the end of the decade when he moved to Limerick.
He made an impression there too, especially with the footballers.
McCallin also had one outing with Limerick hurlers, giving him the unusual distinction of having played both codes for two different counties.
The Belfast native remains Antrim’s only football All Star. Alternating between Divisions 3 and 4 and competing in a fiercely competitive Ulster championship presents few opportunities for their players to push past rivals from stronger counties who enjoy higher profiles.
Antrim have received just two All Star football nominations in the past 20 years, goalkeeper, Seán McGreevy (left) in 2000 and attacker, Michael McCann in 2009. They are ranked fourth and ninth respectively in our top 20.
Gerry McCann, who first came to prominence alongside his good friend McCallin in 1969 when Antrim won the All-Ireland U-21 title, takes second place, followed by John McKiernan, a powerhouse performer in the 1970s/80s.
Antrim: 1. Andy McCallin, 2. Gerry McCann, 3. John McKiernan, 4. Seán McGreevy, 5. Tony McAtamney, 6. JP O’Kane, 7. Paddy Cunningham, 8. John Burns, 9. Michael McCann, 10. Donal Laverty, 11. Seán Kelly, 12. Ciarán Hamill, 13. Kevin Madden, 14. Justin Crozier, 15. Aidan Hamill, 16. Kevin Niblock, 17. Jim McCorry, 18. Frank Fitzsimons, 19. Mickey Darragh, 20. Alex McQuillan