That 50 year team - great players prompted chat, great arguments

Picking the best 15 players on any team is a great pastime, but it can also generate plenty of argument and debate. Everyone has a view on who was the best player in a particular position.

Picking the best 15 players on any team is a great pastime, but it can also generate plenty of argument and debate. Everyone has a view on who was the best player in a particular position.

In many respects selecting players over a long period is a futile exercise as training regimes, facilities and equipment changed quite dramatically over the years. The Irish Independent recently published a special supplement in which it selected the best 15 hurlers and footballers from most counties over the past 50 years.

It made for compelling reading, but the arguments about the merits or otherwise of the selected players continued long after the teams were published. It is easy in many ways for this writer to comment on the credentials of the players during the past 50 years having played (with and against) selected, managed and watched many of them during that time. 

The chosen Kilkenny 15 was always going to generate most interest in this neck of the woods. From a selection perspective the Kilkenny All-Ireland winning side of 1963 was the first to come under the spotlight.

It was also my first All-Ireland final to attend. If the occasion passed very quickly, that can perhaps be blamed on the excitement of a 10-year-old making his first visit to Croke Park.

Close links

My delight at seeing Kilkenny winning the final is not forgotten, nor is the close links I would have, on and off the pitch, with many of the players in later years. The selectors had a tough task picking the goalkeeper, but it is hard to argue against their selection of Noel Skehan.

Apart from his shot-stopping ability, which was quite extraordinary at times, his ability to organise his defence was crucial in foiling many an attack. Ollie Walsh and James McGarry were the other stand-out goalkeepers during the period, but Skehan had all the attributes to deservedly earn the nod.

Picking the full-back line was not easy. Phil ‘Fan’ Larkin, Brian Cody and Jackie Tyrell were (still are in the case of Jackie) brilliant hurlers, but this is the one line where I take a different view than the selectors. Michael Kavanagh, with eight All-Ireland medals, would be an automatic choice in most teams, but he narrowly missed out to ‘Fan’.

This is the one selection on the full-back line with which I agree. I sat 10 feet away from The Village man in 1963 as he endured a torrid time against an all-action Waterford full forward line. Sixteen years later we shared the same pitch in an All-Ireland final.

Only exceptional hurlers have such longevity and ‘Fan’ Larkin was one such hurler.

Handled them all

Larkin revelled in every challenge and the bigger they came (including the size of his direct opponent) the greater the performance the James Stephens man delivered. Some may say that ‘Fan’ might have had a problem in the current era. 

Don’t believe that for one minute. Whatever the time, conditions or opponent ‘Fan’ would have handled them all with commitment, tenacity and ferocious enthusiasm which were his hallmarks.

I cannot imagine any Kilkenny selection of the past 50 years not including the great Noel Hickey at full-back. Like Michael Kavanagh, he too has eight All-Ireland medals, and he has been the stand-out full back over the past five decades.

Brian Cody was a worthy contender, as was Pat Dwyer, but Hickey’s claim has more merits given his longer period in the position plus his teak-tough and dependable hurling.

My choice at left corner back is Willie O’Connor, a player with boundless energy and a tenacious marker. Jackie Tyrell continues to deliver superb performances, but for all-round leadership and inspiration to his colleagues I give the nod to the Glenmore man.

The half back line was an easy selection with Tommy Walsh and J.J. Delaney of the current era joining Ger Henderson from the 70’s and 80’s. The two wing-backs would be automatic choices on the overall team of the period, so their selection was automatic.

Ger Henderson’s brother Pat was his closest challenger for the centre half back position. Having played beside Ger for many years I can testify that he was a player of incredible courage and bravery, who on many occasions almost single-handedly hauled Kilkenny back from the jaws of defeat.

I have no quibble with the selection of Frank Cummins and Joe Hennessy at midfield, although Liam O’Brien would in my view have been close to selection. Cummins was the best midfielder of the period, while Joe Hennessy’s astute reading of the game and his probing runs into opponents defence paid rich dividends. 

Massive player

Cummins was a colossus of a player, who mixed his physicality with a smart hurling brain. Michael Fennelly, we hope, has many more years to give Kilkenny. If he maintains his current progress his name will certainly come on to the selectors radar when the next great Kilkenny team is picked.

The half forward line sums up everything that is exciting about Kilkenny hurling. All three players, D.J. Carey, Henry Shefflin and Eddie Keher would be automatic choices on the greatest ever team. How fortunate we are to have lived to see their exploits adorn GAA pitches!

The real question, though, is the order in which one would place the three players. Of course it is another futile argument, but it would keep a group of hurling enthusiasts up all night arguing the merits of three extraordinary talents. 

I have no issue with the full-forward line either. Eddie Brennan was the greatest goal scorer in hurling for well over a decade. His sniping runs tore defences to shreds on many occasions and his goals were hugely instrumental in guiding Kilkenny to many a successes.

Kieran Purcell’s ability to gain possession and either score himself or lay the ball off to a colleague was his trademark. Direct opponents took no prisoners in the 70’s. Purcell was well able to mix it with the toughest and this made him a particular favourite with supporters.

Any player who captains his county twice during the period is worthy of selection, but Liam Fennelly is chosen for far more than that. His leadership ability was unquestionable, but so too was his eye for goal and he raised many a crucial green flag for the Cats.

His style of play made him a difficult opponent to mark as he revelled in low deliveries from defenders or midfielders. Others who had strong claims in the forward line were Pat Delaney, Richie Power (of the current and 70’s/80’s vintage), Billy Fitzpatrick, John Power and Eoin Larkin.

The reality is that many players other than those mentioned were worthy of being selected. What the list does show is the extraordinarily talented hurlers this county has produced.

Memories to cherish

To have been in the midst of all those players, both on and off the pitch, for much of that period is an honour this writer cherishes. While the selection of the Kilkenny team drew most interest, some of the other county selections are also worthy of a few comments.

Offaly’s first golden period came in the 80’s and their selection is not surprisingly dominated by players from that period. I felt Pat Fleury deserved selection at corner-back, while John Troy was a brilliant play-maker at centre-forward from a later era.

Most of the Tipperary selection came from the county’s golden period in the 60’s and 70’s. That was no surprise. Many were men of awesome strength, but with plenty of hurling skill also. 

The non-selection of Pat Fox and John Leahy was a surprise. There can sometimes be a tendency to over-do the reminiscing of past glories and perhaps the two players I have just mentioned lost out for this reason.

I concur with most of the Waterford selection, but the omission of Philly Grimes, Larry Guinan and Martin Óg Morrissey from the great team of the early 60’s was a surprise.

The Galway selection was mostly along expected lines, but in my view it omitted the one player whose fearless style and teak-toughness was key to many of the Tribesmen’s successes. Brendan Lynskey was not the most stylish player to wear the maroon, but when you wanted someone to stand up and be counted, Lynskey was the man.

Oh how they would love to have a player of his stature right now!

Dominated

The selection of the Wexford team was not particularly difficult with players from the All-Ireland successes of the 60’s and 70’s. Lack of national success makes the selection of the Dublin team non-controversial. Not surprisingly three players from the current side are selected.

Like Kilkenny, the selection of Cork’s best 15 was a tough task. Brian Murphy and John Horgan were genuine contenders for a defensive role, while Gerald McCarthy, Tim Crowley and Tomas Mulcahy must all have been close to selection in attack.

The Clare selection is dominated by the double All-Ireland winning side of the 90’s, while the Limerick, Laois and Antrim selections were along expected lines.

The selectors set themselves a difficult challenge, but they did a decent job with the various selections. The arguments will go on and on, of course, and why not because selections by the hurlers on the ditch is part and parcel of Gaelic games.