And now to the midfielders, where versaility, strength and class combined.
Midfield No. 8
The role of the midfielder has certainly changed over the years, but some things remain constant. There is plenty of thankless work involved and, with defenders increasingly playing the ball out of defence, the game can pass midfielders by, quite literally sometimes. If a player is assigned particular marking or covering duties he can find himself in areas of the field where he doesn’t really want to be. An effective midfielder needs a good engine, high levels of concentration and the ability to adapt to different roles over the course of the game.
Of the players who have lined out at number eight some, such as Pat Lawlor, Joe Hennessy (perhaps) and Peter Barry would be better known as defenders, while others, such as Richie Power, T.J. Reid and Richie Hogan would be more accustomed to forward roles.
An additional complication in selecting two midfielders is that, in real life, a team would need two players who complemented each other, rather than two players with similar qualities and style. Most successful midfield partnerships have had a kind of ‘good cop, bad cop’ profile with a stylish player and a strong enforcer. However, for this exercise I am just concerned with selecting individual players.
It was very difficult to narrow down the list and I ended up with seven players.
Paddy Moran joined the Kilkenny senior team in 1961. He was a constant at midfield throughout the 60s and won All-Ireland medals in 1963 and 1967. He added two more subsequently as a sub. An interesting observation about Paddy is that I remember some of the older generation observing that Paddy Moran was the luckiest man ever to step up to a long range free. Apparently more goals were scored from his lobbed-in frees than from anyone else’s.
Joe Hennessy, as already discussed, was an outstanding hurler. Although I believe his best position was at wing back, his midfield partnership with Frank Cummins was a perfect combination.
Michael Phelan was another powerful midfield figure who picked up two All-Ireland medals and an All-Star award in the early 90s and then soldiered manfully during the lean years of the mid-90s.
How do you compare Richie Hogan as a midfielder with, say Paddy Moran? Paddy was always selected in the same position while, Richie has lined out in five different positions in finals alone, and has played in several other positions in the course of games. Richie is so versatile it almost works against him and sometimes his positional selections or positional switches during games could be seen as fire-fighting duties.
In my synopsis, I narrowed it down to three - Derek Lyng, Liam ‘Chunky’ O’Brien and Michael Fennelly.
Derek Lyng doesn’t always get the recognition he deserves for his contribution to the Kilkenny cause from 2002 to 2010. He was the ultimate team player, always in the thick of the action, whether it was breaking up attacks at one end or setting up attacks at the other. He was usually good for a score or two in a game but he made a bigger contribution in setting up possession and scoring chances for all those great finishers around him.
In the end, though, the decision has to be between Liam ‘Chunky O’Brien and Michael Fennelly, both multiple All-Ireland winners, both multiple All-Star winners and both Hurler of the Year award winners. Can you imagine the two of them in their prime playing alongside each other? Their styles were so different but so effective in their own way. One simple contrast is to picture each of them on a solo run.
Chunky might be heading into open space with the ball seemingly glued to the hurl and sometimes seemingly a mile out in front of him but always under control. Michael would be more likely ploughing through the centre and scattering defenders.
In the end I gave the nod to Michael Fennelly but I could be easily enough persuaded to change my mind.
Runner Up: Liam ‘Chunky’ O'Brien.
Selection: Michael Fennelly.
Midfield No. 9
The list of players who have lined out in the second midfield position includes a similar mixture of career midfielders and converted defenders or forwards. Some players have a strong preference for one side or the other; for others it’s just a number on the jersey; they may have a preference of one opponent over the other or they may be under orders to take up a particular player.
I have narrowed the list down to these six players: John Teehan, Frank Cummins, Bill Hennessy, James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick, Michael Rice and Richie Hogan (again).
John Teehan was a strong, honest, hard-working midfielder who struck up a very effective partnership with Paddy Moran when he switched there from the half forward line. He won a National League medal in 1966 and an All-Ireland medal in 1967 when Kilkenny finally defeated Tipperary in a final. He probably had a few more good years left when he retired from intercountry hurling at the end of 1967, well before his thirtieth birthday.
Bill Hennessy lined out in his first final, in 1991, at corner back and then moved to midfield where he formed a formidable partnership with Michael Phelan for the 1992-1993 double and went on to captain Kilkenny to a National League title in 1995. One of my great memories of Bill is for his role in what I consider to be one of the greatest Kilkenny points I have ever seen scored. It was in the Leinster Final of 1993. Kilkenny had made a comeback to get within a point of Wexford but time was running out and two titles were on the line. The point was crafted up the left wing: Simpson to Hennessy, to Ronan, to Morrissey and over the bar. The double dream was still alive!
The statistics that show Michael Rice starting two All-Ireland Finals and winning two All-Star awards do not do justice to the contribution he made to the Kilkenny cause over a full decade on the panel. He was a forceful midfielder who was a great creator of space and scoring opportunities for colleagues with his intelligent use of the ball.
He took some time to establish himself and then, when he had become an integral part of the team, he was forced to contend with some long-term, serious injuries.
The final three players I settled on for this position are Frank Cummins, James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick and Richie Hogan.
James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick showed huge promise from an early age and was promoted to the senior panel when not long out of minor grade. He came from the underage ranks with a big reputation, having won two minor All-Ireland titles and two under-21 All-Ireland titles. By the time he collected his second under-21 medal, in 2006, he had already won the first of three senior All-Ireland medals on the field of play and the first of three All-Star awards. He would later be named the Young Hurler of the Year.
He had the honour of captaining Kilkenny for the three-in-a-row in 2008 and that was the pinnacle of his career. Cha’s game was based, not on athleticism or physical power, but on his innate hurling skill, astute reading of the game, ability to create space and accurate finishing. In hindsight, it was probably inevitable that his natural talent would be overtaken by players with the physical attributes and temperament for the training regime and Spartan lifestyle required in the modern game.
In the end the decision comes down to a choice between Richie Hogan and Frank Cummins.
Richie Hogan lined out in midfield in four of his nine final starts (including two drawn finals) and in three of the six forward positions in his other five starts.
Richie arrived into the senior ranks with a big reputation arising from his exploits in the underage ranks. His score of 1-10 in a man-of-the-match performance in the 2009 League Final established him at senior level. Richie has every skill in the game and when you add in strength, courage, determination and a bit of steel, that’s a powerful cocktail. Despite recurring injury problems Richie has provided us with many memorable performances in big games and many examples of individual brilliance. A few instances that come to mind are: the brilliant finish against Tipperary in the 2011 final following an Eddie Brennan solo run; the great goal just before half time against Limerick in the 2014 semi-final and the point he scored, while falling over in the 2016 semi-final replay in Thurles.
Frank Cummins had an illustrious career spanning 18 years. He won seven All-Ireland medals on the field of play, all in the same position and was named Hurler of the Year in 1983, at the age of thirty-five, when most players would have already retired. Frank was a natural ciotóg and was probably the physically strongest hurler that I have ever seen. I remember one colleague describing a collision with him in training as “… like getting hit by a sack of chisels”.
But Frank didn’t go out to ostentatiously show off his strength; at times it appeared as if he didn’t realise his own strength as he barrelled through players. My standout memory of Frank was the goal he scored in the second half of the outstanding 1972 All-Ireland final against Cork. That day Kilkenny came back from eight points down with twenty minutes to go, to win by seven. Frank won possession in midfield, soloed through the centre of the Cork defence with the ball hopping on the hurl and blasted the ball to the net from the ‘21’, as it was then. Frank’s goal levelled the match and Kilkenny kicked on to win by seven points in the end.
Richie Hogan could be a very effective midfield player and could switch to any of the six forward positions and perform equally well in a way that Frank Cummins, (or any other player for that matter,) probably never could. But Frank achieved more at midfield than Richie (or any other player for that matter) and that’s what’s being judged here.
Runner Up: Richie Hogan.
Selection: Frank Cummins.