The cream of Kilkenny's hurling forwards

Tommy Maher takes a look at the dangermen in the running for starting berths in his star team

Brian Keyes

Reporter:

Brian Keyes

Kilkenny GAA

KIlkenny hurling legend Henry Shefflin

Selecting forwards in particular positions tends to be trickier than selecting defenders.
Whereas many defenders would be associated with one or two positions, with forwards there tends to be much more interchanging of positions, both between and within games.
Many of our most famous forwards might typically spend periods in a single game in three, four or more positions. Ask a group of supporters to name DJ Carey’s, Henry Shefflin’s or TJ Reid’s best position and you will get several different answers for each of them.
Right Half Forward
In all, 23 players have lined out in All-Ireland finals in this position for Kilkenny over the past 60 years, from Denis Heaslip in 1963 to John Donnelly in 2019. Seven have been Hurlers of the Year (Seamus Cleere, Eddie Keher, DJ Carey, Henry Shefflin, Richie Hogan, TJ Reid and Michael Fennelly).
My nominations are: Mick Crotty, DJ Carey, Henry Shefflin, Eddie Brennan, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid.
I’m also going to exclude DJ Carey and Henry Shefflin for the same reason that I excluded JJ Delaney from full back – they could be, and have been, hugely effective in this position – but could be even more effective elsewhere on the forward line.
Richie Hogan started just one of his nine final starts in the No. 10 jersey, but since he started in five different positions, that’s not surprising. However, I just don’t see this as one of his natural positions.
That brings me down to my shortlist of three. Mick Crotty won four All-Ireland medals (three of them from this position), and one All-Star in the 70s. If great forward lines need both ‘piano movers and piano tuners’, Mick may have been known more for setting up opportunities for others than for his score-taking.
However, he did rack up quite a few scores, the most famous of which was his equalising point on the stroke of full time to draw the Leinster final of 1972. This helped a 14-man Kilkenny come back to earn a replay against Wexford and pave the way for a great All-Ireland final victory over Cork. It is often forgotten that Mick scored 1-3 that day.
Eddie Brennan made an exciting debut in the National League of 2000. He came on as a late sub in that year’s All-Ireland final and started his first final in 2002.
His pace that marked him out as special from the outset but he also had that predator’s instinct for sniffing a goal chance, allied to the ability to finish. More than half of his accumulated points total (141 points) came from his 26 goals.
The pinnacle of Eddie’s career was probably the 2007-2008 period, when he added a new dimension to his game – increased physicality. He scored 1-5 in the 2007 All-Ireland final in a Man of the Match performance and followed that up with 2-4 in the 2008 final, having scored 2-2 in the Leinster final. He was an All-Star in both of these years and Hurler of the Year nominee in 2008.
Much has been written about just how good TJ Reid is, but it can all be summed up in one word – skill. He has to be one of the most skilful players ever to grace a hurling field. TJ has lined out in an incredible six different positions in All-Ireland finals (including draws) so how do you assess his best position? I believe he is ideally suited for the No. 10 berth. A half forward because he is an outstanding fielder of a high ball (or a low one either), either catching it directly or using a deft touch to play it into his path.
If he gets possession, or finds a bit of space on that right wing and turns infield onto his left he can do no end of damage. He is such a clean striker of the ball off either side, as he showed with that goal just after half-time in the 2015 final, when he didn’t seem to have the room to even strike the ball but produced a pile-driver through three defenders.
Add in his low-trajectory free-taking, his sideline taking, his accurate and intelligent passing despite the close ‘attention’ he gets in every game and he has to be my selection at right half forward. I’d say TJ wouldn’t object to a little social distancing when hurling resumes!
Runner-Up: Eddie Brennan.
My selection: TJ Reid.

Centre Forward
Nineteen players, from Johnny McGovern to TJ Reid, have worn the No. 11 jersey in All-Ireland finals in the past 60 years.
This position has changed considerably in recent years, making comparisons between the modern player and the player of the Sixties problematic. The traditional centre forward would be expected to be able to win possession from high balls and turn to take on defenders; create breaking ball for other forwards and generally cause mayhem in the opposing half back line. However, the role of the modern centre forward varies from match to match and in response to opponents’ systems.
With TJ Reid already selected, my nominations are: Pat Delaney, Christy Heffernan, John Power (John Lockes), Henry Shefflin, Richie Power jnr and Richie Hogan.
Christy Heffernan had a great pair of hands and was very hard to stop. His most memorable moment was in the 1982 final when he scored two quickfire goals to turn that final on its head. He was playing at full forward that day but had a very good final at Number 11 when captain in 1991. It’s very seldom that a player is accused of not being selfish enough, but on that day he won great possession and laid it off to others when he might have finished some of the chances better himself.
John Power (John Lockes) was another centre forward in the traditional mode, whose tearaway style made him a great crowd favourite. He collected three All-Ireland medals and two All-Stars when starting finals at centre forward. His unfortunate injury in the 1991 final is another tale of what might have been on that particular day.
Richie Hogan is in contention for yet another position. He started just two of his nine finals at centre forward but would have had spells there in many games over the years. His ability to win aerial duels with far bigger opponents is impressive because logic would seem to dictate that the least suitable forward position for him should be centre forward.
Richie Power jnr won three of his six All-Ireland medals (as a starting player) and one of his All-Stars from the centre forward position. He must rank up there with the most skilful forwards Kilkenny has ever produced. His sweet striking off either side, his accuracy from distance, his clinical placing of the ball when creating or finishing goal chances were features of his play.
Among the many highlights of his career were two exceptional goals – one against Cork in the 2010 semi-final and a practically identical one against Tipperary in the 2014 replay. Most comment at the time was on the catches, but it was his body position which made these goals that bit special. We can only wonder what he might have achieved had he not been plagued by injury.
Pat Delaney was already 26 when he first lined out for Kilkenny in 1968. He burst onto the intercountry scene in the Leinster final of 1969 when he scored three goals to prevent Offaly (3-9 to 0-16) causing one of the greatest ever hurling upsets.
Pat was immensely strong and was almost impossible to stop once he got sight of goal. He scored 22 goals in 27 games for Kilkenny and won four All-Ireland medals and two All-Stars, all from centre forward. Pat had a very unusual striking style – right handed but with the left hand on top – and it probably made him more difficult to block or hook. He had an outstanding game in the 1972 All-Ireland final win over Cork and patented the ‘Delaney bounce’, as it was called.
Five of Henry Shefflin’s 13 starts (including draw) in All-Ireland finals have been at centre forward. There are so many aspects to his talent – skill, vision, strength (both of body and mind), determination, leadership, resilience and influence. I’m just going to cite one skill and one incident that I haven’t often seen mentioned - his ability to ghost, unobserved, into a wide open space.
For a big man, a marked man, to be able to do that so often from centre forward is remarkable. I presume it has something to do with the ability to think differently to everyone else around him.
The incident that I often recall occurred early in the 2000 All-Ireland final versus Offaly. Henry, still eligible for under-21 grade, was on free-taking duties. Every free taker or goal kicker in all codes wants the first free in big finals to be a nice handy steadier. But Henry’s first free on this occasion was on the 20-metre line, almost on the sideline under the Cusack Stand – the wrong side for a right hander, the worst possible location for your first free.
A group of us had pretty poor tickets that day, so the view we had of the free was the exact same view as Henry - and it wasn’t pretty. We were thinking that a miss here could dent the young lad’s confidence for the rest of the game.
As Henry lined up the free he had a look around, spotted Denis Byrne totally unmarked about 20 metres infield, took a quick free straight to Denis and Denis stuck it over the bar for an easy point.
At that moment I realised there was no need to worry about this young player’s confidence or temperament for the big occasion.
Runner-Up: Pat Delaney.
Selection: Henry Shefflin.
Left Half Forward
Since most players are right handed and good possession on the left wing presented the best angle (and no excuse) for a right hander to shoot, traditionally this was the favourite position of many forwards.
In the modern game, with the ball travelling much further, with scoring range extended much further out the field and with positions being much more fluid, these considerations don’t seem to form part of team selection deliberations anymore. I’m still ‘old school’, believing that, where possible, no defender’s instinct should be to turn infield to hit the ball and no forward’s instinct should take him towards the sideline or the corner flag to shoot.
If something is good for the forward it has to be bad for the back. It’s no coincidence that Fr Tommy Maher would have positioned Eddie Keher on the left side of the attack in seven All-Ireland finals.
The list of players (19) who have lined out in this position contains some interesting names, among them Claus Dunne, Kieran Brennan, Harry Ryan and Tommy Walsh.
My original nominations for left half forward were: Eddie Keher, Billy Fitzpatrick, Liam ‘Chunky’ O’Brien, DJ Carey, Eoin Larkin, Henry Shefflin and T.J Reid but with TJ and Henry already selected, that narrows the field a little.
Billy Fitzpatrick won two All-Irelands from wing forward in the Seventies but, at intercountry level, I will always associate him with the right corner forward berth in the Eighties.
Liam ‘Chunky’ O’Brien’s main claim for inclusion in this team rests at midfield; that was almost a toss-up between himself and Michael Fennelly.
DJ Carey is another all-time great and no Kilkenny team of the past 60 years would be worthy of the name without him.
Eoin Larkin has contributed so much to Kilkenny teams over the years, and a good portion of that from the wing forward position.
Larkin was often one of the unsung heroes of the Kilkenny team. To illustrate the point he has eight All-Ireland medals, but just two All-Stars.
However, from the moment I started out on this team selection the left half forward position was only ever going to one man - Eddie Keher.
The first All-Ireland final that I ever saw was the 1963 final between Kilkenny and Waterford. That was the day a young Keher, starting his first final (he came on as a sub in the 1959 replay) scored 14 points. They were all needed too, as Waterford banged in six goals and became only the second team in history to score six goals in the final and lose. (Limerick in 1910 were the first).
From that day to this Eddie Keher has been one of my all-time favourite hurlers. He had all the skills in the game, but if the going got tough that was no problem either.
Eddie was one of the best freetakers in the game and had a fantastic goal scoring record. It has been estimated that he scored over 100 league and championship goals. He won four All-Stars in a row from 1971 to 1975 and was Hurler of the Year in 1972. His championship scores for those years were: 4-43 (1971), 6-46 (1972), 0-21 (1973), 5-35 (1974) and 4-23 (1975). In the 1971 All-Ireland final he scored a massive 2-11 and still ended up on the losing side.
Runner-Up: Eoin Larkin.
Selection: Eddie Keher.
Right Full Forward
The traditional role of the corner forward, sometimes even at intercountry level, often involved exhortations to not let the ball go wide; not drive the ball wide on your own side; follow in every ball sent straight to the goalie and then - of course - to be first in line for the crooked finger when things were going wrong. How that has changed!
In all, 23 players, from Tom Walsh to Adrian Mullen, have lined out in finals in the No. 13 jersey over the past 60 years. Some illustrate clearly how corner forward position is now a key role for any team with serious ambitions.
As some of the more recent players like Walter Walsh, Ger Aylward and Adrian Mullen have plenty of time to enhance their reputation I have narrowed the nominations down to the following: Tom Walsh, Mick ‘Cloney’ Brennan, Billy Fitzpatrick, Eamonn Morrissey (St Martin’s), Eddie Brennan and Colin Fennelly.
Younger readers will not remember Tom Walsh, who emerged onto the senior intercountry scene in 1962, when still a minor. He scored two goals in the 1963 All-Ireland final when still only 19 and was an exciting prospect with his dash and skill. He suffered a tragic, career-ending injury towards the end of the 1967 final.
Eamon Morrissey (St Martin’s) was a strong forward, comfortable off both sides, who played with Kilkenny for six seasons before finishing his career in Dublin. Eamonn won two All-Irelands in 1992 and 1993 and was Kilkenny’s only All-Star in 1990. I will always remember him for that last minute point to rescue a draw in the 1993 Leinster final against Wexford.
Colin Fennelly is a tireless worker who covers a huge amount of ground. On his day, marking him can be almost impossible. He is at his most dangerous when he can run onto the ball at speed and take on opponents or when he is bringing others around him into the game.
However, my shortlist is Eddie Brennan, Mick ‘Cloney’ Brennan and Billy Fitzpatrick.
I have discussed Eddie Brennan’s qualities in relation to the wing forward position but Eddie was equally at home in the corner as when, in the 2008 All-Ireland final, he had a superb game scoring 2-4. He would undoubtedly have been in the running for the Man of the Match award for the second year in a row, were it not for the fact that they decided to give the award to Brian Cody in recognition of what the ultimate team performance.
Mick ‘Cloney’ Brennan was a forceful forward with a tremendous shot. He was always good for a couple of scores and, to say that he wasn’t daunted when the going got tough would be somewhat of an understatement. Mick won three All-Irelands and three All-Stars, the last of these in 1979 when he was Kilkenny’s top scorer in the championship with 2-12.
Billy Fitzpatrick was one of the most stylish forwards of the Seventies and Eighties. He was a lovely striker of the ball off either side and had a great body swerve that could leave defenders completely wrong-footed as he glided past.
Billy made his debut in 1973 and captained Kilkenny to All-Ireland glory in 1975 when still in the under-21 grade. He went on to win an under-21 All-Ireland a month later.
Billy’s greatest day in a Kilkenny jersey was undoubtedly the 1983 final, which was played in extremely windy conditions. That day he scored 0-10, including points from all angles, and beat at least three Cork defenders to set up Harry Ryan for another.
Just on the throw-in for the second half, he produced a neat flick to Christy Heffernan to start the move that ended with the Richie Power goal. That goal gave Kilkenny just enough daylight when facing into a gale force wind. It was an outstanding performance from an outstanding player.
You just have to admire pure natural talent like his.
Runner-Up: Mick ‘Cloney’ Brennan.
Selection: Billy Fitzpatrick.
Full Forward
What are the qualities that are needed to make a good full forward?
First and foremost, it’s the ability to score goals. If a full forward doesn’t regularly hit the net and doesn’t constantly carry a threat to score goals, or at the very least, set them up for others, he can’t really be considered as a top class full forward.
Nineteen players have worn the Number 14 jersey in All-Ireland finals in the past 60 years. All seven of my nominations meet the goal-scoring threat test, even if the goals they scored were very different from one player to another.
The seven are: Kieran Purcell, Christy Heffernan, Liam Fennelly, DJ Carey, Martin Comerford, Richie Power jnr and Colin Fennelly.
Christy Heffernan won two All-Irelands at full forward and won an All-Star in 1982.
I have already discussed Christy’s strengths as a centre forward but he was probably more effective at full forward. When he planted the two feet and put up that huge hand it was nigh on impossible to stop him catching the ball. There was no way through him and it was a long way around him.
I will be forever grateful to Christy for improving our view of the 1982 final. There was a Cork fan in front of us who was constantly jumping up and waving his arms about blocking the view of all behind him. Even a Kilkenny priest, with the business end of a large black umbrella, failed to dampen his enthusiasm. Then came Christy’s two goals, one after the other; our view improved considerably thereafter.
Liam Fennelly captained Kilkenny to two All-Ireland victories (1983 and 1992), collecting two different McCarthy Cups in the process. Many of those goals he scored could be classed as poacher’s goals, the most dispiriting of all scores to concede.
A good example was his goal in the 1983 final, when he changed the direction of a half-smothered Frank Cummins shot and diverted the sliotar to the net. The real skill in these goals is not the finish but in consistently getting into the position to avail of the chance on the odd occasion when it does materialise.
Martin Comerford won five All-Ireland medals as a member of the starting 15 and collected three All-Star awards. Undoubtedly his most memorable day was in the 2003 final, when he scored Kilkenny’s only goal to seal the victory. However, he had already scored four points, three of them from very acute angles and all of them crafted by himself with subtle skills and trickery, for which he didn’t always get the credit. He would probably have got just as much pleasure from his goal when introduced in the 2009 final, the score which ensured victory in that one also.
Colin Fennelly certainly meets the goal threat criterion. Look at the goals he scored in the quarter-final and semi-final in the 2019 championship. They are just two examples of how opponents recognise the threat if he gets possession and gets turned towards goal, there’s invariably one or two lugging out of him to try to halt his gallop. And, of course, as already discussed, he has a tremendous appetite for unselfish work.
Now to the shortlist.
When considering the centre forward position I discussed Richie Power jnr and his great hurling craft and hurling brain. Many of his best scores have been finished from the full forward berth. A fully fit Richie would grace any team in the number 14 jersey.
Kieran Purcell won three All-Ireland medals (1972, 1974 and 1975) and three All-Star awards (1973, 1974 and 1975) at full forward. He was a powerfully-built, fearless and deceptively fast forward who struck up a great partnership with Pat Delaney in that wonderful team of the early Seventies.
Purcell contributed a total of 4-18 in those championship successes but his contribution extended way beyond his scores as he frequently set up scoring opportunities for others and also drew frequent fouls when in possession.
He could not start the 1973 final as he was recovering from an appendicitis operation. He did come on as a sub but, brave as he was, he had not fully recovered and couldn’t make his usual contribution although he was still an All-Star recipient that year in recognition of his contribution throughout the championship.
As with Henry Shefflin, so much has been written and said about the hurling prowess of DJ Carey that I will not be able to add anything new to it.
Carey was simply one of the most gifted hurlers this county - or any other - has ever produced. Allied to all his other attributes he had lightning pace over the vital first few metres and he had a vicious shot. He also seemed to have some inbuilt instinct that meant his first thought was to seek out a goal chance every time he gained possession.
One small incident that illustrates two of DJ’s special skills: in the 1993 All-Ireland semi-final against Antrim PJ Delaney sent a low ball across the goal and the inrushing DJ pulled on it first time on his left hand side.
The ball rebounded off the crossbar but Carey showed lightning reflexes to double on the rebound and bury it. Marty Morrissey, in commentary, said the goalie hardly saw it. Marty didn’t see it too well either because he didn’t seem to realise that DJ had actually struck it twice!
And the second skill? PJ Delaney had received that ball via a handpass from DJ, a handpass that had travelled all of 25 metres.
Runner-Up: Kieran Purcell
Selection: DJ Carey.
Left Full Forward
Twenty-one players over the past 60 years have run out onto Croke Park on All-Ireland final day wearing Number 15. Excluding those players who have only had a year or two on the Kilkenny team and those already selected narrows the field considerably. I have selected five nominees, but I’m conscious that I am leaving out such fine players as Tommy Murphy, Matt Ruth and Charlie Carter.
The final five nominees are: Liam Fennelly, Eddie Brennan, Aidan Fogarty, Richie Hogan and Eoin Larkin.
Four of these five have been in the reckoning for other positions while Aidan Fogarty was the specialist corner forward.
Eddie Brennan wasn’t called ‘Fast Eddie’ for nothing. As already discussed, he also had that predator’s instinct for goal and his long career really blossomed in 2007 and 2008.
A fully fit Richie Hogan is every manager’s dream; he has the skill, versatility and the hurling brain to slot in anywhere from eight to 15 with equal effectiveness.
Liam Fennelly’s ratio of goals to points tells a lot about him. He always seemed to be thinking ahead and he consistently turned up when and where there was a half chance of a goal. He must have been a nightmare to mark because you couldn’t take your eye off him for a second.
For my final two I have narrowed it down to the specialist in the position, Aidan Fogarty and Eoin Larkin.
Aidan Fogarty lined out in six finals (including one drawn game) – all at left corner forward - and won four All-Ireland medals on the starting 15 and another four as a sub.
Fogarty was a bundle of energy on the field, and his pace, allied with his appetite for work, meant that his marker found himself covering nearly every blade of grass on the field. He chipped in regularly with goals and points. One of his best goals came in 2012 semi-final against Tipperary when he won a ball way out the field and scorched through the defence to score with a great shot.
However, his most important goal was in the 2006 final against Cork. It was Kilkenny’s only goal that day and it pretty much set up the victory that kicked off the four in a row. Fogarty scored 1-3 that day in a Man of the Match performance.
The Urlingford man had a unique grip on the hurl. I once made the observation to a knowledgeable Kilkenny hurling man that if someone had taken Aidan in hand when he was a juvenile hurler and got him to change to an orthodox grip he could have been even more effective. His answer was that if Aidan had an orthodox grip he might have been a lot easier to mark. A fair point, I suppose!
Eoin Larkin played in 12 All-Ireland finals in 11 years (eight wins, two draws, two losses) and was on the starting 15 for all 12 – what a record!
In 2008 he was named Hurler of the Year, scoring 1-4 in the final and a total of 2-13 for the championship. However, Larkin’s contribution extended way beyond his scores. While playing in the forwards he was one of Kilkenny’s best defenders because whenever opposition defenders were in possession he was chasing, hooking, blocking and making a nuisance of himself. How many scores did he prevent by not allowing defenders the luxury of picking their spot for clearances?
He was excellent at all the vital, but often unsung, work. It would be an interesting stat to compare the number of times he hooked or blocked players compared to the number of times he himself was hooked or blocked.
With that in mind, I just couldn’t leave Eoin Larkin off my team.
Runner-Up: Aidan Fogarty.
Selection: Eoin Larkin.