Cork football dream team 1970-2020: Great defenders vying for six positions

Cork football dream team 1970-2020: Great defenders vying for six positions
Ciaran O'Sullivan of Cork in action against Anthony Rainbow, left, and Martin Ryan of Kildare during the National Football League Semi-Final between Cork and Kildare at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

THERE was a time, believe it or not, that defenders had just one basic chore.

It was to prevent, by any manner of means, their direct opponent from scoring or exerting any kind of influence on the game.

Those of us of a certain vintage will have blurred images of the infamous ‘third-man-tackle’, now, thankfully, long removed from the sport.

Basically, a player could prevent an opponent from challenging for the ball by shouldering him out of the way, regardless of whether he had possession or not.

One of its principles was to protect goalkeepers, who were considered fair-game under a high dropping ball.

The bulls-eye for forwards was to bury keeper and ball in the back of the net in one fell swoop.

At times it was like the Wild West, forwards risking strangulation or worse for trying to get near the ball and/or the keeper.

Defenders adapted a take-no-prisoner approach and there were bodies everywhere. Referees just shrugged their shoulders.

Cork's Colman Corrigan in action against Galway. All-Ireland Football semi-final, Galway v Cork, Croke Park. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Cork's Colman Corrigan in action against Galway. All-Ireland Football semi-final, Galway v Cork, Croke Park. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Cork’s four All-Ireland triumphs in the past 50 years came, when Gaelic football was starting to evolve from route one through the various eras of greater sophistication and tactical appreciation.

Attempting to marry all those styles in selecting the six best defenders in that time is just one of the many headaches, as is squaring the circle of some 19 All Stars.

Take the 1973 All-Ireland winning team as an example.

They had Frank Cogan, Humphrey Kelleher and Brian Murphy generally in the full-back line with Kevin Jer O’Sullivan, John Coleman and Connie Hartnett outside them.

There was no messing around with the three lads in front of ’keeper Billy Morgan. Anyone scoring off this trio had to earn it.

And the half-back line had that fine measure of durability, hard-tackling and speed, too, but the common dominator among the six was that they were all talented footballers, too.

Fast forward to the 1987-mid 90s era and look at the calibre of defender available then.

Cork's Tony Davis in action against Meath's Mattie McCabe. All-Ireland Football Final, Meath v Cork, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Cork's Tony Davis in action against Meath's Mattie McCabe. All-Ireland Football Final, Meath v Cork, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Niall Cahalane, Colman Corrigan, Denis Walsh, Anthony Davis, Conor Counihan, Tony Nation shored up the rearguard in 1988.

The following season Jimmy Kerrigan, Steven O’Brien and Mick Slocum added more quality and selection issues for management.

Flexibility and versatility were fast becoming important aspects of the game, players filling a variety of roles even within particular ties to cater for the demands of the occasion.

Yet, some were nailed-on in their positions, like Counihan, who was centre-back in the successive All-Irelands in 89 and 1990.

But, then a player like O’Brien could have been handed any jersey from number two to seven and wouldn’t be uncomfortable in any of them.

The 1990s didn’t provide Cork with too many football highlights, save for losing All-Ireland finals in ’93 and ’99. Still, there were some outstanding defenders like Ciarán O’Sullivan, Mark O’Connor, Brian Corcoran, Anthony Lynch, Eoin Sexton, Ronan McCarthy and Martin Cronin.

Cork footballer Anthony Lynch gets away from Brendan O'Brien and Dessie Farrell, in the 1999 league final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Cork footballer Anthony Lynch gets away from Brendan O'Brien and Dessie Farrell, in the 1999 league final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

It wasn’t until the late noughties that the county re-emerged as a major force once again under the influence of defenders such as Graham Canty, Michael Shields, Noel O’Leary, John Miskella and Paudie Kissane, among others.

They were central figures in the 2010 capture of the Sam Maguire Cup, the most recent of Cork’s All-Ireland successes.

Canty, Shields and Kissane were the last Cork defenders to earn places on an All-Star selection that season. Only two players have followed suit since, neither were defenders, however, Aidan Walsh at midfield and Colm O’Neill up front in the 2012 team.

The role of the modern defender has changed utterly since the time of Cogan and company.

Now it’s not uncommon to see corner-backs whizzing up the pitch not only to be part of an attack, but to supply scores, as well.

Old school defenders can only look on and ‘tut, tut’, chipping in with the standard ‘they wouldn’t have been allowed to do that in our day’ or words to that effect.

Their mantra was defend first and let the ball off to others to help work it up the pitch, hopefully leading to a score at the other end.

So that’s part of the problem-solving issues when it comes to mixing the different generations and styles of playing in formulating a best 15.

Kerry's Peter Crowley and Michael Shields of Cork. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Kerry's Peter Crowley and Michael Shields of Cork. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

The defenders will be selected from the following grouping with All-Star representation in brackets.

Graham Canty (3), Steven O’Brien (3); Brian Murphy (2), Kevin Kehilly (2), Kevin Jer O’Sullivan (2), Colman Corrigan (2), Niall Cahalane (2), Michael Shields (2), Conor Counihan (2), Anthony Lynch (2); Frank Cogan (1), John Evans (1), Tony Davis (1), Jimmy Kerrigan (1), Mick Slocum (1), Mark O’Connor (1), Ciarán O’Sullivan (1), John Miskella (1), Paudie Kissane (1).

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