THE game of Gaelic football changes, but one constant remains: the importance of having a pair of dominant midfielders.
And while the game has evolved from the catch-and-kick approach of many decades ago to retention of possession at all costs now, successful teams always have a common thread: a couple of strong, powerful, athletic, and skilful players in the numbers eight and nine jerseys, as well as one or two in reserve. Without them, your chances of lifting silverware are pretty slim.
The sport has produced some great midfielders in the past 50 years: Mick O’Connell, Jack O’Shea, and Darragh O’Shea, from Kerry; Dublin’s Brian Mullins, Ciaran Whelan, Brian Fenton, and Brian Howard; Meath’s Liam Hayes, and Tyrone’s Sean Cavanagh are just some who spring to mind from outside the Rebel county.
The first Cork pairing to help bring home the Sam Maguire Cup since 1970 was the Millstreet and St Nick’s duo of Dinny Long and Denis Coughlan, respectively, in ’73.
They blended well, both comfortable in possession and more than capable of landing important scores.
Long kicked three points in the All-Ireland final win over Galway and, the year before, Cork would have been in right trouble but for Coughlan’s 0-5 in the 2-8 to 0-9 Munster semi-final victory over Waterford. Long was twice honoured with an All-Star, first in ’73, when he partnered John O’Keeffe, and then two years later, alongside Down’s Colm McAlarney. At that stage, Long was playing his club football with Austin Stacks, in Tralee.
In 1976, Cork had their second midfield All-Star, in Dave McCarthy, who was selected with Mullins. Long and Clonakilty’s McCarthy were the lone Cork midfield All-Stars in the 1970s, when Christy Ryan, from St Finbarr’s, West Cork’s Bernie O’Neill and Donal Hunt, Glanworth’s John Courtney, and Vincent Coakley, from Aghinagh, also figured in the red jersey.
Cork had to wait 12 years for their next midfield honour and, like the bus, two more came in the following seasons. The decade began with Tom Creedon (Macroom), who was just as influential in defence, and Castlehaven’s Christy Collins manning the roles, with Dominic Creedon (Iveleary) also in the frame.
But, it wasn’t until Shea Fahey’s arrival from Kildare, together with the emergence of Danny Culloty, Teddy McCarthy, Paddy Hayes, and Barry Coffey, that Cork became a major force once again. The great team of the late 1980s, culminating in back-to-back All-Irelands in ’89 and 1990, was driven on by Fahy and McCarthy, in particular. Even though Cork lost the 1988 final to Meath, Fahy was worthy of inclusion in the All-Stars, alongside Hayes.
Victory the following season, against Mayo, yielded a well-deserved All-Star for McCarthy, partnering Mayo’s Willie Joe McPadden.
And in 1990, Fahy picked up his second statuette, for coaxing 14-man Cork over the line against Meath. Leitrim’s Mickey Quinn was the other player honoured.
Culloty, from Newmarket, played an important role in Cork’s midfield at that time, whether from the start or as an impact substitute.
The decade was also noteworthy for Colman Corrigan and Larry Tompkins sampling action in the middle of the pitch, before diverting in opposite directions across the half-way line, where they were even more effective. It was another 16 years before the next Cork midfielder walked up to receive his award on All-Star night: Nicholas Murphy, from Carrigaline, in 2006. Cork appeared in two All-Ireland finals in the 1990s, losing to Derry in ’93 and Meath six years later. Murphy partnered Micheal ‘Haulie’ O’Sullivan, from Carbery Rangers, in the ’99 decider, while Liam Honohan, Pat Hegarty, and Damien O’Neill also played midfield.
Only one more Cork midfielder since Murphy has won a place in the All-Star 15, Kanturk’s Aidan Walsh, who collected silverware in 2010 and 2012, in the company of Paddy Keenan, from Louth, and Neil Gallagher, from Donegal.
The noughties introduced Aghada’s Pearse O’Neill and Alan O’Connor, from junior club St Colum’s, in West Cork and they, along with Walsh, provided a winning platform around the middle. They were hugely influential in the 2010 All-Ireland triumph against Down, winning an amount of ball from ’keeper Alan Quirke’s restarts and were strong and powerful on the ball. O’Neill was nominally picked at centre-forward, a position in which he was honoured with an All-Star in 2009, but his presence more than supplemented O’Connor and Walsh in Cork’s conquering of the skies.
The versatility of Graham Canty and Derek Kavanagh also reflected the requirement of players to be able to slot into a number of positions, like in defence as well as midfield.
Macroom’s Fintan Goold was another who could line up at midfield or in the half-forward line, like Ruairí Deane nowadays, while current captain, Ian Maguire, is a genuine leader from midfield.
It will be two from Long, Fahy, Walsh, Dave, and Teddy McCarthy, Murphy, Culloty, and O’Neill.
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