What Defines A Cult Hero? Here Are Five Of Gaelic Football’s Best

The term cult hero gets banded about a lot but what does it really mean?

A quick google search describes the noun as “a writer, musician, artist, or another public figure who is greatly admired by a relatively small audience or is influential despite limited commercial success.”

It reads like an insult, however, the term is very broad in its nature and has been used to describe all types of characters in various different realms and is, more often than not, viewed as a compliment.

When the question came last week to pick a top five of Gaelic football’s cult-heroes, small audiences and limited success weren’t traits that were taken into consideration.

Instead of that were feelings of trying to mimic them in the back garden, cheering their name the loudest when watching and admiration for how they were a bit different from the rest. When their name is mentioned, memories of childhood come flooding back, fill you with joy and put a smile on your face.

With that in mind, for me, the term cult-hero describes somebody who is admired by all, possesses great skill, gets the crowd off their feet and is generally worth the entrance fee alone.

Here are five of the best.

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Vinnie Murphy

Dublin forward Vinnie Murphy had far from limited success. The first act of his ten-year Dublin career saw him collect four Leinster medals, an All-Star award and play in three All-Ireland finals, winning one in 1995. In the 1992 All-Ireland final, the full-forward was triple-marked by Donegal and famously, still won 19 possessions in the game.

Unfortunately, Murphy fell out of favour following a change of management in 1996 and fell off the inter-county scene. The following years saw Murphy spend time in Tralee where he played club football with Kerins O’Rahillys. The former All-Star spoke to Pundit Arena last year where he recounted how his time in Kerry renewed his passion for Gaelic football. A passion that was ultimately enough to earn him a return to the Dublin setup at 30.

Murphy returned to the setup with cult-status and although he wasn’t the player of old, he was used as a highly effective impact sub who brought the crowd to its feet when he entered the fray charging like a bull into the opposition full-back. Murphy readily admits he was once embarrassed by the crowd chanting ‘Vinnie’s gonna get ya’ in those latter years but the man himself knows it came from a place of admiration that Dublin fans, and the rest of us, had for him.

“It embarrassed me at the time but I still thought I was an elite footballer and still thought I was better. In reality, I knew exactly where I was but I’m going to have a go. I’m not going to let a team just run over me, I’m going to have a go back and I think the Dublin fans seen that. They saw a lot of themselves in me which is great.”

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Shane Curran

There’s a lot expected of goalkeepers in the modern game. They’re expected to kick it long, kick it short and in some cases, kick it over the bar. They modern-day goalkeeper is seen as a fly-keeper with the tactic being hailed as revolutionary to Gaelic football. The only problem with that argument is that Shane Curran was doing it for Roscommon as far back as the late nineties.

Known to many as ‘Cake’, the Roscommon man made his senior debut playing in the forwards, however, after a stint playing between the goals for Athlone Town in the League of Ireland, he returned to the Roscommon side a goalkeeper towards the turn of the century. Cake became famous throughout Ireland for his marauding runs up the field, his sensational shot-stopping and ability to kick long-range frees.

In Curran’s day, however, he was seen as a maverick rather than a revolutionary.

“Well, it’s funny, in my day I was seen as a maverick and a mad man for coming out of goal and taking frees,” Curran told Pundit Arena.

Forever the maverick, speaking to this writer earlier, Cake described the return of the fly-keeper as making goalkeeping “sexy” again. “I think it’s great to see that, I really do, in terms of making the position sexy for clubs. Clubs have been struggling for a long, long time to get goalkeepers and it’s a big problem in ladies GAA as well. It’s now becoming really sexy to play in goal and I think that’s a good thing.”

You can read part one of our two-part feature with Shane Curran here.

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Ciaran McDonald

One of the best footballers ever, that much can’t be denied. Ciaran McDonald defined the previously used term, ‘worth the entrance fee alone’ throughout a glittering career with Mayo and his native Crossmolina.

McDonald actually made his Mayo senior debut in trying circumstances as he came on as a sub in their ill-fated 1994 Connacht final defeat to Leitrim. He would then miss Mayo’s return to the big time as he opted to spend the summer abroad in 1996 when Mayo lost an All-Ireland final replay to Meath which is mostly remembered for its infamous brawl.

The bleach-blonde McDonald returned in 1997 when Mayo again reached the final, however, despite scoring a second-half penalty, he couldn’t help his side over the line against Kerry. McDonald would lead Crossmolina to an All-Ireland club title in 2001 before guiding Mayo back to deciders in 2004 and 2006. Unfortunately, Kerry would defeat them on both occasions but McDonald could hold his head high having achieved almost ‘god-like’ status throughout the country for his iconic performances during the early part of the century.

With the hair long and blonde, socks pulled up to the knees coupled with ability and flair that made him the most recognisable player on the pitch, what made McDonald a cult hero was the complete contrast in personality off it. He wowed spectators on the field but shunned the limelight that inevitably followed. It wasn’t until a rare appearance on Second Captains back in 2015 that most of us heard him speak for the first time.

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Francie Bellew

Without a doubt, one of the most underrated defenders to play Gaelic football. If you hail from Down or Tyrone, you probably disagree with that statement, as you probably disliked Francie Bellew. If you were from Armagh, it was simple, you loved him. Like McDonald, a person who shunned the limelight, however, unlike McDonald, Bellew’s game wasn’t based on flair but rather his physical presence.

The Crossmaglen man was an old-school full-back in a modern era, the likes of which was rarely seen since the days of Mick Lyons in the eighties or Kieran McKeever in the nineties. It wasn’t just the spotlight that Bellew ignored as the story goes that he refused to play for Armagh until club mate Joe Kernan came on board in 2002 when Bellew was 26.

Up until then, he was happy out playing a pivotal role in Crossmaglen’s club football dominance, however, the teak-tough defender would go on to win an All-Ireland, five Ulster titles, a National League medal and an All-Star with Armagh. It comes as no surprise that his debut year coincided with Armagh’s only All-Ireland win.

He received unfair criticism in certain quarters, but on reflection, many recognise the man for what he was, a fine footballer and a winner.

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Geoffrey McGonagle

Loved by all in Ulster, especially his native Derry, Geoffrey McGonagle was a larger than life character known for his bustling full-forward style and ability to turn on sixpence despite possessing a body-type that didn’t necessarily lend itself to speed. What was particularly special about the Dungiven man is that he was a dual-sport cult-hero winning Ulster championships with Derry in both football and hurling.

Deceptively quick with top-level ability, McGonagle was aptly described by club and county teammate Joe Brolly as “a spectator sport in himself, delighting us and the crowds with his touch and audacity. For such a big chap, he has incredible coordination and hand speed.” Brolly also said that many times over their 14 years playing together, he could only marvel at McGonagle’s “wizardry”.

The full-forward just missed out on Derry’s golden season in 1993, making his debut with the senior team a year later winning back-to-back National League’s in 1996 and 1997 before setting up Brolly for a famous goal in the 1998 Ulster championship final, Derry’s last provincial title win.

In hurling, Derry may not be considered near the top-level, however, it’s important to note, the side was much stronger during McGonagle’s career. In the early 2000s, he picked up two Ulster championship medals with the Oak Leaf county, scoring 1-8 in the 2001 final win over Antrim.

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Author: Michael Corry

Sports Journalist born in Armagh, based in Dublin. Interested in feature writing and listening to unique, engaging stories. Up for the craic too. Email: michael@punditarena.com Twitter: @MickCorryPA Instagram: @Corry_10 View all posts by Michael Corry