Article originally published September 29, 2019.
The decade belongs to the Dubs. That much cannot be disputed.
A team that was once viewed as a band of also-rans are now running away with it and show no signs of stopping after seven All-Ireland titles in ten seasons.
We aren’t going to discuss the ins and outs of “financial doping” in this column. Whether or not there is an underlying systemic culture of favouring Dublin, it doesn’t mask the fact that the players – some of whom experienced the lowest of the lows when it comes to Dublin football – have done a tireless amount of unseen work to get them to where they are today.
Most importantly, their history-making five-in-a-row and how they (the players & management) have gone about it has changed the narrative around what would otherwise be viewed as a pretty dismal decade for Gaelic football.
Return of the Prodigal Son
“Boring” and “blanket” have probably been the two most used words when talking about the sport since Cork finally fell over the line against Down after a previous decade filled with harrowing defeats.
The return of the prodigal son, Martin Clarke, inspired Down to an unexpected All-Ireland final that year. In a run that saw them extend their undefeated championship record over Kerry, Down defeated Kildare in a classic semi-final that nobody wished to see a loser in. As opposed to Cork and Dublin, where everyone would have been happy had both lost.
Down’s win over Kildare is particularly memorable for Benny Coulter’s controversial goal, followed by more late drama. Robert Kelly cannoned the final kick of the game off the crossbar in a last-gasp attempt for the Lilywhites, only to be denied by the fingertips of Callum King.
In that other semi-final, Bernard Brogan put on one of the great Croke Park (arguably his greatest) performances hitting 1-6 from play in a defeat to Cork. It was a game that saw Cork snatch the most unlikeliest of victories. Dublin had led the Rebels for 70 minutes before faltering at the last thanks to some erratic final quarter defending.
Cork defeated Down to give a band of Rebel men and highly coveted All-Ireland that many of their efforts had richly deserved. It was also the county’s first success in 20 years. So, that alone adds to any occasion.
A Rivalry Renewed
2011 saw the renewal of an age-old rivalry when Dublin met Kerry for the first time in an All-Ireland final since 1985. With Dublin returning to Gaelic football’s showpiece event following 16 barren years, you couldn’t rule them out.
Kerry, however, were fancied by many. Just two years prior Gooch and company had annihilated and embarrassed Pat Gilroy’s self-expressed “startled earwigs” in an All-Ireland quarter-final that, for some reason, stunned a nation.
The year will forever be remembered for the final seven minutes of that decider. Kevin McManamon’s goal shook Croke Park before Stephen Cluxton’s final minute free set Jones’ Road ablaze of blue and navy as the famine was finally over.
Jimmy’s Winning Matches
The emergence of Jim McGuinness’ Donegal in 2011 set-up a show-stealing 2012 where the Donegal messiah was treated like a leper in many corners of the country for perceived negative tactics.
The story of how McGuinness took a band of misfits – known for being able to navigate their way around a pint – all the way to the top created an almost mythical-like figure out of a man once viewed as their hippy midfielder.
The McGee brothers and Papa Durcan marshalled the back-line. Karl Lacey repeatedly broke forward to release long diagonal balls into a rampant Michael Murphy who, alongside Colm McFadden and a teenage Paddy McBrearty, tore defences asunder.
Meanwhile, Mark McHugh reinvented the sweeper role to an extent that only his brother Ryan has been able to replicate in recent times.
Despite the narrative that followed, the men from the Hills won their All-Ireland in style. They played a brand of football that ought to be described as ‘total GAA’, rather than derided as some sort of plague that blighted the evolution of our great game.
McGuinness’ run would see Donegal reach the All-Ireland final twice in three years. Sandwiched in between, however, was the arrival of one Jim Gavin who won the first of his six All-Ireland’s playing a swashbuckling style of football that defied logic for its approach to all-out attack.
Dublin’s run to the 2013 All-Ireland title wielded 13 goals. But it was far from easy, as Jim Gavin’s men were pushed all the way in an epic clash with Cork, before an All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry widely viewed as one of the greatest games of all time. Brogan then hit 2-3 in a memorable All-Ireland final as the Dubs sought revenge from a Mayo side that had brought an end to their reign a year previously.
It was the second phase in a rivalry that defined the decade in many ways.
McGuinness and Tir Chonaill would pump the breaks in 2014 with one of the all-time great sporting ambushes when they repeatedly punched holes in the Dublin defence en route to halt their bid for back-to-back titles. One of the most memorable days of the decade that has only become more and more mystical in the subsequent years given the monster that was created.
2014 will be remembered for Kieran Donaghy’s end of season revival. The supposedly washed-up ‘Star’ came out of the wilderness in the All-Ireland semi-final to sink Mayo after a replay. He then netted in that final victory over Donegal to give the Kingdom their only All-Ireland this decade. Well, Joe Brolly what do you think of that?
From then on, the latter half of the decade saw the Dubs blaze a trail through the entire country. It’s true, Leinster has become non-existent and the Dubs don’t necessarily need to peak until late August. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been pushed to the pin of their collars.
Throughout the entirety of this ten-year spell, one side has continually dined at the top table. The one problem is that they’ve never drunk from the silver bowl itself. This legendary Mayo side have been an ever-present since 2011. They’ve made the last four every season since, barring 2018, and have appeared in four finals – five if you include the 2016 replay.
Mayo have been the second-best team of the decade and still not claimed the top prize. In a history as “cursed” as their’s, that must be a particularly hard pill to swallow. But Mayo have given fans some memorable days for all the right reasons, thanks to some of the greatest footballers of a generation.
The narrative that this was a boring decade for Gaelic football may not be so true. History will focus on Dublin’s achievements and rightly so but from Robert Kelly’s last-gasp cannon in 2010, to Eoin Murchan’s rifle in 2019, there have been many memorable moments, matches and men that have given fans plenty to shout about as a new era begins.
Gaelic Football Team of the Decade (2010-2019)
1. Stephen Cluxton
Player of the decade. Plain and simple.
2. Philly McMahon
An ever-present in Dublin sides until this season. Marked the likes of Gooch Cooper and Aidan O’Shea out of it on All-Ireland final day.
3. Jonny Cooper
An undisputed leader who is often under-appreciated outside the confines of Dublin GAA. Namechecked by Brian Fenton earlier this week in the Irish Times as Dublin’s standard-bearer alongside Cluxton and Gavin, enough said.
4. Keith Higgins
Arguably the best cornerback of the last 20 years. Voted Young Footballer of the Year in 2006 and is still going today. A Rolls Royce of a defender who is equally adept heading up the field.
5. Lee Keegan
Mayo’s go-to man throughout the past ten years. If they need a man-marking job done, they call Keegan. And, barring this year’s All-Ireland semi-final, he has come up trumps repeatedly. Scores goals and points going forward and quite often important scores when Mayo needed them most.
6. Karl Lacey
Finished his playing career as Donegal’s most decorated footballer and finished the decade on their coaching staff. A four-time All-Star and Footballer of the Year in 2012, Donegal would not have won an All-Ireland without the services of Karl Lacey.
7. Jack McCaffrey
A swashbuckling wing-back who has provided memorable moments from the get-go. Announced his arrival with one of the goals of the year against Cork in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final. Most recently remembered as the man who scored 1-3 from half-back in 2019’s drawn final. With a Footballer of the Year and five All-Ireland medals squeezed in there, it’s scary to think there’s more to come.
8. Brian Fenton
Five seasons on the Dublin team has hailed five All-Ireland titles and a Footballer of the Year award. Yet to taste defeat in the Championship. He is en route to becoming one of the greatest midfielders ever.
9. Aidan O’Shea
The heartbeat of what is recognised as one of the great Mayo sides and indeed one of the great Gaelic football sides. Has wreaked havoc all over the field and even done his stint at full-back. Around the midfield though, O’Shea is a horse of a player who always leaves it out there when playing for Mayo.
10. Ciarán Kilkenny
The epitome of a modern-day half-forward. The decade started with wing-forwards being known more for their defensive work. Kilkenny has combined that with a red-hot scoring streak that saw him finish 2018 as the highest scorer from play. Dublin’s Mr Reliable.
11. Alan Brogan
One of the best ever. Finished his career on a high with three All-Ireland titles after years of hurt with Dublin. A free-scoring forward who became the game’s best playmaker. 2011 Footballer of the Year and all-round icon.
12. Diarmuid Connolly
The most talented player of his generation. An enigma who attracted headlines, sometimes for the wrong reasons. Despite missing 2018 and most of 2017, it’s impossible to talk about this decade and not have Diarmuid Connolly at the forefront of your mind.
13. Andy Moran
A Footballer of the Year winner at 33. Like a fine wine, Moran seemed to get better with age. Central to the colour and excitement that Mayo provided over the previous 10 years.
14. Michael Murphy
The beating heart of a Donegal side that was transformed from underachievers to the most successful side in Ulster. Captained them to Sam Maguire at just 22 years old after scoring one of the great All-Ireland final goals. Still one of the country’s finest.
15. Bernard Brogan
Like his brother (and father before them), will go down as an icon of Dublin GAA. His performances in 2010 saw him out on his own as Footballer of the Year. Incredible to think that all his success with Dublin followed that individual honour. The 2013 final will always be remembered as the Bernard Brogan final.