What classifies you as being a Gaelic football hard man?
The most obvious specification is the ability to handle one’s self in a tough situation, whether that’s through the football or the fists is often debatable.
When tasked with choosing a select XV of Gaelic football’s hardest players of the 21st century, while the execution of their craft is paramount, the mystique they created must be taken into account.
Here is our hardman Xv of the 21st century.
1 – Gary Connaughton (Westmeath)
The goalkeeper’s position was a tough one to fill but we’ve opted for 2008 All-Star goalkeeper Gary Connaughton. First of all, an excellent shot-stopper with a boot on him that would have sent Bishop Brennan across the Irish Sea. Never afraid to call out his defence, Connaughton always had a look in his eye that ensured you didn’t want to mess with him.
2 – Ryan McMenamin (Tyrone)
Arguably the best cornerback of the last 20 years. Ricey was as tight and as tough as defenders come, a nightmare for any inside forward, the Dromore man could also get up the field to kick points if needed. Infamous for a few unsavoury antics on the pitch, McMenamin was as hard as they come, don’t let that take away from his football ability though, he did win three All-Ireland titles and should have more than just the solitary All-Star award.
3 – Neil McGee (Donegal)
An old wives tale was doing the rounds a few years back that Neil McGee and his brother Eamon once got into an argy-bargy with two MMA fighters outside a Donegal bar and came out victorious. Whether that is true or not is up for debate, however, the fact that the story spread throughout the country tells you all you need to know about the Gaoth Dobhair man. The three-time All-Star is as tough as they get.
4 – Francie Bellew (Armagh)
Speaking on the GAA Hour last week, Peter Canavan highlighted Francie Bellew as one player he admired from Tyrone’s rivalry with Armagh because ‘you knew exactly where you stood with Francie, you knew that he was trying to break you in two every time you got the ball but he never opened his mouth and he was a cult-hero with Armagh supporters.’ Bellew simply has to be on this list.
5 – Noel O’Leary (Cork)
The Cork team of the noughties were a huge outfit boasting big men such as Graham Canty, Michael Shields and Pearse O’Neill, however, Noel O’Leary was the Rebel county’s enforcer.
Sometimes strayed over the edge but O’Leary did it all in the pursuit of victory and was justly rewarded with an All-Ireland medal in 2010, a year he should have got an All-Star for his final performance alone on Marty Clarke. O’Leary’s battles with Paul Galvin to this day are the stuff of legendary.
6 – Kieran McGeeney (Armagh)
An icon of the GAA, McGeeney embodied everything that was good about Armagh in the early 2000s leading them to multiple honours over a ten-year period. McGeeney was as tough and uncompromising as they get. Commanding the ship from centre-half but was equally adept at snuffing out key forwards. A brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under John Kavanagh, Geezer is not someone you want to meet in a dark alley.
7 – Vinny Corey (Monaghan)
The recently-retired Monaghan stalwart is as hard as they come. Simple as that! A late addition to this team but should have been one of the first names down.
8 – Gary Brennan (Clare)
An absolute man-mountain, in another era or another county, Gary Brennan would have accolades falling off the mantelpiece. One of the game’s best midfielders Brennan is uncompromising and unforgiving in his pursuit of excellence. With an exception made to their 1992 Munster title victory, the previous decade was Clare football’s most successful ever and Brennan was to the forefront of that.
9 – Fergal Doherty (Derry)
Throughout the 2000s, the Derry midfielder was one of the top midfielder in Ireland but also one of the toughest. Known for being able to curl an opponent into a ball with one of his famous shoulder tackles. Highly regarded for his high-fielding skills and work-rate, Doherty’s ability to win breaking ball and read the game was impressive. He was also one of the hardest men about.
10 – Diarmuid Connolly (Dublin)
A contentious decision. Connolly has been on the receiving end of some rough treatment in the past from defenders, however, while his discipline is often called into question, however, he’s been sent-off just twice in his Dublin career with both red cards eventually rescinded. Whether you agree with his selection or like the man for that matter, Connolly can give as good as he gets and he gets it quite often from some of the hardest players around.
11 – Michael Murphy (Donegal)
An old friend once described shaking Michael Murphy’s hand post-game as one of the weirdest experiences of his life. While patting the Donegal legend on the back following a McLarnon Cup semi-final defeat, the said player entered the dressing room exclaiming ‘that fella has muscles in places I didn’t know existed.’ Murphy was 16 at the time. The best players often come in for the roughest of treatment. Murphy takes it all in his stride and is still the toughest player in Ireland to keep quiet.
12 – Diarmuid Marsden (Armagh)
Stories of Diarmuid Marsden’s antics inside the tackling grid have become folklore in Armagh. You know that drill where two players get in the middle of a square with four at each corner while they fight for footballs? Yeah, that one we all hate. Despite playing between the half-forward and full-forward lines, the barrel-chested Marsden was known as the one player on that hardy Armagh side who you didn’t want to be in there with. Says it all really.
13 – Peter Canavan (Tyrone)
As the old adage goes, t’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog. Peter Canavan is widely held up as one of the greatest inside forwards to ever play Gaelic football. However, what often goes unsaid is how much of a hardy buck the Tyrone legend was. If you need any proof, just YouTube the legendary matches with Australia as part of Ireland’s International Rules side. A man who never took a backwards step.
14 – Eoghan O’Gara (Dublin)
Would run through a wall for Dublin if you asked him to do it. O’Gara may not have been as silky as some of the legendary forwards we’ve seen don the sky blue jersey over the last 20 years but he brought something different. A huge presence at full-forward, O’Gara emptied the tank (and a few players) every time he took to the field.
15 – Mickey Burke (Meath)
You don’t get the nickname ‘Honeybadger‘ for being soft!
A veteran of the inter-county scene, Mickey Burke had thrown his lot in with the Meath hurlers this season following 15 years with the footballers. Wasn’t on this team, to begin with (an oversight we fully accept) but Burke is one of the hardest and toughest players in Gaelic games and apparently has the biggest arms in the game, so they say.
However, despite his physical attributes and hardman nature, the real reason Burke slots into this team is his ability to do a stellar job on every line of the pitch. We could leave him in the full-forward line but he could also be used as an extra defender, a third midfielder or a roaming half-forward.
Mickey ‘Honeybadger’ Burke. Hard as nails.