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Top Irish Defenders Of All Time – Where Does Richard Dunne Rank?

With Richard Dunne’s international retirement, we decided to rank the greatest Irish defenders of all time. Where does Dunne rank in our countdown?

Richard Dunne has decided to call time on his international career. Ireland will have to dig deep to find a replacement to fill the void that Dunne’s departure will create, not only physically, but also in terms of leadership.

Dunne has represented his country valiantly since the age of 15. He developed into a staple in the back four during the McCarthy, Kerr, Staunton and Trapattoni eras, but unfortunately Martin O’Neill will be without his services after the defender called time on his illustrious international career.

Dunne made his Irish first-team debut in 2000 and amassed 80 caps and 8 goals over a 15 year span. But where does he sit on the list of Ireland’s greatest defenders?

No.11 Ian Harte

Ian Harte is best remembered as one of the bright young talents that arose via the Leeds United youth acadamy and nearly made consecutive UEFA Cup and Champions League Cup Finals only to fall at the last hurdle on both occasions. Harte was gifted with one of the sweetest left foots in Irish history – and that is saying something considering Ireland has produced numerous left-footed talent.

With Harte in the squad Ireland had a constant threat from set-pieces. His delivery from set-plays and open-play inch-perfect nine times out of ten. Harte played for the Irish team 63 times over a 12-year period. Harte is 11th overall in record-goalscorers for Ireland, and is the second highest scoring defender (second to Noel Cantwell) having hit the back of the net for his country on 12 occasions.

Sadly for the Drogheda man he will forever be remembered as the man who missed the penatly against Spain in the Quarter-Finals of the 2002 World Cup.


No.10 John O’Shea

John O’Shea has been a man-mountain in defense for the Irish. Spending more than decade at Manchester United obviously helped his career blossom. However for his country his place in the team was also based on merit. He played a role on the right-side early in his career but came into his own when he moved into the centre of defense and was paired alongside Richard Dunne.

O’Shea and Dunne became an integral part of the back-four for the Boys in Green. O’Shea’s lack of natural pace was exposed when he was asked to perform full-back duties, but he was nifty enough to master the centre-back role. He will be expected to lead the back-four and fulfill the role that Dunne had undertaken. The Waterford man is only four international caps away from a century and needs just five more games to leapfrog Damien Duff and enter the top five most capped Irish players.


No.9 Noel Cantwell

Noel Cantwell has a goal to game ratio that is the envy of every Irish defender in history. The Corkonian scored 14 times in just 36 appearances for Ireland. The prolific goalscoring has Cantwell as high as seventh overall in the record-goalscoring list for the Republic.

Only Robbie Keane and Jimmy Dunne have better goal to game averages – although it must be noted that he was sometimes played up top as opposed to his more customary full-back role. Cantwell was one of the many Irish players to grace the hallowed turf at Old Trafford.


No. 8 Mick McCarthy

McCarthy was one of the first players to play for Ireland who was born outside of the country’s borders. Big Mick qualified to represent Ireland via his father’s ancestry. Although McCarthy was not born in Ireland, his displays for the national side were just as passionate as those of the thoroughbred national players.

McCarthy was an old-fashioned dogged English centre-half who controlled the back-four of the Irish national side. He earned the moniker of ‘Captain Fantastic’ for his take-no-prisoners style of play and for the vocal performances he put in for Ireland between 1984 and 1992.

He was at the heart of the defense during Ireland’s 1988 European Championship and 1990 World Cup campaigns. McCarthy epitomised the style of play and manner of footballer that then Ireland manager, Jack Charlton, was vying for.

Although he was a fearless defender, as a manger he seems to get scared easily:


No.7 Johnny Carey

Carey was very much like Cantwell – minus the occasional stint as a striker – except he did it a decade prior to Cantwell. Johnny Carey captained United to an FA Cup final victory 15 years prior to Cantwell performing the same duty. Carey made his Irish debut in 1937. Ten years later he was voted as the Football Writers’ Player of the Year.

Carey could have played more for Ireland if not for his services in the British Army during World War I. Carey also made nine appearances for the IFA – the equivalent of playing for Northern Ireland – in the midst of his tenure for the Republic national team. Carey historically captained Ireland to an incredible 2-0 victory over England in 1949.


No.6 Kevin Moran

Yet another Irish Red Devil. The Green Reds. as they have come to be labelled have made a substantial impact to the Irish back line. Moran embodied the old adage of players ‘going into battle’ when they graced the pitch. No player looked or felt more like a warrior than Kevin Moran.

His athletic ability was astonishing as he won two All-Ireland Finals with the Dublin football team in 1975 and ’77 while also winning two FA Cup medals with United. He was infamously the first person ever to be sent-off in an FA Cup final but it was his desire and determination to win every challenge and his unwillingness to accept defeat that made him such an exceptional defender.

Moran won 71 caps for Ireland and also chipped in with six goals. He is currently joint-15th – with Frank Stapleton – in all-time appearances for the Republic.

Here’s Moran displaying his versatility by lining out for Dublin GAA:


No.5 Richard Dunne

Richard Dunne was the foundation of the Irish defense for a decade and a half. He was instrumental at the back for Ireland during their 2002 World Cup campaign as well as the successful 2012 European Championship campaign – although the results at the actual tournament were less than desired all round.

Dunne gathered 80 caps over 15 years and was the focal point of the Irish defense alongside Steve Staunton, Kenny Cunningham, John O’Shea and more recent prospects such as Sean St Ledger. Dunne was strong and powerful. He was a constant threat from set-pieces and he dominated any balls that threatened the Irish backline from a height.

Injuries limited him later in his career and prevented him from getting closer to the 90 mark. Despite goalscoring not being his forte he still managed to get his international tally to eight before hanging up his Irish jersey.


No.4 David O’Leary

One of the most technically gifted players that Ireland produced, David O’Leary was a defensive genius. O’Leary didn’t have to break a sweat when playing for club or country as he never had to chase the ball. His vision and intelligence allowed him to see the game unfold and instead of making challenges he just made vital interceptions.

Unfortunately for O’Leary and Ireland he missed the 1988 European Championship due to injury – he also passed on some international friendlies opting to rest instead due to the high demand of playing for Arsenal.

That is why O’Leary’s total appearances are a mere 68 games as opposed to what it could, and very well should have been based on his talents. O’Leary will always be a cult hero to all Republic football fans after he converted the decisive penalty that ensured Ireland victory over Romania in the Last 16 of the 1990 World Cup.


No.3 Steve Staunton

Staunton didn’t make much of his time as manager of Ireland – but he performed when it counted as a player. Staunton was the first Irish player ever to reach 100 caps. He played in four of the five major competitions that Ireland reached.

Staunton is currently 4th overall in the all-time appearance list for the Republic having ended his 14-year stint as an Irish player with 102 games to his name and seven goals. Staunton began his career as a left-back but his composure, ability on the ball and natural leadership made his transition to centre-half inevitable once the gas in the tank began to run-low.

Staunton was a picture of consistency for Ireland at the back be it when he was a young buck as a full-back, or the silverback leading the pack in the centre.


No.2 Denis Irwin

Irwin was one of the most underappreciated full-backs in the world. Manchester United had the luxury of not having to worry about the left-back position for 12 years once he joined them from Oldham Athletic. Irwin was the complete full-back. He had perfect control and delivery from both left or right foot.

He played at right back for Ireland to accommodate Steve Staunton yet played left back for United to accommodate Paul Parker and later Gary Neville. Irwin was not flashy, he just did his job perfectly each and every game. He galloped up and down the flanks tearing up their pitch like a champion racehorse.

Irwin’s delivery was sensational – from either left or right. He was a set-piece specialist and took both free-kicks and penalties. He was a menace going forward but more importantly he was a great defender. Irwin only managed 56 appearances for the national team, but the Corkonian made a great impact despite only played for nine years.


No.1 Paul McGrath

Paul McGrath was undoubtedly the most talented defender ever to come out of Ireland – unfortunately for McGrath he suffered through painful off-the-field issues which derailed his career somewhat, as well as suffering from troublesome knees. McGrath had a commanding presence.

He was capable of taking the greatest striker and making his presence irrelevant. His vision was sublime. Despite constant trouble with injury and personal issues McGrath still managed to rack up 83 Irish caps, and sits inside the top ten all-time appearances list at number nine.

McGrath also hit the back of the net eight times for the Irish – which was helped by the fact that Jack Charlton sometimes opted to field McGrath in the middle of the park. The strength and determination McGrath showed wearing the green jersey was summed up perfectly by his performance against the Italians in the Quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup.

Craig Farrell, Pundit Arena.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.