John Duggan
John Duggan

12.58 11 Sep 2019


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Welcome to John Duggan's Six of the Best, where I pick six things about a sport, personality or moment that we love. This week: Gaelic Football. 

What images does the sport of Gaelic Football conjure to me? The size of the Sam Maguire Cup. A game with a true 32 county interest. Dublin heartbreak and now dominance. The beauty of Kerry football. Tough Northern teams. Watching dour Meath v Cork games as a youngster. Micko. Sean Boylan. Barney Rock's frees, which became Dean Rock's frees. Darragh Ó'Sé's salmon leaps. Clare in 1992. The agony of the Mayo supporters. The misfortune of Limerick and Fermanagh. The perennial debate about 'the future' of the game. Black cards. Páidí. And great matches, yes, great matches.

When at its zenith, Gaelic Football can be a great sport to watch, to attend, to cheer on. Yes, there can be the turgid 'pulling and dragging' affairs, the muck and mud in winter, the blanket defences. However, I have witnessed enough fine contests and rivalries in my 40 years to know that it can be right up there with the best of sport when circumstances allow. Saturday's replay between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park will be the 19th final I will have attended, let alone provincial games. A lucky son of a gun.

It's been a quiet build up to the replay, where history will be made, remember. It's such a huge deal and it will only dawn on us again closer to throw in. So let's ignite some debate by discussing the best six Gaelic Football matches one has seen. Here are mine. Quality is an important factor in my judgement, but the context and significance of a game also carries weight. I am sure you have favourites of your own. I would love to hear them on Twitter @offtheball or @johnduggansport

In descending order:

6. Kerry 2-15 v Tyrone 1-10, 1986 All Ireland final 

I was in the baby steps phase of being a sports fan, and caught the last hurrah of this great Kerry team as a 7 year old. This was the only time I remember seeing them play live. There appeared to be a tremendous atmosphere at Croke Park via the small television screen in our living room. Tyrone rattled the green and gold, with Paudge Quinn's goal putting them six points up early in the second half. Then Kevin McCabe skied a penalty and Kerry came with one last flurry, like an ageing boxer using muscle memory. Pat Spillane and Mikey Sheehy would finish with 1-4 apiece, but it was the end of an era. It was Mick O'Dwyer's eighth and last All Ireland victory as manager. The Kingdom wouldn't appear in another final for 11 years.

5. Meath 2-10 v Dublin 0-15, 1991 Leinster first round 

Italia 90 had soccer owning the Irish sporting conversation and the GAA needed something. Gaelic Football gave them it, with the never to be forgotten or repeated four game saga involving Meath and Dublin in 1991. As a young person who was an obsessive Dublin fan at the time, it was very hard to take. Dublin should have won the first three games, which all ended in draws, the second and third ties after extra time. In the fourth game, played on a Saturday on the 6th July, Dublin were cruising, absolutely cruising. I remember thinking at home that evil Meath were finally to be banished. Dublin were six points ahead in the second half. Keith Barr then missed a penalty. The cushion was three late on when Meath scored a brilliant team goal, Kevin Foley crashing the ball to the net. Then from the restart, David Beggy kicked the ball over the bar. It was a horror movie in real time. Nightmare on Elm Street. I wanted the ground to swallow me up whole. What is inarguable though, is that the saga and the conclusion were of Hollywood proportions. It's worth checking out Mícheál Ó'Muircheartaigh's closing radio commentary below. It's the best piece of sports commentary I have ever heard.

4. Down 1-14 v Derry 1-12, 1994 Ulster quarter final 

Ulster teams ruled the early 1990's. Down in 1991, Donegal in 1992, Derry in 1993 and Down again in 1994 all won the Sam Maguire Cup. It's unlikely that Armagh and Tyrone would have tasted maiden success a decade later had other breakthroughs not been made. Of the trio of winners in the early 1990's, Down had the heritage, rooted in their great teams of the 1960's. They had also been knocked out of Ulster by Derry in 1992 and 1993, the latter result a humilation in Newry. Derry welcomed Pete McGrath's side to Celtic Park in May 1994 as All Ireland champions. In a ding dong classic, Ciaran McCabe's late goal proved crucial, but it was the unicorn forward play of Mickey Linden that stood out. It was a performance of wizardry, which would make you understand after watching it why you were dizzy. This to me at the time was the epitome of shoot out football, with no second chances. We need more games for players now in a far more professional environment, but it has taken the edge out of it, All Ireland finals aside.

3. Dublin 3-18 v Kerry 3-11, 2013 All Ireland semi final 

Stephen Cluxton's winning point in 2011 made Croke Park shake. I could feel it. It ended Dublin's wait of 16 years for the holy grail, and Kerry were the victims. When they next met in the Championship, in 2013, it was Jim Gavin's first season in charge. The Kingdom were coming to throw the kitchen sink at the Dubs and in ways, this classic set the tone for the rest of the decade, which will come to a tremendous conclusion this Saturday. This game of six years ago was a tribute to the 1977 match between the teams at the same stage of the competition. Colm Cooper played like a puppeteer, pulling the strings as Kerry hit three goals inside the first 20 minutes. It was end to end, it was breathtaking the whole way, Dublin see sawing on top in the third quarter. Kerry led by a point with three minutes to go, but Dublin's signature in the Gavin era has been their devastating scoring bursts. Kevin McManamon and Eoghan O'Gara found the net in garbage time and Kerry, after a brilliant performance, were on the canvas.

2. Tyrone 1-16 v Kerry 2-10, 2005 All Ireland final  

Who were the team of the noughties, the first decade of the new millennium? Kerry won 5 All Ireland titles, Tyrone 3. I would argue Tyrone, for the fact that in each of their All Ireland wins, they had Kerry's number. I felt both counties were around their peak in 2005 and it was a tremendous spectacle. Peter Canavan slipped in for a goal just before half time and it turned the tide Tyrone's way. Mickey Harte had his team engineered to the height of their powers and Stephen O'Neill kicked the Red Hand County into a five point second half lead. Tomás Ó'Sé then surged up the field to goal and reduce the gap to one and it was back in the melting pot. I was watching from a decent vantage point behind the Canal End goal and I just remember the Tyrone players coming in waves, time after time. I thought of them as helicopters. Wing back Philip Jordan kicked a late point right in front of me and it was just unstoppable momentum from Tyrone, their day of days, their platinum album.

1. Dublin 1-17 v Mayo 1-16, 2017 All Ireland final  

Mayo have lost nine All Ireland finals since 1951. When Lee Keegan rifled the football to the net in the second half of the 2017 final, I sensed it might be Mayo's day. It certainly felt like it to the passionate green and red clad fans around me in the Lower Cusack Stand. I remember despondently discussing Ireland's rugby defeat to New Zealand in 2013 with a friend and he had a different view. He greatly admired New Zealand's ability to win the match like champions, to make no mistakes at the death, to take their chance. Mayo had Dublin in real trouble in this final. The Cluxton kick-outs malfunctioned and Mayo's press was working. They were on top in the middle third. However, the Western side suffered by slim margins; Donal Vaughan being sent off by retaliating at John Small, who was getting the line anyway. Cillian O'Connor hitting a free off the post which would have put Mayo ahead going into stoppage time. I don't think Mayo lost it though. Dublin won it. Diarmuid Connolly and James McCarthy were sensational in the second half. Dublin played the ball out of defence and under that pressure in the last 10 minutes, I don't remember them making any mistakes. The free came six minutes into injury time and right in my eye-line, Dean Rock sent it over. If Dublin win the five-in-a-row and create history on Saturday, then this will be the moment, in the fulcrum of the run, when it was clinched. The Mayo people around me were disraught at the end of the game, in tears. Who could blame them? It was there for them and it slipped away. I was a Dublin fanatic in the early 1990's. That waned when I became a journalist and it waned as I didn't like the vibe of Dublin teams in the noughties. Pat Gilroy and then Jim Gavin brought a certain culture of humility back into Dublin football and the results are in black and white. 2017 was the moment I fell in love again with Dublin, but I can also judge the game on its merits. Mayo played their unique part, as they have done so many times, but there can only be one champion. It's why it's the best match I have ever seen. Over to you...


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