Best players of 21st century never to win an All-Ireland

All are big names and great stars of modern game but they retired from football without the rewards their talent deserved at top level

by Liam Kelly

Croke Park, the third Sunday in September, the clamour of the crowd, the acclaim of the supporters, the speech as the captain accepts the Sam Maguire Cup from the president of the GAA and raises it high in the air.

You’re a winner, your county are champions, the All-Ireland title win goes down in history for as long as the game is played.

This is the image that fuels the spark of motivation of budding young players. They want to ‘be’ Colm Cooper, or Bernard Brogan or Michael Murphy in their pick-up games.

They want to be winners like these heroes, they want to know the feeling that goes with success in an All-Ireland-winning team.

It has ever been thus, and it always will. Many, of course, dream the dream.

Precious few get to live it, and in these modern times of unreal levels of dedication, you have to wonder if the strongest counties will continue to dominate at the highest level, particularly with the ‘back door’ allowing a second chance if one of the big sides has a mishap and comes a cropper at provincial level.

Since the dawn of the 21st century, the championship has been played in 15 seasons. Kerry have brought the Sam Maguire back to the Kingdom on six occasions since 2000, including the most recent campaign.

Mickey Harte’s Tyrone took the trophy to the opposite end of the country three times during that period.

The Dubs have won twice, and captains of Galway, Armagh, Cork and Donegal took the walk of glory up the hallowed steps of the Hogan Stand to the winners’ podium once each.

Seven counties, seven sets of football panellists, in 15 seasons, leaving 25 counties on the outside looking in. And in those counties were players who, but for an accident of birth, would have been good enough to win an All-Ireland, and there are some who many football followers would feel deserved a winner’s medal.

We hear plenty about the dedication of the footballers who become national icons and who are feted as heroes of the game.

Lip service is often paid to those who ply their footballing trade in counties which are never going to enjoy the strength in depth or level of overall talent to allow them reach the pinnacle.

But in every county, there are players who shine a light, guys who earn the respect of opponents and supporters for their star quality, footballers who, if the GAA had a transfer system, would be snapped up by the bigger teams.

There is recognition for a good number of them via the All Stars, and selection on inter-provincial teams which is something highly prized by many players, even if the former Railway Cup series is pushed into a backwater.

The pros and cons of the Compromise Rules have given rise to some heated debate, particularly in recent weeks, but again, the international matches with Australia provide opportunities for footballers from ‘non-winning’ counties to sample the big time atmosphere.


The reality is that only one team can win the championship each year and it’s fair to say that the worth of a player cannot, and should not, be measured solely by whether he has an All-Ireland winner’s medal on the mantelpiece.

Indeed, the sheer weight of statistics dictate that there are many more players who end their career without a Gold Cross than otherwise.

Benny Coulter’s recently announced retirement prompted a reminder of players who have graced the playing pitches of the GAA, including Croke Park, and who never got their hands on the Sam Maguire Cup.

Coulter and his Down team-mates came close by reaching the 2010 final via the qualifiers only to fall at the last hurdle to a Cork team which had threatened a breakthrough and eventually made it that year.

Coulter gave it all he had for 15 years and leaves us with many great memories, as do so many other players who no longer perform at county level.

In honour of at least some of those retired players who were good enough to win an All-Ireland but were not fortunate enough to do so, we have put together a selection which reminds us of some illustrious talent of the last 15 seasons.


Brendan McVeigh (Down)

In goals, there are strong claims for stalwart shot-stoppers such as Gary Connaughton of Westmeath. Connaughton won his Leinster medal with the Lake County and had all the dependability and agility you could wish for in a ‘keeper. That said, McVeigh of Down just shades the verdict, as he could match most, if not all, goalies in the country in the basics, and tested his mettle on the big stage of an All-Ireland final.


Sean marty lockhart (Derry)

Strong, tough, resilient, a player that forwards knew would make life difficult for them, Lockhart served the Oak Leafer so well and for so long – winning an All Star in 1998. Mention must also go to John Keane of Westmeath, one of only three Lake County players to get an All Star award.


Barry Owens (Fermanagh)

Not many people knew he had serious heart surgery as a 13-year-old and that he had a further heart operation in later life. Owens also had to deal with bad ‘ordinary’ injuries but defied all odds to become a talisman for his county and won two All Star awards.


Joe Higgins (Laois)

Defenders don’t command the glamour or the attention lavished on forwards, but Higgins was appreciated by aficionados for his tenacious and precise tackling and top-quality defending. Played on the International Rules team and got an All Star in 2003.


Aaron Kernan (Armagh)

His recent announcement of his retirement from inter-county football was greeted with much surprise. Intelligent and adaptable to the demands of the modern game, he did his defensive work but always offered a threat going forward at the right time.


Glenn Ryan (Kildare)

One of the great centre-backs, Ryan was an inspirational defender and leader with Kildare. Teak-tough, dedicated and physically very strong, he never let the Lilywhites down.


Kevin Cassidy (Donegal)

Cassidy will always be remembered for that iconic point that edged Donegal home against Kildare in extra-time of the 2011 quarter-final but the infamous fall-out of his contribution to Declan Bogue’s ‘This is Our Year’ book cost a fine footballer his shot at glory the following year.


Dermot Earley (Kildare)

At age 20 Earley lined out at wing-forward in the Sam Maguire Cup decider of 1998. The Sarsfields powerhouse must have thought the chance would come again but fate decreed otherwise. He went on to become one of the outstanding midfielders of his generation. Tall, mobile, strong, he became a mainstay for the Lilywhites.


Ciaran Whelan (Dublin)

‘Whelo’ would be in any team of great players who have never won the All-Ireland. Dynamic, strong in possession and very good going forward, time just ran out for a player who was inspirational and a real driving force for the Dubs. Six Leinster medals and two All Stars are his career highlights. Unfortunate that he came on the scene in 1996 and retired in ’09.


Johnny Doyle (Kildare)

Free-taker par excellence, but also a clever, hard-working forward who got even better as he got older. Deserves his place of honour in the Kildare football story.


Eamonn O’Hara (Sligo)

Played on the Sligo senior team for 19 years. Equally at home at half-back, midfield or forwards, O’Hara is justifiably rated as one of the best players to represent his county, and would have got a place in any county team in the country.


Dessie Dolan (Westmeath)

His football skills, his will o’ the wisp movement, his consistency over such a long period and ability to find space, plus his scoring rate ensure that Dolan ranks among the finest forwards ever to play the game.


Declan Browne (Tipperary)

A premier player for the Premier County, Browne was widely recognised as one of the most stylish and effective forwards in football. Possessed a magical array of skills which earned two All Stars that were fully deserved.


MattY Forde (Wexford)

Prolific with either foot, Forde was a joy to behold with ball in hand, and was the first name on any Wexford manager’s team-sheet. The Model County teams that he played on gave the Dubs some torrid times in Leinster but could not make that big breakthrough.


Benny Coulter (Down)

And this is where we started, with Coulter’s retirement. A top-class forward, Coulter gave his all for Down during a career lasting 15 years. Never won an Ulster medal and rounded off his inter-county career with regrets about that 2010 missed opportunity for the Mourne men


Goalkeeper: Gary Connaughton (Westmeath)

Defenders: John Keane (Westmeath), Anthony Rainbow (Kildare), Aaron Hoey (Louth), Brian Lacey (Kildare)

Midfielders: Paddy Keenan (Louth), Enda Muldoon (Derry)

Forwards: Paddy Bradley (Derry), Ciaran McDonald (Mayo), Trevor Mortimer (Mayo), Danny Hughes (Down)

Indo Sport


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