In light of another Dublin victory in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, their fourth since 2011, it is time for an update to this article which I published back in July 2015. I have retained the majority of the original article with a few small alterations here and there; most notably the addition of this current Dublin team into the mix. As such, that means one team leaves the fore and takes their place among the notable mentions (bye bye Cavan).
Sport is one of the few aspects of life where winners are clearly defined. In film, literature and other fields, competition doesn’t exist naturally but is artificially promoted. Regardless of who wins an Oscar or the Man Booker Prize, there will always be disagreement on the merits of the winner. Sport does not have such a problem. There are winners and there are losers, it is the very nature of the thing.
And yet, one of sports fans’ favourite pastimes is to rank teams or players from different eras in terms of brilliance. “What team was the greatest of all time?” “Would such a player from the 1940s be as brilliant in the modern game?” Compiling such lists is ultimately a pointless exercise given the entire nature of the discussion is highly opinionated and hypothetical. Yet as pointless an exercise as it is, it doesn’t deter people from regularly engaging in it.
I’m no different. Given how exciting the football championship has been thus far, I thought I would attempt to rank the 10 greatest football teams of all time. My sole criterion was that a team had to win at least two All-Ireland titles with largely the same squad.
Some sides far exceed that. Numerous Kerry sides through history have regularly done it but that is Kerry. So consistently brilliant since the early days, only their truly remarkable sides make this list. There are sides ahead of them with less All-Irelands but given how rare success has come to other teams, once-in-a-generation teams from other counties hold greater weight, given that after their decline success has been scarce or even non-existent. Essentially, quantity wasn’t the most important aspect. An enduring legacy in GAA history was the most crucial deciding factor.
10. Meath (1987-91)
Although they won All-Irelands prior to the 1980s, Meath football will always be intrinsically linked with Seán Boylan and with good reason. In the early years of the ’80s, Meath were enduring losses in Leinster to the likes of Wexford and Longford. 1970 was the last time they had graced an All-Ireland final. Meath’s fortunes changed dramatically with the appointment of Boylan.
After years of building, Meath finally became championship material in 1986. Three consecutive Leinster titles between 1986 and 1988 were complimented by back-to-back All-Ireland successes over Cork in 1987 and 1988. Defeat to Dublin in the Leinster final the following year saw their chances of a possible three-in-a-row thwarted.
However Meath were back in 1990 but could not stop Cork from completing a historic double after winning the hurling final two weeks previously. But it is the following year, 1991, which saw Boylan’s Meath side cement its legendary status in GAA history (and a place in this list ahead of an equally great Cork team from the same period).
When the draw was made for the Leinster championship of 1991, the seeding system which kept the previous year’s finalists on opposite sides of the draw was dropped. As luck would have it, Dublin and Meath, who contested the previous five finals, were drawn against each other in the first round.
It took an epic four-game series, attended by 240,000 in total, to separate the two sides. Meath’s meagre reward for winning was a second-round tie against Wicklow, which also went to a replay. By the time Meath made the All-Ireland final that September, they had played eight games.
Alas such an arduous campaign had taken its toll. Many of their starting 15 were nursing knocks or injuries, including star player Colm O’Rourke. Down raced into an 11-point lead in the second half and despite a spirited comeback, Meath had left it too late. Defeat to Laois the following year signalled the end of Boylan’s first great Meath side.
Notable players: Mick Lyons, Martin O’Connell, Colm O’Rourke & Brian Stafford
9. Wexford (1913-18)
Another county that has endured decades of famine in the intervening years, particularly given the rise in the hurlers’ fortunes, but during the 1910s, Wexford’s footballers were simply the best team in the country. Just how successful were they? Well, what they achieved has been emulated just twice, and on both occasions by the same county (Kerry of course)
Six successive Leinster titles were accompanied by four All-Ireland titles on the bounce between 1915 and 1918. And if that was not impressive enough, they lost the previous two All-Ireland finals to Kerry.
They never got a chance to compete for the five-in-a-row, losing to Dublin in the second round of Leinster in 1919. Sean O’Kennedy, the team’s star player and the first man to captain three All-Ireland winning sides (a distinction Stephen Cluxton emulated this year), cited fatigue and a downturn in ambition for the defeat, stating “players were fed up and tired” after winning their fourth All-Ireland.
Although they remained a predominantly football-orientated county for the next few decades, Wexford won just two subsequent Leinster titles, with their last coming in 1945. The suggestion to a Wexford fan back in 1918 that the county would not win another All-Ireland football title for the remainder of the century would have invoked ridicule. Alas, despite a brief resurgence in the 2000s, an All-Ireland final has eluded them ever since.
Notable players: Aidan Doyle, Paddy Mackey & Seán O’Kennedy
8. Kerry (1929-32)
Although they had started winning All-Irelands from the 1900s onwards, the first truly great Kerry team did not arrive until the ’20s.
Not only were they an extraordinary team, they played during extraordinary times. The Irish Civil War of 1922-23 saw families bitterly divided down the middle: brother was pitted against brother, father against son. Although the whole country was affected, nowhere was this caustic division more pronounced than in Co. Kerry.
Kerry reached the 1923 All-Ireland and although their squad was bolstered by the release of internees from the Civil War, they lost out by two points to Dublin. Among those released was Joe Barrett, the first man to lift Sam Maguire as captain on two occasions (1929 and 1932).
Apart from becoming the second team to win four All-Irelands in succession (1929-32), and winning six in the space of eight years, this Kerry team is fondly remembered in the Kingdom for being a uniting force in the county after the dark days of the war. This is best encapsulated by Joe Barrett himself.
Barrett sympathised with the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War. As a result, in September 1922 he was imprisoned by the Free State. Towards the end of the hostilities, Barrett was released. He went on to captain Kerry to glory twice. Barrett was also offered the captaincy in 1931 but declined the honour, instead handing over the duties to teammate Con Brosnan, who was an officer in the Free State Army. Had he accepted he would have become the first captain to have lifted Sam on three occasions (an honour which now belongs to Stephen Cluxton).
John Joe Sheehy was another famous case in point. Even though he was on the run from the Free State authorities after the war’s conclusion, Sheehy still managed to play for Kerry, being guaranteed safe passage into the stadium by Con Brosnan. Sheehy would play and “slip back” into the crowd when the final whistle was blown. In Kerry, very little trumps football in terms of importance, not even politics.
Notable players: Joe Barrett, Con Brosnan, Dan O’Keeffe & John Joe Sheehy
7. Down (1960-68)
Down are one of the great success stories of the modern game. In 1960 they became the first team from the six counties to lift Sam Maguire. Prior to 1959, they had never even won the Ulster championship.
Awaiting Down’s classy team in the 1960 final was a Kerry team seeking a 20th All-Ireland. Nobody appeared to inform Down of the reputation of the county they were facing. With the sides level into the second-half, Down began to pull away, eventually running out eight-point winners in front of a then-record 87,768 people at Croke Park.
It was the beginning of a remarkable string of Down successes over Kerry. Down’s winning margin was biggest loss Kerry endured in a final at that point. In 1961 Down once again overpowered Kerry, this time in the semi-final by six points. They went on and beat Offaly 3-6 to 2-8 in front of 90,556, a record attendance at Croke Park. Down would find themselves in another final before the conclusion of the “Swinging Sixties”, in 1968, where they once again defeated Kerry, ensuring they finished the as the joint-team of the decade.
Such is the legacy of the Down side of the 1960s, they remain the only county (apart from absentees Kilkenny) Kerry have never beaten in championship football, this trend continued during their renaissance in the ’90s. Their star forward Seán O’Neill was also named right half-forward on the Team of the Millennium.
Notable players: Paddy Doherty, James McCartan, Snr & Seán O’Neill
6. Dublin (1974-79)
In a footballing context, the very mention of “the 1970s” immediately evokes images of two great teams. One is Mick O’Dwyer’s Kerry, the other is Kevin Heffernan’s Dublin.
Despite dominating during the early decades of the association (they had won their 14th All-Ireland by 1923) Dublin’s footballers eventually began to lag behind Kerry and never caught up. Just one All-Ireland apiece in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s was a poor return for a county with their population size. In 1973 Dublin’s fortunes changed when 1958 All-Ireland winner Kevin Heffernan was appointed as bainisteoir.
After winning Leinster for the first time in nine years, Dublin staged a remarkable comeback against Galway in the 1974 final. Galway led 1-4 to 0-5 at half-time but famously had a penalty saved by Paddy Cullen in the second-half. An inspired Dublin eventually won by five points (0-14 to 1-6).
The rivalry with Kerry began in earnest the following year. Dublin, despite being pre-favourites before the All-Ireland final, were trounced 2-12 to 0-11. They did gain revenge in ’76, though, winning by a seven-point margin (3-8 to 0-10).
By 1977 the fixture was beginning to become a fixture of the GAA calendar. This time the two sides met in the semi-final, with Dublin once again emerging victorious, 3-12 to 1-13. The Jacks would go on to complete back-to-back titles by annihilating Armagh, 5-12 to 3-06. They would meet again in the 1978 and 1979 finals as Kerry won the first two of four successive All-Ireland titles. Dublin endured heavy defeats in both, losing 5-11 to 0-9 in 1978 and 3-13 to 1-8 in ’79. The ’78 final is renowned for Mikey Sheehy’s opportunistic lob over a distracted Paddy Cullen.
In a way “Heffo’s Army”, as they became known, were unlucky given that during any other era they would have won more than three All-Irelands but like many during that period they had the great misfortune of coming up against that great Kerry team. That said, Dublin had not won three All-Irelands in the one decade since the ’20s. They also played in six consecutive All-Ireland finals; an achievement only two other counties can boast.
Kevin Heffernan’s influence on Dublin GAA cannot be understated. He reignited interest in the footballers and played a pivotal role when games were beginning to be televised more regularly in colour.
Originally the only Dublin team on this list, “Heffo’s Army” now find themselves the second of two. Although they contested six All-Ireland finals in succession (something that still eludes the current side) and their influence on revitalising interest in the capital cannot be denied, it is the sheer dominance of Jim Gavin’s charges that makes them the top ranking side from the capital. Plus the fact Kerry have yet to beat them also lends them extra gravitas.
Notable players: Bernard Brogan, Snr, Paddy Cullen, Jimmy Keaveney & Brian Mullins
5. Tyrone (2003-08)
Tyrone were no strangers to All-Ireland finals prior to their maiden win in 2003 but success eluded them. They were humbled by Micko’s Kerry in 1986 and cruelly denied victory by Dublin in 1995 despite the heroics of Peter Canavan.
Certainly no “bolts from the blue” in the early 2000s, Tyrone won back-to-back All-Ireland U21 titles in 2000 and 2001 and a Minor title in 2001. These sides would provide the nucleus of the team’s panel for the next decade. With the appointment of Mickey Harte in 2003, everything clicked.
Although they did not develop the tactic, Tyrone were the first to perfect the “blanket defence” as an art form. Pat Spillane may have infamously decried it as “puke football” but it was effective, particularly against Kerry. In the 2003 semi-final, Tyrone beat them by seven points. Tyrone went on to win the first ever All-Ireland final contested by two sides from the same province, with Peter Canavan’s contributions against Armagh widely lauded.
2004 was marred by the untimely death of bright young star Cormac McAnallen. Tyrone’s focus was greatly affected as a result. They exited to eventual finalists Mayo in the quarter-finals. A year later Tyrone played an unprecedented 10 games en route to lifting Sam Maguire. They played five games in Ulster, losing the final replay to Armagh. In the quarters they played out a two-game classic against Dublin, in which Owen Mulligan scored a famous solo effort. Revenge over Armagh in the semis set up a final encounter with Kerry. Tyrone won by three points, thanks once again to a masterclass from Peter Canavan whose goal proved crucial.
2006 and ’07 were disappointing but Tyrone were back atop the summit in 2008, beating Kerry once again 1-15 to 0-14. In similar fashion to 2005, Tyrone played eight games in total.
Tyrone and Kerry dominated the 2000s just as Kerry and Dublin did in the ’70s. Apart from a two-year blip when Galway and Armagh won (2001-02), no other counties got their hands on Sam during the decade. Kerry may have won theirs in a prettier fashion but it was Tyrone who gave hope to the non-traditional counties. Kerry were simply unable to beat Tyrone during the decade; a fact that caused them and Pat Spillane a great deal of annoyance. And there’s not many teams that can claim to have achieved both.
Notable players: Peter Canavan, Seán Cavanagh, Brian Dooher & Stephen O’Neill
4. Kerry (2002-09)
Although they contested nine All-Ireland finals between 2000 and 2011, somehow or another, the Kerry team of that decade are not rated as highly as the vintage of the late ’70s/early ’80s. Perhaps their inability to beat Tyrone in three meetings has contributed to this mentality. Their inability to win more than two consecutive titles may also play a role. Regardless, Kerry during the 2000s were infuriatingly consistent and brilliant.
Between 2004 and 2009, Kerry featured in every All-Ireland final. That’s six finals on the trot. Not even Micko’s Kerry managed that. Mayo were annihilated in 2004 and 2006, while perennial rivals Cork were twice the victims in 2007 and 2009.
Kerry were blessed with talents that would walk into any Kerry side irrespective of the era. During the first half of the decade there was Dara Ó Cinnéide, Liam Hassett and Séamus Moynihan. As the decade pressed on, retirements such as theirs would have signalled the of an era for any other county. But like the great Liverpool team of the ’70s and ’80s, Kerry simply replaced them with the likes of Colm “Gooch” Cooper, Kieran Donaghy and Aidan O’Mahony. Ever present throughout the decade were the nephews of Paídí Ó Sé; Darragh, Marc and Tomás.
When they were at their pomp, this Kerry side were a joy to behold. They swatted aside lesser opponents with aplomb and were often the reason Dublin didn’t win an All-Ireland during the decade. Although they never managed to beat Tyrone in the championship, their entertaining rivalry invigorated the 2000s and helped shape the decade.
Notable players: Colm Cooper, Séamus Moynihan, Darragh Ó Sé & Declan O’Sullivan
3. Dublin (2011-present)
And so to the burning question raised by the updating on my original post; where do Dublin now rank? The answer, as you can see, is third place.
Why so low you ask? Well unlike the Galway team of the 1960s, this Dublin side have not won three All-Irelands on the trot (yet) and lack a rival that inhabits this list (i.e. the Down team of the 1960s). The Kerry side of the ’70s and ’80s needs no explanation. So before you leave a heated criticism, consider this; Dublin’s stock will only continue to rise. Within a few years, should they continue their dominance of the championship, only Micko’s Kerry side will stand between them and the number-one spot, which is no mean feat.
Prior to 2011, Dublin would reach August full of misplaced confidence after swatting aside whatever driftwood faced them in Leinster. August would arrive and it was usually at the hands of Kerry or Tyrone where their summer would end. 1995 seemed a distant memory. Since 2011, however, all has changed, changed utterly and it’s been a very different narrative for the Dubs.
In 2011, Dublin beat their old tormentors Tyrone in the quarter-finals. Awaiting them in the semis were a side that would play an integral role in shaping the modern game (for better or worse), Jim McGuinness’s Donegal. In the lowest-scoring All-Ireland semi-final of the 70-minute era (which began in 1975), Dublin prevailed 0-08 to 0-06. In the final, Dublin memorably beat Kerry by a single point as goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton slotted home a nerve-shredding free kick to win the match and bring Sam back to the capital for the first time in 16 years.
2012 proved to be a write-off as an inspired Mayo side beat Dublin by three points in the semi-final. Gilroy stepped down that September but this would not prove detrimental as Jim Gavin has proved to be an inspired replacement. In 2013 Dublin were back in the final, after beating Kerry in an enthralling semi-final, widely regarded as the greatest football game in recent memory, 3-18 to 3-11. Dublin won their second All-Ireland in three years by beating Mayo 2-12 to 1-14.
The 2014 semi-final saw the most shocking result in recent years as Donegal annihilated Dublin 3-14 to 0-17, in what remains Jim Gavin’s only championship defeat as manager. 2015 saw perhaps Dublin’s most dominant performance in the final; a controlled 0-12 to 0-09 victory over the old rivals Kerry. This year Dublin beat Kerry yet again in the semi-final and despite a rain-drenched first final and spirited Mayo comeback, Dublin killed the puppy as Mayo lost their nerve and another All-Ireland final, by a single point.
Dublin are now such the dominant force in the country that not even Kerry, who could traditionally be relied upon to have a team capable of winning an All-Ireland every other year, cannot get the better of them. Where it not for Donegal in 2014, Dublin may well have just won their four All-Ireland title in-a-row. The frightening thing for the rest of the country is that still remains a strong possibility in the future.
Prior to this year’s final, Mattie McDonagh of Galway, and Brian Mullins and Anton O’Toole of Dublin were the only non-Kerry players to have four All-Ireland winner’s medals. Now a number of this team including Bernard Brogan, Stephen Cluxton, James McCarthy and “Philly” McMahon, but to name a few, have joined that exclusive list.
Key players: Bernard Brogan, Stephen Cluxton, Diarmuid Connolly, Paul Flynn & Jack McCaffrey
2. Galway (1963-66)
The Galway team of the mid-1960s was one of the classiest teams ever assembled. After losing the 1963 All-Ireland final, Galway completed a three-in-a-row. They were the first county to achieve such a feat in 24 years. Unsurprisingly the last side to do so were Kerry, who put Galway to the sword in the 1941 and ’42 finals, adding to their 1940 success.
Ironically Galway would gain the perfect revenge two decades on, beating Kerry in 1964 and ’65. In 1966 they faced Meath, who vanquished Seán O’Neill’s Down in the semi-finals. Coupled with Galway’s tight wins over Mayo and Cork, Meath were actually strong pre-favourites to stop Galway in their tracks.
However nothing was going to stop Galway’s drive for three-in-a-row. Their attack was led by the mercurial Mattie McDonagh, who, as a member of the 1956 winning side, ended up with four All-Ireland winner’s medals; a record for a Connacht player. Galway blitzed Meath, racing into a 1-6 to 0-1 lead at half-time. McDonagh’s first-half goal was named as one of the Top 20 GAA Moments in 2005.
Although silky in attack, Galway also possessed a solid defensive unit led by future Team of the Millennium right corner back, Enda Colleran. This miserliness in defence was evident between 1964 and 1966, during which time they conceded just one goal in Croke Park.
Any chances of increasing their tally to four All-Irelands were scuppered in Connacht the following year. They endured a heavy 11-point defeat to Mayo in the semi-final and it would be another 32 years before Sam made his way westward again. For those who were around during the 1960s, many viewed Galway as the greatest side to ever play football, never mind win Sam, until a certain side a decade and a half later.
Notable players: Enda Colleran, John Donnellan, Mattie McDonagh & Liam Sammon
1. Kerry (1975-86)
Dominant for so long, successful for so long that even during the zenith of their powers everyone around the land agreed that this was the greatest football team in the association’s history. And that status as the greatest football team of all time is secure for the foreseeable future given the eight All-Ireland medals that several of its members have in their cabinets at home.
Mick O’Dwyer’s Kerry were a revelation. They developed a brand of attacking football akin to the Dutch team of the 1970s; everyone on the pitch who gained possession instantly became a utility forward. Many fans are on first-name terms with their star players, which roll off the tongue effortlessly: Paídí, Spillane, Sheehy, Jacko, “Bomber” Liston, Kennelly, “Ogie” Moran, Power, and so on.
The mid-70s was defined by the gripping rivalry between Dublin and Kerry. While “Heffo’s Army” won in 1974, ’76 and ’77, Kerry’s sole triumph in that time frame was in 1975. However by the time the two faced off in 1978 and ’79, the tide had completely turned in Kerry’s favour.
Kerry annihilated Dublin in both finals, winning by 17 and 11-point margins respectively. By 1980 Kerry would have a new advisory from Leinster in the form of Offaly. In the 1980 semi-final they would play out a high-scoring classic, with Kerry prevailing 4-15 to 4-10. Awaiting Kerry in that year’s final was Dermot Earley, Snr’s Roscommon. The following year, Kerry and Offaly clashed once again, this time in the final. I don’t need to inform you who won that encounter. Heading into the 1982 final, Kerry were hoping to achieve something that had never been managed before in either code; win five All-Irelands in a row.
In the most famous moment in GAA history (sorry Michael Donnellan), Séamus Darby’s late goal denied Kerry by a single point. Offaly completed the greatest upset in football history and as a result endeared themselves to the entire country for eternity.
The shock of coming so close and yet be denied greatly affected Kerry. They lost the 1983 Munster final to Cork by one point. However by 1984 they were back again and began another extraordinary run, winning three consecutive All-Ireland titles. Five players won a record eight All-Ireland medals during the period: “Ogie” Moran, Paídí Ó Sé, Ger Power, Mikey Sheehy and Pat Spillane.
The fallout of such a successful and talented side finally reaching the end of the road was detrimental to Kerry. Between 1986 and 1997, Kerry didn’t even make an All-Ireland final. Emulating them proved to be an 11-year struggle, which equates to an eternity down in the Kingdom.
Notable players: Eoin “Bomber” Liston, Paídí Ó Sé, Jack O’Shea, Mikey Sheehy & Pat Spillane
The unlucky tenth-placed team that must depart the updated list given the inclusion of Dublin. They can be read about in greater detail in the original piece. After Mayo’s, theirs is perhaps the saddest of the 50+ years famines, given how dominant they were during the first half of the 20th century. Between 1933 and 1952, Cavan won five All-Irelands. Their finest side was that of the late 1940s which famously beat Kerry in New York. In 1952 they won their last All-Ireland and their greatest-ever footballer John Joe O’Reilly died. Perhaps it was not coincidence?
While they benefitted greatly from Kerry’s chronic decline, Cork were a formidable team in their own right. Spearheaded by the incomparable Larry Tompkins, they were losing finalists in both 1987 and 1988 to Meath. They won the next two All-Ireland finals, gaining revenge over Meath in 1990, before losing to Derry in 1993, which proved to be their swansong.
The last Mayo side to bring Sam Maguire to the county. In the subsequent decades of heartbreaking near-misses, their stature in the county has only continued to grow and cast an ever-looming shadow over the current squad. Losing finalists to Cavan in 1948, they won back-to-back All-Irelands between 1950 and ’51. Two of their members were named on the Team of the Millennium, Seán Flanagan and Tommy Langan.
As tough and hard-nosed as their late ’80s counterparts, Seán Boylan’s second great Meath side were just as successful as his first, winning two All-Irelands. They are, however, not as fondly remembered, given their thuggish behaviour in the 1996 final against Mayo, which descended into an all-out brawl. With players such as Trevor Giles and hard-man Graham Geraghty, when they opted to play rather than kick lumps out of the opposition, they were a delight to watch.
Perhaps not as famous outside of the county as the 1982 team that stopped Kerry’s “drive for five”, Offaly’s team from the late ’60s/early ’70s were one of the finest ever. Losing finalists to Kerry in 1969, Offaly dominated Leinster during the period. In 1971 they won their first ever All-Ireland, beating Galway. A year later they inflicted Kerry’s heaviest-ever defeat in an All-Ireland final (1-19 to 0-13) upon them to successfuly retain their All-Ireland title.