In a league of their own - the top 25 League of Ireland players of all time

As a new season kicks off, Liam Mackey takes a deep breath, dons a suit of armour and selects his top 25 League of Ireland players of all time. Be sure to let us know who you think the best player is.

Patsy Freyne

The 25 Greatest League of Ireland Players Of All Time? Ask me a hard one, why don’tcha?

And before we proceed any further, I might as well own up and admit that the one glaring absentee from this list is that uniquely talented individual whose name, we all agree, will be the one appearing at the end of the following, inevitable readers’ correspondence: “While I appreciate that you couldn’t please everyone, I wonder if your reporter was under some unusually heavy medication when compiling his list. I only ask because there is no other possible explanation for how he came to omit —— ——— …”

All I can say is: guilty as charged.

A couple of points in my defence: the passage of time, and the paucity of documentary footage from back in the mists, militates against the inclusion of a number of reportedly stellar figures from the 20s through to the 50s.

Even so, you will find a couple of representatives from those sepia-tinted times here, footballers whose legendary status, backed up by some impressive stats, make their claims impossible to ignore.

Secondly, while compiling a list like this can never pretend to be an exact science, in order to whittle down the contenders to a manageable length, it seemed reasonable to exclude players who, even if they made a significant impression in the League of Ireland, are better known now for their exploits in England and beyond — hence, the absence of such blue-chip exports as Paul McGrath, Roy Keane, Paddy Mulligan, Kevin Doyle, Seamus Coleman and John Giles on his homecoming, to name but a very few. (Although exceptions have been made for Keith Fahey and Wes Hoolahan — like I say, it’s not an exact science)

You will also, perhaps, detect a certain personal weakness here for the maverick, the type of footballer for whom the designation ‘cult hero’ seems custom made.

But as a new season kicks off and the thorny old issue of how to broaden the popularity of the league comes up for air again, it might not be a bad thing to remember that, in football, as in showbiz, entertainment means bums on seats.

One final point, trying to compare players from different eras and players who operated in different areas of the pitch, makes this list much more random than its ostensibly neat 25 through to 1 format implies.

And, of course, there are at least another 25 waiting in the wings who would be hardly any less deserving of inclusion in the roll of honour.

25. Paul Osam

A midfielder who combined power and panache, the physically imposing Osam is a legend at Richmond Park and a player whose dominance on the pitch was never more glowingly reflected than in Pats’ title-winning year of 1999 when he pulled off a clean sweep of the League of Ireland ‘Oscars’ — being named the FAI, PFAI and Soccer Writers Association of Ireland Player of the Year.

24. Bob Fullam

A certified superstar of the 1920s and 1930s, such was the extent of Fullam’s game-changing influence that ‘Give it to Bob’ achieved mantra-like status on the terraces. A serial scorer for Shamrock Rovers, his left foot was possessed of such ferocious power that, when playing for the Irish Free State against Italy in 1927, one of his efforts knocked an opposition player unconscious, reportedly leading to the stricken man’s colleagues pleading with the referee not to let Fullam take any more free-kicks.

23. Paddy Moore

Moore flashed like a meteor across the Irish football scene, his career over at 26 and his life — tragically blighted by alcoholism — ended at just 41, in 1951. But there are those who saw him in his prime with Shamrock Rovers who swear that, of all the footballers to emerge in this island’s history, only George Best outshone him for sheer dazzling natural ability. At international level, Moore — then at Aberdeen — is immortalised in the Irish record books for the four goals he scored in a 4-4 draw with Belgium in 1934, a feat not equalled until Don Givens ran riot against Turkey in 1975.

22. Keith Fahey

Fahey became another of the league’s high-profile exports, of course, but St Patrick’s Athletic supporters are entitled to claim that they saw some of the very best of their man before his English sojourn. Blessed with a velvet first touch and an eye for the killer pass, Fahey’s wicked delivery from the flanks and his set-piece expertise are other potent weapons in a well-stocked armoury. Having returned to help Pats finally break their long cup hoodoo last time out, this season Fahey will look to bring his class and experience to bear in Tallaght.

21. Miah Dennehy

Alongside Bray’s John Ryan in 1990, Miah Dennehy is one of only two players to score a hat-trick in an FAI Cup Final, Cork Hibs beating Waterford 3-0 in 1972 to provide the perfect, instant antidote to the Blues after being pipped to the league title win of their rivals just days earlier. Dennehy had also been the main man in a different kind of decider the previous year, when his brace in another man of the match performance helped Hibs beat Shamrock Rovers 3-1 in a title play-off at Dalymount Park. A proper Leeside legend.

20. Turlough O’Connor

Another great leader of the line but also a great leader of men, O’Connor is still revered in Dalymount Park and Oriel Park where his 120 league goals for Bohs and 54 for Dundalk — plus an additional four for Athlone — helped push him up to fourth in the all-time League of Ireland scoring charts. Later, as a manager, his know-how also saw him enjoy the highest success at Athlone, who won the league twice during his tenure, and at Dundalk, where he helped deliver the double for the Lilywhites in 1988.

19. Jackie Jameson

‘The great man’, they still call him at Dalymount where his nine years in the 1980s might have offered a scandalously scant return in terms of medals but where his artistry, imagination and memorable goals earned him the adoration of the crowd. The kind of quality player of whom it could justifiably be said that he was worth the price of admission alone, Jackie Jameson passed away in 2002 at the age of just 45.

18. Joseph Ndo

Making the ball do his bidding at will, befuddling opponents with a flick or a feint, the Cameroonian always seemed to play with a smile on his face — one which was invariably mirrored on the appreciative terraces. But even his most extravagant moves were fit for a specific purpose — to help his team win — as the glittering prizes he picked up with Shelbourne, Bohemians and Sligo Rovers attest.

17. Patsy Freyne

Cork City offer some seriously strong candidates for a list such as this — Barry, Morley, Caulfield and O’Callaghan among them — but the palm goes to this richly talented natural. He might not have always met the most exacting definition of what constitutes a model pro but few more brilliantly cool and creative midfielders have illuminated Leeside or, for that matter, playing fields anywhere else in the country.

16. Peter Thomas

Waterford’s Number One — known to one and all as ‘Thommo’ — was brave, agile, commanding in the air and, with his quick throw-outs, a last line of defence who was also the instigator of those spring-heeled attacks for the great Blues side which dominated the league in the late 60s and early 70s.

15. Paddy Coad

At Shamrock Rovers the Waterford-born goal machine was one of the league’s star attractions in the 40s and then, as player-manager, showed that long before Alan Hansen would get it terribly wrong, you could indeed win with kids, his famous ‘Coad’s Colts’ emerging as the most successful League of Ireland club during the high water years of the 1950s.

14. Alfie Hale

A livewire striker who was as lethal with his head as his feet, Waterford’s Hale — along with the no less celebrated Johnny Matthews — helped make Kilcohan Park the home of the champions five times in six seasons between 1968 and 1973, the most dramatic of those title triumphs coming when a stoppage time Hale goal saw the Blues come back from two-down to beat Cork Hibs 3-2 in the final game of the 1972 season before a huge crowd at Flower Lodge.

13. Jason Byrne

The Brendan Bradley of the current era — and, as he begins another season at Bohemians, Byrne is still in hot pursuit of the Derryman’s all-time league record. Even if a shortage of game-time might ultimately deny him the record — though, with 216 to his credit, you’d be foolish to bet against him — his place as a League of Ireland immortal is already enshrined, this cousin of Robbie Keane having upheld the family tradition of clinical finishing with goals galore for Shels, Bray and Bohs.

12. Paul Doolin

There are many who will argue that, certainly in the modern era, Doolin was the best League of Ireland player never to have played in England. A savvy attacking midfielder with a prodigious goal return, he wowed them at Rovers, Derry and Shels amongst others, while a successful spell at Portadown meant he enjoyed the rare honour of winning a league and cup double on both sides of the border.

11. Liam Tuohy

An iconic figure in Irish football, Tuohy was such an inspired thinker and talker about the game that his influence has extended to successive generations of players and coaches at both domestic and international level. And as a player in his own right he was no slouch either, his intelligence, pace and eye for a goal making this ‘Colt’ turned thoroughbred one of the all-time Milltown — and League of Ireland — greats.

10. Wes Hoolahan

He may have gone on to play in the Premier League and for Ireland but well before he’d left these shores, Hoolahan’s place as one of the domestic game’s prize attractions was secure. His composure on the ball, ability to create space and passing made him crucial to Shels great but ultimately bittersweet Champions League adventure in 2005. Proving that it’s about skill not size, the diminutive playmaker still has the flair to make a difference to Ireland’s current European campaign.

9. Tommy McConville

With his reading of the game and precision timing in the tackle making him one of the most elegant defenders ever to grace the League of Ireland, McConville played a record 580 times for Dundalk showing, like Al Finucane, staying power in a career which, also including spells at Waterford, Shamrock Rovers, Finn Harps, spanned beyond 20 years. Died in 2013 aged 67.

8. Frank O’Neill

A classic wizard of the wing in an era when dribbling was football’s highest art, O’Neill was almost unplayable on his day, leaving defenders in his wake. Capped 20 times for Ireland, the Dubliner was a hugely influential part of Shamrock Rovers’ incomparable six-in-a-row cup winning team from 1964 to 1969.

7. Johnny Fullam

A Mount Rushmore of the domestic game, Fullam was a rock solid defender who was skilled enough to have played almost anywhere on the pitch with assurance. In a long career adorned with honours, he shares with ‘Sacky’ Glen the distinction of holding eight FAI Cup medals and a personal record of captaining four winning teams in the competition — Rovers in ‘68 and ‘78 and Bohs in ‘70 and ‘76.

6. Paddy McCourt

Currently wowing them at Notts County, the Derryman has always seemed like a throwback to the golden era of gifted mavericks, his twinkling feet causing opponents to sway almost as uncontrollably as his own unruly hair. His goals have been nothing less than sensational. Perhaps not the most consistent of performers but, on his night, McCourt’s street football chops still make him an absolute joy to behold.

5. Mick Leech

They used to call him the ‘Jimmy Greaves of Irish soccer’ but with his trademark coal-black locks and his predatory instincts in the box, dubbing him the ‘League of Ireland’s Gerd Muller’ might have been even closer to the mark. Always a prolific striker and an enduring favourite with the faithful, crucial goals by Leech in the 1967, ’69 and ’69 finals helped account for half of Shamrock Rovers’ celebrated six-in-row FAI Cup triumphs.

4. Liam Coyle

Foyleside’s favourite footballing son, he set out his stall in trademark style with a hat-trick on his league debut for Derry City against Cobh Ramblers and ended the season as part of the all-conquering 1989 treble-winners. Later, he came out of premature retirement enforced by an apparently career-ending injury to copperfasten his reputation as one of the outstanding talents on the island, his most memorable goals bearing comparison with those of another man who played his football in candystripes, Matt Le Tissier.

3. Pat Byrne

The hub and heartbeat of the Shamrock Rovers’ four-in-a-row title winners of the 1980s, Byrne’s leadership qualities and competitive instincts, allied to superb distribution and general mastery of the play, earned him the highest compliment: recognition from his own peers as one of the most complete midfielders ever to feature in the domestic game.

2. Al Finucane

A classy, commanding defender in the Bobby Moore mould, Limerick-born Finucane enjoyed a career of staggering longevity, playing on into his 40s. As indestructible as he was indefatigable, he holds the all-time League of Ireland appearance record on 634 — ahead of another great stalwart, Owen Heary, on 565 — and retired at the end of 28 years in the game, having never been sent off.

1. Brendan Bradley

If this list leans heavily towards the final third of the pitch, well, there’s no apology for that. It’s the fellahs with that priceless knack of habitually finding the back of the net who do most to win games, deliver trophies, leave the faithful walking on air and bequeath the kind of luminous memories which demand they take their place in any self-respecting hall of fame.

So step forward Brendan Bradley. He hailed from Derry but is synonymous with Finn Harps and one other thing: goals, goals and more goals. Stats don’t always tell the whole story but in the case of Bradley, they roar it to the skies: he once scored all six for Harps in a game against Sligo and when he finally hung up his shooting boots in 1986, he did so having amassed 235 League of Ireland goals, a record which stands to this day.

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