KIERAN SHANNON: Pretenders to the throne circle for Colm Cooper’s crown

To mark the last year of the All Ireland quarter-finals as we know them – at least for three years anyway, with the arrival of the Super Eight next July – this column spent last week counting and recounting the great individual scoring tallies of players in the All Ireland series since the first of those quarter-finals back in 2001.

As well as reviving memories of players and matches in the past, the exercise also gave us a greater appreciation of what players we have at present – and offering up clues and trends as to what happens in the future, starting as soon as this upcoming weekend.

Should Bernard Brogan next Saturday repeat his Leinster final trick of scoring five points from play, he will join Colm Cooper as the only player to score 40 points from play in the All Ireland quarter-final round.

Gooch racked up 4-66 in 13 All Ireland quarter-finals, 4-28 from play, for his signature average in the All Ireland series in general – five points in all, two from frees and three from play.

(Those who have criticised his contribution in the 2005 and 2008 All Ireland finals against Tyrone obviously haven’t bothered with the facts. In the 2005 final, Cooper, as well as setting up the opening goal of the game for Dara Ó Cinnéide, hit his All Ireland series scoring average: five points, three from play, while in 2008 he again hit three points from play, as well as slotting over three frees.)

If anything, Brogan’s quarter-final return is even more impressive. The last time Dublin played Monaghan in an All Ireland quarter-final three years ago, Brogan blitzed them for 1-6 from play. Twelve months later he ran up the same score on Fermanagh.

In fact, he seems to love playing Ulster opposition in the last-eight round. In his first All Ireland quarter-final appearance, back 10 years ago now against Derry, he scored three points from play.

The following year about the only consolation for Dublin in their embarrassing loss to Tyrone was Brogan’s three points off the bench upon replacing his injured brother Alan.

When Dublin avenged that defeat with victories over Tyrone in 2010 and 2011, the younger Brogan scored four points from play each time. The only time he has drawn a blank in any of his 10 quarter-finals was last year against Donegal. In all, he’s scored 2-40 at the last-eight round, 2-29 from play, for an average of 3.5 points from play.

To grasp just how high a return that is, his teammate Diarmuid Connolly failed to score in four of his first quarter-finals – though he did kind of make up for that in that other quarter-final, taking Tyrone for an astonishing seven points from play in 2011.

Connolly has scored either 1-1 or 0-2 in his last three All Ireland quarter-finals for an average of 1.88 overall, but still, while that might fare favourably compared to the player whose style and talent he most resembles – Kerry’s Declan O’Sullivan (2-17 from play over 12 quarter-finals for an average of 1.92) – Michael Murphy (just 0-11 from play in 7 quarter-finals, 1.58ppg) and teammate Dean Rock (four points per quarter-final, two from play), it’s quite a distance off Brogan.

In all, there are just six players who have started in at least five All Ireland quarter-finals and averaged at least three points a game from play (James O’Donoghue could have made it seven but by failing to score from play against Galway last Sunday, misses out). Brogan. Gooch (3.08 per game) is another.

Then you have Tyrone’s Stephen O’Neill (1-14 from play in five All Ireland quarter-final starts, 3.4ppg) and the surely-now under-appreciated Owen Mulligan, with a staggering 3-18 from play in seven All Ireland quarter-final starts (3.86ppg).

In joint first on that list with Mulligan is Armagh’s Stevie McDonnell with precisely the same scoring return – 3-18 from play in seven All Ireland quarter-final starts.

Next Saturday’s all-Ulster pairing obviously conjures up memories of the Armagh-Tyrone rivalry of the last decade when Mulligan, O’Neill and McDonnell were in their pomp and the game could well be shaded by whichever individual player steps up and most approximates them.

Jamie Clarke would seem eminently qualified to follow in that tradition, but to understand just how precious a stage as well as a talent is involved when discussing Clarke in Croker, you have remember the Crossmaglen man has yet to score in an All Ireland quarter-final, semi-final or final.

The one time he made through to the last-eight before, Donegal’s System held him scoreless. Despite all his heroics at club level through the years and now with the county this past month, he needs to replicate that scoring form, just like McDonnell would come August, for Armagh to have any chance and for him to be truly remembered as one of the standout talents of his generation.

Cillian O’Connor is the sixth member of that exclusive club to have played at least five All Ireland quarter-finals and average at least three points per game; with 3-12 over seven quarter-finals, he’s bang on three points a game from play, again a measure of just how underestimated his return from play truly is.

Last weekend though he scored just three points in total, which was by a distance his lowest-ever return in an quarter-final, even if, by virtue of a point from a fine Donie Vaughan pass, he ensured it was his seventh consecutive quarter-final registering at least one score from play.

For Mayo to make it to a seventh consecutive All Ireland semi-final, they’ll need O’Connor playing for longer closer to goal and expending less energy tracking back the field, and approaching close to his All Ireland series average of over seven points a game.

Last Sunday marked the 10th consecutive All Ireland quarter-final series in which Andy Moran has scored from play. It’s a measure of the man’s underestimated consistency and scoring power, but just as telling, he has yet to score more than two points from play in an All Ireland quarter-final.

(Lee Keegan, meanwhile, despite playing in the other half of the field, is now averaging a phenomenal 2.67 points from play over six All Ireland quarter-final starts). Next Monday Mayo could do with Moran breaking through that two-point barrier for them to prevail.

Should they make it past Roscommon, awaiting them, of course, is Kerry and one Kieran Donaghy. His brilliant goal against Galway last Sunday was the ninth he has notched in the All Ireland series. Only Cillian O’Connor – also with nine – and Gooch – on 11 – have scored at that level this millennium.

To win or even reach the All Ireland could hinge on whichever one of Donaghy or O’Connor goes closest to equalling or even surpassing Cooper’s goal haul.

History’s there to be made and broken.


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