After a recent game in Markievicz Park, I was introduced to one of those footballing gurus that you meet from time to time.
The match in question was the All-Ireland U21 semi-final between Tyrone and Roscommon. The guru was from neither county. You get the picture. This man liked his football. A native of Longford, he informed me that he read my column. I tried not to look surprised. But I quickly formed the impression that my new friend read a lot of newspapers and a lot of columnists.
After a few observations about the game, the guru quickly got down to business. “Tell me this,” he asked, “Who in your opinion is the most complete footballer that you have ever witnessed?” I knew immediately that my ‘opinion’ wasn’t being sought. This wasn’t a survey. It was an exam, and the question had a right or wrong answer. I felt under pressure.
In my head, I quickly whittled my shortlist down to two players: Jack O’Shea and Anthony Tohill. Because Tohill could hit 45s, penalties and free-kicks, I named my fellow county man. I fully expected to be accused of Derry bias. But I was wrong.
“That’s the correct answer,” said the guru, beaming like a proud teacher.
Beyond the fact that he was delighted that I had delivered the ‘right’ answer, the guru seemed to draw immense satisfaction that I understood the question.
Was Anthony Tohill a better midfielder than Jack O’Shea? I don’t know. Probably not. But that wasn’t the question.
The most complete footballer is the one who has mastered the greatest volume of skills. Tohill could do everything: He could catch, pass and score. He was two-footed. During his two years in Australia, he learned to fist-pass competently with either hand. The four-time All Star was also a superb place kicker.
If allowed to play by instinct, Tohill was an attack-minded midfielder. During his partnership with Brian McGilligan, Tohill’s natural game was allowed to flourish and he scored regularly. Once McGilligan departed the scene, Tohill was forced to adapt. A Sean Cavanagh in his youth, he learned to play like Neil Gallagher. It was a measure of Tohill’s work ethic and willingness to serve the team that his tackling, covering and defensive skills all improved considerably as he matured. By the end, he was the complete footballer.
Very few players reach that starry zenith. Almost every footballer has a glaring gap in their skill set. Most players are pretty hopeless at kicking a dead ball. However, there are plenty of other boxes which even decorated county stars fail to tick. Despite improved coaching, only a limited number of players can kick comfortably with both feet. And if players were any good at catching a ball above their heads, the current game wouldn’t rely almost entirely on the fist-pass. Tackling, shooting, kicking accurately — nearly everyone has a major failing.
Like a good woman — the complete footballer is hard to find. But they do exist.
Michael Murphy and Sean Cavanagh are two obvious examples. It was only a few weeks ago that these two players provoked a major row in The Irish News sports department.
The debate was generated by the following question: on his best day, who is the better player, Murphy or Cavanagh?
Opinion was strongly divided and the usual shouting match ensued. I would contend that the matter is open to debate. At his peak, Cavanagh kicked five points from play in an All-Ireland final. Murphy has yet to deliver a performance of that magnitude on a big day.
Yet, while Cavanagh might have posted the single greatest performance, there can be no debate about is the more complete player.
Murphy wins that race every time. While Cavanagh has improved his fielding and tackling, he remains in essence, a scoring midfielder. By and large, most of Cavanagh’s points, whether from frees or play, are struck from within 40 metres.
Murphy is a different proposition. Consider his goal in the 2012 All-Ireland final. Catch, swivel, top corner. Yes, Kieran Donaghy, Aidan O’Shea and Brian Hurley could probably execute the same skills. But none of them can match Murphy’s other array of gifts.
For example, in last Saturday’s Ulster semi-final, Murphy posted two outrageous efforts from beyond 50 metres. Neither Donaghy nor Hurley is noted for long-range scoring.
While O’Shea can hoist the odd spectacular score, he doesn’t share Murphy’s facility for taking free-kicks. Again, we only need to look back to Murphy’s display against Armagh when he hit a succession of placed efforts from beyond the 45metre line.
Of course, there are other players in the country who are fantastic all-rounders. The Hughes brothers in Monaghan definitely fall into this category. One of the most spectacular fielders in the game, Kieran can win ball at midfield or full-forward. He’s also a quality free-taker.
Darren has played in goals, half-back, midfield and half-forward. In the Ulster semi-final, he displayed the deftness of a corner-forward when he scored from near the end line. Capable of sublime skill, it was Darren’s forceful tackle which forced the turnover for Monaghan’s first goal.
Some supporters would point to John Heslin and Diarmuid Connolly. While both are hugely talented, Heslin’s defensive game requires greater scrutiny while Connolly isn’t a noted fielder of the ball.
Ticking every box is extremely difficult. That’s why Michael Murphy is such an exceptional footballer.
At full-forward, he poses a huge threat, both in the air and over the ground. At midfield, he can do the lot — catch, carry, tackle, set up attacks and finish them.
Unlike a lot of scoring midfielders, he doesn’t shirk the dirty work. Not only does he embrace the hard yards, he is a very effective stopper. When Murphy is planted on the edge of the Donegal blanket, no one goes past him.
Every player should aspire to be the complete footballer. Yet, while most would like to achieve this mantle of excellence, few are prepared to do what is required.
Tohill was the most complete player I had ever seen. Murphy is the current holder of that title.
But who is the better between Tohill or Murphy?
Like the brain-teaser I was posed in Markievicz Park, there is a correct answer to that question too.
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