The story behind the GAA’s magic numbers

It’s not just a jersey they hand you, but one with a number, and often that number counts.

The story behind the GAA’s magic numbers

In America, there’s so much reverence attached to particular numbered jerseys, they retire them so that no one else has to follow. No 23 is not just any number in Chicago; ditto No 16 in San Francisco, and No 3 in New York; they belong solely to Jordan, Montana, and Ruth.

In soccer, the number and the tradition that goes with it is passed on. At England’s two historically biggest clubs, Manchester United and Liverpool, the No 7 shirt is the object of particular affection. At Spurs, it’s No 10. At Everton and Newcastle, it’s 9; Alan Shearer was so insistent on following in the lineage of Gallagher, Milburn, and McDonald that upon signing for the club he got Kevin Keegan to tell Les Ferdinand, the reigning PFA Player of the Year, that he’d have to hand over his jersey and settle for the No 10 instead.

In Gaelic Games, it’s rarely gone that far, but there is an element of it. Darragh Ó Sé insisted on wearing nothing but No 8 for a reason. At the outset of the championship, we explained there’s a reason why the multi-positional Austin Gleeson wears the same No 6 shirt his fellow Mount Sion man Ken McGrath used wear. Watching from the stands and the terraces this summer are kids eyeing a particular player and numbered jersey, the way Davy Fitzgerald used to stand behind the hill in Tulla and imitate and revere Seamus Durack and covet his No 1 jersey.

The All Blacks have a saying or two: Leave the jersey in a better place, and plant trees you’ll never see. Every Monday here we’ll be showcasing the numbered jerseys which hold a special place in a county and a sport’s tradition.

KERRY NO 8

Probably the two greatest players to ever play the game both wore the same numbered green and gold jersey.

Mick O’Connell won nine of his 12 Munster medals and all four of his All-Irelands with number eight on his back. Jacko won all seven of his All-Irelands (and six All Stars) in the same shirt.

Then think of the men that came before the pair of them: men like Con Brosnan, a six-time Celtic Cross winner from 1923 to 1932, and Paddy Kennedy, considered by the legendary Cork dual trainer Jim ‘Tough’ Barry to have been even better than O’Connell; though he wore the number nine jersey more frequently, he wore O’Shea and O’Connell’s preferred number in the All-Ireland finals of 1939 and 1944.

And then look at who came after them — an fear láidir himself, Darragh Ó Sé. Once he established himself on the team, eight is all he wore; number nine was for Kirby, Daly, Scanlon, Griffin, Quirke or whoever his sidekick was on his way to winning six All-Ireland medals.

Kerry have won three further All Stars in midfield since Ó Sé’s retirement in 2009, though the only one won by a man wearing eight was Anthony Maher last year. This season Kieran Donaghy has been wearing eight. Another All Star and All-Ireland wouldn’t be beyond him and that particular jersey.

KILKENNY NO 12

“Wing forward, number 12, that was my most comfortable position,” Eddie Keher would tell Diarmuid O’Flynn for Hurling: The Warrior Game, the former Irish Examiner writer’s book on specialist playing positions.

It’s also probably the most beloved position and jersey among the Kilkenny hurling cognoscenti. While it’s not the most advertised or celebrated jersey on this list, no other has given or had more cause to celebrate.

Kilkenny have been so stacked in the position, Keher had to be squeezed into the Team of the Century and the Team of the Millennium elsewhere; on both occasions the no 12 spot went to Jim Langton, a shining light on the 1939 and 1947 All-Ireland-winning teams and the county’s leading scorer before Keher.

All of Keher’s first six starts in All-Ireland finals were out on the wing, and in four of them, out on the left, wearing 12. The first two All Stars for the position went his way, though by 1972 he’d moved into the corner. Billy Fitzpatrick would follow the same pathway; starting out as a classical left-wing forward on the two-in-a-row team of ’74 and ’75 before transitioning into an assassin in the corner on the two-in-a-row team of ’82 and ’83; when he vacated the left wing, Liam ‘Chunky’ O’Brien (1979) and Richie Power (senior, 1982) capably slotted in to win All Stars and All-Irelands from there.

Then came along a boy called DJ Carey. His first three All-Ireland finals and three All Stars were all with him stationed at No 12. His role would then change, moving closer to goal like Keher and Fitzpatrick before him, though he would shift out to the wing again intermittently later in his career; for his last All-Ireland final appearance in 2004, when he was taken up by Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, he was back wearing No 12.

The pair had also crossed swords in the 1999 All-Ireland final, on the opposite wing from Brian McEvoy who would win an All Star that year. Four years later in another Cork-Kilkenny September clash, Tommy Walsh in his first All-Ireland final would score the first point of the game, under the Hogan Stand, wearing No 12, a spot he would win an All Star from in 2005 having played there for most of that year.

Other legends from the Brian Cody era have been positioned there at some time or another. Henry Shefflin has won three All Stars from left wing forward, most notably in his comeback season of 2011 when in the All-Ireland final while wearing 12 he tormented Tipp’s John O’Keeffe with all that diagonal ball Tommy Walsh played towards him. TJ Reid had the same No 12 on his back when scoring a spectacular goal and eight further points in the classic drawn 2014 All-Ireland final, and again when finding the net in last year’s All-Ireland against Galway.

For most of the last decade and a bit though, the No 12 jersey has basically been the personal property of Eoin Larkin, whose work-rate, consistency, and scoring rate personifies the Cody ethos and what the role has become. In eight of the 11 All-Ireland finals Kilkenny have had since he broke onto the scene, he’s worn No 12; the other three times, he’s been handed 14 or 15. He’s only won the two All Stars in all that time, but crucially, eight All-Irelands — and counting.

And as much as Larkin has been overlooked, no other numbered county jersey has been more honoured at the All Stars. It’s something of a curiosity that while Kilkenny have only amassed two All Stars for the No 10 spot (six less than Kilkenny have picked up for any other position), on the other wing they have stacked up 18.

All of Keher’s first six starts in All-Ireland finals were out on the wing, and in four of them, out on the left, wearing 12.

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