It almost isn’t fair.
Reading Tony Leen’s spread on these pages last Saturday brought home just how ridiculously spoiled they’ve been in Kerry in having princely forwards to follow, watch, adore.
In setting the scene for David Clifford’s first county final and appreciating the monumental talent that he is, Leen reminded us of the giants whose shoulders he stands on. Before him there was Gooch, before Gooch there was Maurice, and before Maurice there was Mikey, all three of whom spoke to Leen about the others in that lofty lineage.
As Leen noted, none of their county careers actually overlapped, something which was a source of regret for Fitzgerald in particular; “I lamented that I neither got to start with Mikey or finish with Colm,” he’d reflect.
For the county itself, though, there was the consolation that immediately after the parting of one great, along came another to replace him.
Sheehy played his last game for Kerry in the league of ’88. Fitzgerald played his first game for Kerry in the championship of ’88 and his last in the summer of 2001. Gooch debuted for Kerry in 2002. Then after he announced his retirement the week of the 2017 league final, Clifford came along that summer to offer up probably the greatest ever individual championship by a minor, and then followed it up with a couple of All Stars to show for his first two years at senior.
As Cooper noted, very few players instantly make an impact at senior; Bernard Brogan, for instance didn’t make his first championship start until he was 23 and didn’t win his first All Star until he was 26. The oldest any of that Kerry quartet was upon winning their first All Star was Sheehy at 22. The other three all won one as teenagers.
And as a Brendan Falvey pointed out to us on Twitter, such uninterrupted green-and-gold forward excellence predates the All-Star scheme and stretches beyond the 45 years since Sheehy’s debut. Right before Mikey, there was Micko.
After spending the first half of his career playing in the halfback line and then taking a two-year hiatus from the county game, he’d spend the last six years of his career operating in the full-forward line. (Indeed, Micko’s and Mikey’s playing careers would intertwine for one game, Sheehy coming on as a sub in a 1974 league game against Cork that proved to be O’Dwyer’s last.)
Think of that for a lineage, going back over 50 years. Micko. Mikey. Maurice. Gooch. The four leading scorers in Kerry history and all four former Footballers of the Year. And yet Clifford is likely to squeeze one of them out on the Mount Rushmore of Kerry Go-To men.
It got us thinking. Has any other county produced such a seamless transfer of the baton or jersey?
Kerry also has a rich tradition of producing the best midfielders in the game, from Kennedy to O’Connell to Jacko to Darragh — so much so, we recently termed Brian Fenton as being potentially the greatest non-Kerryman midfielder ever — but at times in that chain there wasn’t quite a player of that calibre to immediately take over the baton.
Kilkenny is the most obvious port of call in hurling. This, after all, is a county where after DJ Carey played his last championship game in 2005, it went on to contest the subsequent seven All-Ireland finals, winning six. The best place to start any thread would be in attack and with Eddie Keher, who made his debut in an All-Ireland final replay in 1959 (five years after the retirement of Jim Langton, number 12 on the Team of the Millennium) and was still playing in national league and Leinster finals up to 1977.
A freetaker and championship-leading scorer like Billy Fitzpatrick (1974-86), a four-time All-Star in Liam Fennelly (1981-92), then Carey (1990-2005), Shefflin (1999-2014), and now TJ Reid. Most of them at some point had a co-star whose careers overlapped partially with theirs, while a Fennelly might never have been a rock star like the others (or his contemporaries Nicky English or Joe Cooney), but give or take a few years, Kilkenny for the past half-century could claim to have the best forward in the country.
When Cathal McShane deservedly picked up an All Star the week before last, he became the sixth Tyrone player to win the full-forward slot, following in the footsteps of Frank McGuigan, Damien O’Hagan, Eugene McKenna, Peter Canavan, and Stephen O’Neill — and that’s not including Sean Cavanagh who was slotted in at wing forward in 2008 despite doing most of his damage that year coming out from the edge of the square.
That’s a remarkable strike rate for a county of that size. But again, because a number of their careers overlapped, it doesn’t quite have the symmetry of the Kerry Mount Rushmore that Leen identified.
The one place of course where only one man can play at a time is in goals. And it is remarkable that the number one Dublin jersey for over half a century has been essentially the property of just four men: Paddy Cullen (1967-1979), John O’Leary (1980-1997), Davy Byrne (1998-2001), and Stephen Cluxton (2001-2019 at least). Byrne might not be quite the legendary figure as the other three — though he’s a legend in Ratoath for managing the Meath club last month to their first-ever senior county title — but as a package it’s one to rival the lineage Leen eulogised.
Cork hurling, though, might just have its equal. It has produced a remarkable lineage of strike forwards — Ring, Charlie, JBM, Mulcahy, Deane, and now Horgan — but again a number of those intertwined. Only one man can play in goal. And as Denis Hurley tweeted over the weekend, Cork has had a string of All-Star goalkeepers in Martin Coleman (who’d never known what it was like to lose a Munster championship match, winning five on the trot from 1975 to 1979), Ger Cunningham (1981 to 1998), Donal Óg Cusack (1999 to 2011) to Anthony Nash (first-choice from 2012 on). Other than a Tim Murphy in 1980, one of those four goalkeepers has manned the posts for Cork in their biggest championship game of each of the past 46 seasons.
But the chain goes back even earlier than that. St Finbarr’s Tom Mulcahy, a plumber by trade, won three All-Irelands in the 1940s, stopping leaks during the week and then stopping Cork leaking goals at the weekend.
David Creedon, who was Mulcahy’s understudy for even longer than Nash was Cusack’s, once quit out of frustration only to come out of retirement in 1952 and win three All-Irelands on the trot.
Mick Cashman, whose sickness triggered Creedon to suit up again, would win six Railway Cup (though cruelly, no All-Ireland) medals after Creedon stepped aside for good. By 1966, Paddy Barry had stepped in between the posts, and would still be there in 1974 when he’d pick up a fourth league medal to go with his two All Irelands.
That’s basically just eight men sharing the one jersey for eight decades.
Whether Nash will have a Clifford to hand it over to the way Gooch was able to pass on his crown, time will tell.
But history dictates as well as suggests the eventual successor will be up to the job.