Kevin Madden selects his Ulster thoroughbreds
IF YOU type ‘fastest Irish man’ into any internet search engine, one name will dominate your results.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Jason Smyth, the fastest Paralympian on the planet. The Derry man has a severe visual impairment, which means he only has about 10 per cent sight in both eyes. As we travelled in my car, he told me how he would struggle to make out things such as detail on a person’s face. The colour of the car travelling in front of us, or its number plate, was also a haze for him.
Given the adversity he has faced on a daily basis, that makes his achievement of being the second fastest Irish man in history all the more remarkable. His best ever time for 100 metres is 10:22 seconds. To put this in context, the third place time for heat eight at the Rio Olympics this summer was 10:24.
I found his story fascinating but, as always, it got my mind working overtime on who the best athletes to have played Gaelic football are. Many will say ‘who cares that you can’t bench 100kg and run 100 metres in under 11.5 seconds if you can put the ball over the bar?’ Most county managers will.
How many times have we heard in recent years that you must be an athlete first and a footballer second? Of course, the best teams have players with both attributes. In Armagh last Sunday, we got to see two fine footballers go head-to-head who just happen to be incredible athletes also. Tiernan McCann and Pádraig Cassidy, from Killyclogher and Slaughtneil respectively, can fairly get about a football field.
So in this week’s column, I have decided to embrace athleticism and pick the top-10 fittest, fastest, strongest and most powerful inter-county players the Ulster game has witnessed over the last 20 years. I have excluded anyone still playing as it is possible my theories could be disproved by some fancy GPS tracking statistics and there’d be no fun in that.
In the interest of equality, I have also committed to including at least one player from every county in Ulster. No goalkeepers managed to make the shortlist, but three current inter-county managers are duly considered...
BRIAN DOOHER (TYRONE)
Even though they were the most successful Ulster team of the era with a team full of great athletes, this man stood head and shoulders above the rest. In his 16- year career for Tyrone, he probably became fitter and stronger as he got older. At 35, coming back from a career-threatening injury, Brian Dooher managed to outrun the bleep test.
His point in the 2008 All-Ireland final against Kerry was more than just an excellent piece of skill. In that one solo run, he displayed serious speed, strength, balance and endurance. The man was a machine and has to rank as my number one. Team-mates Ricey McMenamin and Philip Jordan also displayed serious levels of fitness over prolonged careers.
ANTHONY TOHILL (DERRY)
It was always going to be hard to look past the big Swatragh man. Not only was he one of Derry’s greatest ever footballers, but he was also arguably their best ever athlete. Strength, speed, power and agility, he had the full package. BBC commentator Mark Sidebottom once classed Feargal Doherty as being "harder than a chemistry A-level" and few would disagree, especially those with the misfortune of ever running into the big Bellaghy man.
Current Derry manager Damian Barton also made the shortlist, as did Sean Marty Lockhart and Gary Coleman.
KIERAN McGEENEY (ARMAGH)
John Kavanagh, the coach of MMA superstar Conor McGregor, once described McGeeney as one of the most intense human beings he had ever met. Whenever he was ousted from Kildare, McGregor tweeted: “McGeeney out of Kildare job. Now follow your true passion my friend!! Studying the mechanics of the human frame. Jui Jitsu life 24/7.”
His dedication to fitness and conditioning was light years ahead and it showed on the football field. The Armagh team of the noughties was awash with fine athletes such as Paul McGrane and Diarmuid Marsden, who were also considered.
JOE QUINN (ANTRIM)
Big Joe had such brute strength, he could bench press 120kg and make it look like he was dancing to YMCA. But for a big man, he was also exceptionally quick and powerful over short distances, yet had no problem in getting up and down the pitch either. An honourable mention must go to former full-back Emmet McCorry, not for his pearly white teeth and matching jock strap, but for possessing the physique of a Roman gladiator at a time when strength and conditioning hadn’t even been invented.
Peter McCann was also an incredibly fit, fast and powerful athlete but, unfortunately, his impressive level of conditioning started to wane in his late teens. Former marauding half-back and current Antrim joint-manager Gearóid Adams also came into the reckoning for inclusion.
MICKEY LINDEN (DOWN)
The Down maestro was still playing county football at 40 as he continued to finish in the top-five in all the runs in training. At 45, he continued to play club football for Mayobridge and, at 50, he was winning Irish sprint championships. In his prime, there wasn’t a quicker player in the country.
Wee James, Dan Gordon, Brian Burns and Danny Hughes were all worthy of consideration.
RAYMIE JOHNSTON (FERMANAGH)
Johnston had the endurance of an Ethiopian distance runner. He could run for miles at the same speed most of us could only sprint at. I used to dread Jordanstown training when Adrian McGuckin would tell Raymie to ‘take the boys for a run’. The Brewsters, Ciaran Donnelly, Marty McGrath and Shane King were all more powerful athletes, but I doubt any Fermanagh player would have had the endurance to outrun the Newtonbutler man.
BARRY McGOWAN (DONEGAL)
The Donegal wing half-back was a forward’s nightmare, such was his pace in getting up and down a field. In the mid-90s, he was everything you would want in a footballer and athlete. Mark Crossan, Noel Hegarty, Damien Diver and Brian Roper weren’t far behind.
THE REILLYS/O’REILLYS (CAVAN)
Take your pick out of Peter or Larry. Although it could be argued that endurance wasn’t their strongest component, for sheer speed and power alone they were unrivalled. Add in Finbar and Jason O’Reilly and you could have had a very tasty 4x100m relay team.
Anthony Forde, Stephen King, Fintan Cahill and Ronan Carolan were also great athletes in different ways.
DAMIAN FREEMAN (MONAGHAN)
In his term as manager, ‘Banty’ used the elder Freeman as his seventh defender, not just for his great reading of the game, but for his speed and mobility to get forward and back, often in the same move. Dermot McArdle and the recently-retired Dick Clerkin were also fine specimens.
THE MCENTEES (ARMAGH)
ARMAGH deserve an extra award for their sheer size and for bringing in the tight tops that made everyone look bigger. Even those who didn’t want to. Hard to tell one from the other at times, it would also have been difficult to separate John and Tony for fitness. Both were incredily strong and powerful from a very young age and they stood out as super athletes when playing for club or county.
Crossmaglen clubmate and my fellow Irish News columnist Aaron Kernan was also worthy of consideration.