Cahair O'Kane: Super 8s kills the ordinary man's Allstar hopes
FOR every Neil Collins, there was always a Finbar McConnell.
On social media over the weekend, the debate struck up about how unfortunate two-time All-Ireland winning Down goalkeeper Collins was never to win an Allstar.
Veteran Meath stopper Mickey McQuillan got the ’91 gong in a year when Collins made a series of outstanding saves, and he missed out to three-in-a-row winner John O’Leary in ’94, despite saving the crucial penalty in the All-Ireland decider.
O'Leary held on again in '95 but when Dublin were beaten in the '96 Leinster final, the window opened. Finbar McConnell climbed through it.
His was an outstanding career worthy of recognition, but the timing was good too. Tyrone winning back-to-back Ulster titles in '95 and '96 elevated him.
From that period Donegal would put Manus Boyle in the unfortunate bracket too. Right up until 2000, Derry had Kieran McKeever before he finally got his reward.
For more recent examples, the likes of Aaron Kernan, Michael Meehan and Dara Ó Cinneide missed out across their careers.
They were among those that had long and distinguished spells in inter-county football, yet never did enough to crack the code in any one season.
Such are the drawbacks of individual awards. Every county has its hard luck stories.
But winning an Allstar was always something that was achievable, no matter from whence you hailed.
All you needed was a decent league and for your team to put a couple of championship games together. If the county even reached a provincial final and your personal displays were good enough, that would propel you into the shop window.
It was a slim chance, but at least it existed.
There are names from the past that jump out in the present because of their status as an Allstar. In terms of legacy, no matter what a team wins, the individual gong propels the man beyond the collective.
Andy McCallin. Ray McCarron. Joe Kernan. Gerry McElhinney. Plunkett Donaghy. Nudie Hughes. Eugene McKenna. Even for generations that never saw them in the flesh, those names just leap off the page.
Allstars have never been easily won. But they’ve never been as hard won as they are now. A decent league and a good championship run no longer cut the mustard.
Ahead of the decisions over this year’s winners, which will be revealed in The Irish News on Thursday, there are only two things written in stone.
One is that the conversation on Thursday morning will be dominated by who didn’t get in rather than who did (on a side note, it will be a great shame if Ryan Wylie misses out because the selectors fear a backlash over giving Monaghan four Allstars when Tyrone will only get two).
The other is that there will only be one Allstar given to a player that didn’t play in an All-Ireland semi-final this summer.
That player will be David Clifford, who lived up to his minor billing in a remarkable first season with the Kerry senior team.
Had it not been for the Fossa forward’s extraordinary brilliance, it would only have been the All-Ireland semi-finalists represented again.
His inclusion will prevent this from being the fourth time in seven years that the Allstar team would include no player that didn’t feature for one of the last four in the All-Ireland series.
2012, 2014 and last year saw the entire 15 comprised of players whose team reached the last four. In both 2011 and 2015, there was just one player in each team from beyond that bracket.
All in, since Dublin began their takeover of football in 2011, just seven Allstars in total (six of which have come to Ulster) have been awarded to footballers that didn’t play in an All-Ireland semi-final.
Conor McManus has won two of them, which seems even a scant return for a man of his talents. Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly and Ryan McHugh have also picked up gongs. All four of them have been household names for a while.
So to put that in perspective, only Colin Walshe (2013) and Kildare’s Mick Foley (2011) have fought their way through to win an unlikely Allstar award in this period.
The introduction of the Super 8s will only make that scenario worse.
Those reaching the quarter-final now have another three games to stake their claims. That dilutes whatever little weight remained attached to provincial performances. The National League might as well not exist.
Fermanagh, Cork, Laois and Roscommon were the four beaten provincial finalists this year.
The Rossies have been in the last three provincial finals across a very competitive spell in Connacht, winning the middle one. This year they reached the last eight. They’ve classy operators like Enda Smith and the two Murtaghs, yet they don’t have a single nomination this year.
Fermanagh (Ché Cullen) and Laois (Graham Brody) have one each, neither of whom has any hope of making the team.
Carlow’s Paul Broderick and Armagh’s Rory Grugan are the only other players on the 45-man list whose county didn’t make an All-Ireland quarter-final, and they have the same chance of being selected.
Just like the championship itself, the selection of Allstars has become inexorably weighted in favour of the elite.
The system was never flawless. But at least for every man that fell through the cracks, there was a chance that someone else would go the other way and crawl out through one to write their names into history.
For every Neil Collins, there was a Finbarr McConnell.
The Super 8s haven’t just put a wall where the door to an All-Ireland semi-final used to be.
It’s killed stone dead that hope of being the name to jump off the page in 30 years’ time.
Rightly or wrongly, greatness in the GAA has been attached to these awards for the last 40 years.
It’s not a tag to ever be given out lightly, but in this era of effective analysis, there has to be a fairer way than this.