Justin McNulty picks his Allstar team from men he played with or managed
THE brief was to pick his best side from the men he’d played alongside or managed and, after deliberation, former Armagh player and Laois manager Justin McNulty decided to go “with his gut” and pick the men (minus himself) with whom he won the All-Ireland in 2002. From Benny Tierney in goal, through McGeeney, McGrane, McConville, McDonnell and Mardsen, his team is packed with bona fide legends of the game. Andy Watters spoke to the Mullaghbawn native who took a break from his commitment to the fight the spread of Covid-19 and pick his Allstar 15.
1 Benny Tierney
A PHENOMENAL shot-stopper. He was reliable from kick-outs and he could drop the ball on a sixpence. He didn’t have huge range but he had huge accuracy. Benny was an excellent communicator and he was always positive, his confidence-building within the group was phenomenal. He kept the mood buoyant at all times. He was established with Armagh before I was even a Mullaghbawn senior player so he had huge experience.
2 Enda McNulty
THE best man marker the game has ever seen in my opinion. He had incredible speed off the mark and he was a brilliant tackler. We were always massive rivals in games in the back garden, me and Enda and my twin brother Paul and the neighbours. We had a pitch in the garden and it was a big part of our development. He always tried to compete with me but he never did (laughs). His job was always to stop the opposition’s number one forward and he was able to take them out.
3 Ger Reid
TOUGH, fast and strong. Ger took no messing and he took no prisoners either. A real competitor who was already in the Armagh panel when I was brought in and I learned a lot in the full-back line from him. He was rock-solid.
4 Francie Bellew
I NEVER saw a defender who had better timing than Francie. He didn’t have any great pace, he was a strong man but he wasn’t phenomenally well-built but his timing was so good and he was able to hit people just at the right second to make the ball pop out. That was his biggest strength and he was absolutely fearless to go with it.
5 Aidan O’Rourke
A DOGGED defender and a brilliant reader of the game. He was a very accurate passer and a great competitor. He made his breakthrough in our All-Ireland year and he became an absolutely pivotal player in the team. He could hit a brilliant diagonal ball to the full-forward line and that was a huge weapon in our armoury. He was a great tackler as well.
6 Kieran McGeeney
THE most important cog in the machine. He brought it all together. What is a captain? He’s the guy who talks the talk but, most importantly, he walks the walk and Geezer walked the walk. He brought everybody together, he got everybody going the same way. In some teams or in business or industry there are cliques and favourites and then there are disagreements because of that but he brought everybody along together. We were all singing off the same hymn sheet and every member of the group had the same importance. Him and Paul McGrane delivered that but Geezer was the key driver.
On the pitch he was a great leader, a brilliant reader of the game and he developed a sweet left foot. He had a really accurate left foot especially considering he wasn’t that accurate as a younger player. I was a clubmate of his as well and he was always so determined to improve as a player and he did everything he could to improve, he was relentless. He practised, he learned from others, he read books and met people who had been there and done that and tried to suck in as much information as he could. He is a hugely, hugely driven individual, you’ve probably not met a more driven person in your life than Kieran McGeeney. He wants to win and will do whatever it takes to get there.
One of my earliest football memories was being in the carpark at the side of a pitch. I was a few years behind Geezer and I had only just come into the Mullaghbawn squad. I remember Charlie Grant, the coach who brought through so many players in Mullaghbawn and was such a positive mentor, being so disappointed with the team and giving out to us. Geezer was crying. He was afraid Charlie was going to tell his dad that he hadn’t performed as well as he should have. That’s one of my earliest football memories – a rainy day in the carpark.
7 Andrew McCann
TIERNEY nicknamed him ‘Lazarus’ because he came back from the dead more times. He just had a knack of coming back from injuries at the right time. He was an unbelievable competitor, a really skilful, almost languid wing half-back. He was able to make forward runs and obviously he was involved in that goal in the All-Ireland final. That was just his natural game. A determined and dogged defender at the same time and good in possession. Every ball he got he used it.
8 Paul McGrane
A COLLOSUS of a midfielder. A big-game player who did all the dog work. He had the refinement of Jack O’Shea but he also did the down-and-dirty dog work that Jack O’Shea mightn’t have done. A real warrior, a team player, a leader who brought the whole group with him. He would put his head in where you wouldn’t put your boot. Really, really brave and he could score as well. Two-footed with great hands, an all-time great midfielder.
9 John Toal
LIKE every one of these players he was a competitor. Great hands, great feet and was very determined. He didn’t have the same physical prowess as McGrane but was still a very effective midfielder. He had a huge engine and he worked his socks off for the team.
10 Paddy McKeever
HE had an unbelievably sweet left foot. I remember when he came into the squad in 1999 and for a young guy he was very confident. He carried himself so positively, his body language was incredibly positive. Nothing phased him, he was mature as a player well before his years. He got big scores in big games. He was a nice ball-player but he could also win dirty ball, he didn’t need nice passes, Paddy could win his own ball.
11 John McEntee
ANOTHER colossus. Another brilliant left foot and he had huge big-game experience from his days with Crossmaglen and he brought the confidence he had from the success with Cross into the Armagh team. He got big scores in crucial games and was a brilliant competitor. Impossible to dispossess, once John got the ball he never gave it away, he always found a team-mate. He was very composed and had phenomenal strength.
12 Oisin McConville
AN all-time great, not just for Armagh, in GAA he’s an all-time great. Any game, any situation, any time you needed a score, when your backs were to the wall and it looked like there was no way out and you were under huge pressure… get the ball to Oisin because he could deliver in high pressure situations. He pulled Crossmaglen out of more holes over the years in big games and he did the same for Armagh. A genius of a finisher, there could be four men hanging out of him and he could still, I don’t know how, get the ball over the bar or put it in the net. There was huge rivalry between Mullagabawn and Crossmaglen when we were coming up and that was hugely important in the success of Armagh. I remember playing against him in the U12s and we played for the Abbey together. When you really needed a score he could go and get it and he was a brilliant free-taker as well.
13 Stevie McDonnell
I REMEMBER watching him in the minor county final and he scored a goal and went down and did one of the soccer poses at the time after it. We knew for a long time that Stevie was something special and that’s how I would describe him: something special. A wizard on the ball and a wizard of a scorer from any area of the forward line with either foot. He was very, very hard to mark, he could lose you with a slight fade of his body and give him any type of ball he could win it. Low, high, in a crowd of players… He would still come out with the ball. He relished the big games and the tougher it got the better he was.
14 Ronan Clarke
HE was a revelation in 2002 as an 18 year-old. To deliver the performances he did and have the maturity he had was absolutely incredible. Two-footed, strong, fast, powerful and virtually impossible to dispossess. He was highly competitive and physical and a finisher. Just a brilliant full-forward and it’s sad that injuries stopped him from really fulfilling his true potential over a longer period.
15 Diarmuid Marsden
I CAN’T speak highly enough of Diarmuid Marsden as a footballer. An absolute warhorse of a forward and probably the best ball-winner in our forward line. He had the build of a rugby player and huge natural strength and natural balance. He always had balance in possession and speed and power. He just knew instinctively how to get on the end of moves. He could see opportunities and he arrived at the right time to break through the defence and get the score. Another thing about him was that he was an absolutely ferocious tackler, probably the best tackler in our forward line.
His temperament was amazing too and he delivered huge plays at important times. After we missed the penalty in the first half of the All-Ireland final in 2002 he got a big point for us and that was absolutely vital in the team retaining the composure to go out and win the game in the second half. He got that point just before half-time and it was absolutely massive. A competitor and a genius of a footballer.
Subs: Paul Hearty (Armagh), Colm Hanratty (Armagh), Barry Cahill (St Brigid’s, Dublin), Kieran Hughes (Armagh), Philip Loughran (Armagh), Colm McParland (Mullaghbawn), Ciaran McKeever (Armagh), Comrac McAnallen (QUB), Kieran McGurk (Armagh), Jamie Clarke (Armagh), Ross Munnelly (Laois), Paul ‘Gunner’ Brady (Mullahoran), Niall Smith (Mullaghbawn), Barry O’Hagan (Armagh), Collie Holmes (QUB)
I couldn’t look past that Armagh team. I have a long experience of playing with and against these players. I know their inner-strength, I know their character and I know what they had to do to get to where they got to. It is impossible for me to see beyond that and you could call that bias but I’m naming the team my gut tells me to name. I thought about it long and hard and that’s what I really believe.
Modesty forbade Justin from picking himself but Paul McGrane explained why his former team-mate was such an integral part of that great Armagh team.
I WOULD describe Justin as a warrior. He would have played anywhere for the team and was always up for the battle. He worked very hard at his game but at the right time himself along with Ger Reid, Kieran Hughes and Enda would be the biggest messers about.
Our first League game in 2002 was against Louth in Carrickcruppen. We had a light session on the Saturday, the day before the game – a bit of kicking and shooting and then a walkthrough of a few moves. It was supposed to be non-contact but Justin was marking Diarmaid Marsden and he went over on his ankle trying to tackle him!
His ankle was well swollen. He could hardly walk and the physio advised him to ice the ankle for 10 minutes every hour and that might help.
The next day Justin arrived with his eyes all puffed and struggling to walk but wanting to get his ankle strapped so that he could play the match. Kieran McGeeney asked him was he ok and it transpired he had got up every hour during the night to ice the ankle.
That was typical of Justin, he was totally dedicated.