The Ulstermen who shone in the 2018 Allianz Football League
1. Rory Beggan (Monaghan)
THINGS change. The old order eventually ends and something always replaces it. And while no-one is suggesting that Stephen Cluxton has in any way past his best, has Rory Beggan now surpassed him as the best goalkeeper currently playing inter-county football?
Consider the argument that his kick-outs are, if not on a par then very close to it. The example of kicking through a four-man Dublin press to pin-point the one white shirt in the middle has become the norm.
And then you add in the fact that Beggan is vastly superior under a high ball – as good as there is – and that he is such an accomplished ball-player that he has become nothing less than a counter-attacking weapon.
2. Colm Flanagan (Down)
FOR the second year running, one of the pluses from an otherwise difficult League campaign for Down was the unearthing of a steady corner-back. Last term it was Ryan McAleenan, who missed the Championship through injury, and this time it’s been Colm Flanagan, who only came on the scene during this year’s Dr McKenna Cup.
By the second round of the League he was being entrusted with shackling Colm O’Neill, whom he kept to a single point, and he retained his place for the entirety, turning in a series of growing performances to almost certainly secure a starting summer berth.
3. Paddy Burns (Armagh)
THE Forkhill defender has been on the Orchard panel for a couple of seasons but thanks to a series of injuries, was prevented from making his debut until the Dr McKenna Cup win over Down in January.
But he settled instantly into the groove and went on to star in their run to their promotion back to Division Two. Grew better as the season went on and that culminated in a particularly outstanding display in the decider against Fermanagh, where he was the best player on the park.
4. Eoghan Gallagher (Donegal)
MADE his breakthrough under Rory Gallagher, as so many of their emerging stars did, and made a starting place his own last year in a new-look defence. But this season has seen the 21-year-old Killybegs man take another significant step forward to become a real leader in terms of both the defensive and counter-attacking elements of their game.
Settled into the number four jersey early in the League and scored in each of their last five games. Was a rare bright spark in the Tyrone defeat and carried that form into the end of the League, kicking two fine points in another good display against Mayo.
5. Ciaran Brady (Cavan)
‘THE Holla’ Brady is a nickname of which recognition has now extended beyond the Cavan border and that’s largely down to his form over the last two years becoming hard to ignore. Seems to have replaced Conor Moynagh as the team’s free man at the heart of their defence and is equally as keen to get forward.
Has the feet of an attacker, kicking points off left and right throughout the campaign, and is a particularly relentless tackler. Any team with eyes on beating Cavan will need to keep one of them on his attacking raids.
6. Frank Burns (Tyrone)
DIDN’T come into the team until late on in the League because of a combination of Sigerson commitments and then a resulting injury, but he made such an impact on the tail end of Tyrone’s campaign that he earns a spot regardless.
His performance in the number six role against Kerry drew the kind of praise Mickey Harte doesn’t give out too lightly: “It was as good a performance that we have seen from a Tyrone player at any level over the years.” The Pomeroy man may have found a home and is one to watch this summer.
7. Karl O’Connell (Monaghan)
IT had been a long winter for O’Connell with his involvement in the International Rules and yet he was straight back into Dr McKenna Cup duty, and played in all seven of Monaghan’s League games. If you watched a highlights show or even read your average match report, you might never know how influential he is, but his form this year was in keeping with the past few seasons.
Stood out especially in the magnificent win over Dublin in Croke Park, but was a consistent source of energy throughout the campaign.
8. Mattie Donnelly (Tyrone)
NEARLY worth the inclusion for that winning point in Kildare alone. Going away from goal, five minutes into injury time on his weaker left foot, all the years spent working on it paid off to secure a precious win that kick-started Tyrone’s run to safety.
At times he was deeper lying than was effective for the Red Hands but when he got opportunities to go at teams, he showed how dangerous he can be. Was at his best down in Castlebar, tormenting Mayo with well-timed incisions and finishing with four points from play.
9. Emmett Bradley (Derry)
IN an otherwise very forgettable league season for Derry, Emmett Bradley was the one real bright spark. The Glen man had opted out last year but has come back in this season and has hit the ground running. Damian McErlain has entrusted him and Conor McAtamney with permanent midfield positions and it has paid dividend in their individual performances.
Looking like a pedigree racehorse, his ability to cover the ground with his long stride has seen him pop up in good attacking positions throughout, while his procurement of the left-footed frees has enabled him to score heavily.
10. Dara McVeety (Cavan)
McVEETY has been one of the stars of recent seasons but since being handed the captaincy by Mattie McGleenan, he seems to have gone on to another plain. Started the League in his usual covering, line-breaking role from deep but as it went on, he found himself further and further forward.
His performance against Tipperary at full-forward helped turn the game and ultimately seal promotion, while he was again outstanding in Croke Park against Roscommon, hitting 1-3 from play and winning a penalty. His pace and versatility will be a huge asset to Cavan, provided his hamstring injury isn’t too bad.
11. Ethan Rafferty (Armagh)
HE might have had a quiet final in Croke Park but that doesn’t throw a blanket over the fact that it was his first game back and, prior to his knee injury, Rafferty had been the standout forward on an in-form team. Given a defined role on the inside forward line, the Grange man responded by hitting 2-18 in the first four games, all but three points of it from play.
His ability to kick scores from distance allows him to drift out more effectively than others, but in tandem with Andy Murnin (who is very unfortunate to miss out here) has presented a physical presence that will trouble Fermanagh and beyond this summer.
12. Cathal McShane (Tyrone)
McSHANE, prior to this season, fell into a group with the likes of Kieran McGeary, Conor Meyler and Rory Brennan, where they’d get a run in the team and then drop out again. You could never be sure he’d start any given week.
But the 2017 Sigerson winner has stepped out of that shadow this spring. His physical development seems to have taken him to another level and Mickey Harte has been able to alternate him between midfield and the full-forward line. Scored in five of their seven games, and his general play has been superb.
13. Lee Brennan (Tyrone)
THERE has been a bit of patience required on all sides. Brennan was biting to get at it and the Tyrone supporters, frustrated by their inconsistency in the inside division, were crying for Mickey Harte to unleash the 21-year-old Trillick man.
He got his chance against Dublin of all teams, and that was about all we needed to see. He led their defence a merry dance in the first half, with his speed across the ground and sumptuous dummy catching the eye. Went on to score 2-31 across his six games and has well and truly nailed himself into a summer starting spot.
14. Conor McManus (Monaghan)
ANY time you judge Conor McManus, you tend to judge him by the best of his own ridiculously high standards, and that has become an unfair barometer. When you judge the Clontibret man to the same bar as everyone else, he continues to stand out above it.
It wasn’t so much the volume of his scores this spring (although he hit 1-18, 1-11 of that came from frees) as it was the quality of some of them. His two successive scores against Donegal, his long-range effort against Dublin, those moments stood out in a Farney attack that is learning to function around him.
15. Paddy McBrearty (Donegal)
HIS talents have hardly been a secret given that Jim McGuinness trusted him so implicitly as a teenager, but it’s only in Colm McFadden’s retirement and Michael Murphy’s constant stay out the park that he has finally blossomed into joining that elite band of the best forwards in Ireland.
Not only were his early tallies phenomenal in terms of numbers – 0-10, 0-9 and 0-7 in his first three games – but the quality of his score-taking was right out of the top drawer. A little more development of his right foot would make him virtually unplayable.