GAA Football

Tyrone's Kennedy and Kilpatrick and Armagh's Rian O'Neill the soaring stars around midfield

Tyrone midfielder Brian Kennedy in action with against Mayo's Lee Keegan in the All-Ireland SFC Final. Picture Seamus Loughran

APART from goalkeeper, midfield is obviously the department with the fewest contenders - but there are still more than double the number in the latter compared to the former.

The 'third midfielder' may be old hat but the middle third is now more congested than the late lamented Quinn's used to be on All-Ireland Final days. It's all about 'the middle eight'.

The amount of contenders to consider is increased by tactical switches and substitutions too. Nominal forwards can come out around the middle, while a number of midfielders were regularly pushed up towards the attacking 'square' when scores were required.

Modern midfielders arguably get a fair amount of help, but there's also plenty of hindrance in the form of half-backs and half-forwards buffeting around and challenging for possession. Even blooming goalkeepers are getting themselves involved in there now.

The quality of their kick-outs also has an obvious influence on perceptions of how midfielders perform. Opportunities to demonstrate aerial ability are less frequent than in the past, with the prevalence of the running game, even with 'the mark' factored in. If kick-outs aren't coming near midfield, but rather sent short, then the men in the middle have even less chance to catch the ball – and the eye.

Having said all that, Tyrone ended up winning the All-Ireland with the classic combination of two big men around the middle, Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick, with the latter's fine fetch in the final contributing to the important second goal against Mayo.

Kilpatrick didn't feature at all in the League until the 66th minute of the semi-final humiliation by Kerry down in Killarney.

Even Kennedy only played the first game, against Donegal, then Tyrone mostly went with Mattie Donnelly and A N Other.

Yet at least Kilpatrick started the Championship, against holders Cavan, with Kennedy only coming off the bench - but the impact he made earned him a starting slot the next day, alongside the Edendork man.

The Derrylaughan player netted against the Breffnimen and was a solid performer throughout the rest of the Championship run. Both Tyrone midfielders earned Allstar nominations there after excellent displays in the All-Ireland Final.

It's worth noting, though, that Mattie Donnelly often dropped back into the midfield in the final quarter after either Kennedy and/or Kilpatrick went off, and he too is an Allstar nominee, albeit among the forwards.

Armagh's Rian O'Neill is another Allstar contender at midfield, having played well throughout the season. Excellent against Tyrone in the Division One North encounter, he set up both Armagh goals and earned a penalty, as well as scoring a point - but that was against a midfield combination of Frank Burns and Declan McClure.

The Crossmaglen lad is tremendously talented, but often his skills are deployed neared to goal, sometimes around centre half-forward, occasionally even up towards the attacking 'square'.

In the other direction of play, if you're looking for a defensive midfielder then look no further than Donegal's Hugh McFadden, who arguably should wear the number 6 on his back such is his presence protecting the rearguard.

His nominal centre-field colleague Caolan McGonagle was much more of an attacking performer, notably in the Championship, kicking points against Derry and netting a goal against Tyrone, and threatening another, albeit when pushed further forward.

Yet another Donegal man, Michael Langan, can be considered in the midfield mix, and was certainly discussed in that department at the Allstar nominations before being included among the 18 best attackers. His point-scoring was a joy to behold, but his ball-winning, especially off the ground, is admirable too.

The Monaghan trio of Darren Hughes, Kieran Lavelle, and Niall Kearns all did well at times, with Hughes probably the pick of them. One of the most versatile players around, the Scotstown man did real damage going forward in the thriller against Armagh, but was curtailed by Tyrone in the Ulster Final.

Derry warmly welcomed the return of prodigal son Conor Glass from Aussie Rules last year and you could clearly see why this season. The Glen man had a pretty good game against Donegal in the Championship, impressive in aerial combat as well as kicking a splendid point and covering plenty of ground. Excellent in Derry's comfortable promotion from Division Three, he has the all-round ability to perform well at higher levels, both as a defensive screen and a link to attack.

The tall, experienced Niall McKeever was persuaded back into the Antrim set-up this year – but it was newcomer Conor Stewart who was more impressive. The All Saints, Ballymena man has an eye for a score, and his mobility and skill helped the Saffrons secure promotion from Division Four.

Cavan, Down, and Fermanagh all had difficult League campaigns and – like Antrim and Derry – only one Championship match each, but honourable mentions go to Conor Moynagh, Caolan Mooney, and Eoin Donnelly.

Yet although they 'only' really played in the Championship, it's hard to look past Tyrone's Special K pairing of Kennedy and Kilpatrick – although pairing either of them with Armagh's Rian O'Neill would make for a great midfield too.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access