GAA Football

McCurry leads the charge with Red Hands' fab five to the fore

Tyrone's Darren McCurry celebrates his goal during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Between Tyrone and Mayo at Croke Park Dublin 09-11-2021. Pic Philip Walsh.
ANDY WATTERS

YOU could make cases for at least 13 players for the six forward slots in this year’s Irish News Allstars team. Six counties are represented and others would surely have forced their way into the reckoning but the knockout system meant that for some there was only one chance to impress in this year’s Championship.

Tyrone had most games – five in total – and their forward unit made the most of those on the way to winning the Sam Maguire. The Red Hands’ scintillating form earned them five Allstar nominations and all five of those feature in this list.

Darren McCurry was the scorer-in-chief for Tyrone last summer. The Edendork maestro made hay throughout Ulster and the All-Ireland series and finished with a total of 1-30 over his five outings.

He signalled his intention with a haul of 10 points in Tyrone’s opener against Cavan and, showing consistency from frees, marks and open play, McCurry continued to score heavily as Tyrone’s season continued. He contributed 0-5 against Monaghan in the Ulster final before hitting four more points against Kerry in the semi-final. His gleeful goal against Mayo in the All-Ireland decider was the cherry on the top of a brilliant season for him and his county.

Cathal McShane went from strength-to-strength as the season continued and a series of defenders must have had tears in their eyes as they saw him sprint onto the field as a substitute. McShane’s 1-3 was crucial in Tyrone’s win over Kerry and he also found the net against Mayo in the final.

Mattie Donnelly was a tower of strength at full-forward all season and the Trillick clubman used his physicality and experience to provide a potent outlet throughout the Championship campaign. His versatility enables him to play in a number of positions but he looks most at home in the number 14 jersey and was the focal point of the Red Hand attack.

Further out the field, Niall Sludden repeatedly demonstrated his class and confidence with crucial scores. A genuine post-to-post player, Sludden never shirked his defensive duties but he was able to get forward and contribute crucial scores in the wins over Donegal and Monaghan and he also landed two points in the All-Ireland final.

There is more to come from Conor McKenna but he made his presence felt in his first senior season. McKenna’s running-power and passing ability created space and scoring opportunities for his colleagues and he was instrumental in Tyrone’s success.

Meanwhile, the mainstays of the Monaghan attack were Jack McCarron and Conor McManus. McCarron put his injury problems behind him to bag 1-2 against Fermanagh in Monaghan’s opener and he also found the Armagh net with a goal-of-the-season contender in the semi-final at Pairc Esler when he demonstrated physical strength, skill and finishing ability in one fell swoop.

Alongside him, the peerless McManus was his usual excellent and indestructible self. He hobbled off St Tiernach’s Park after picking up an injury against Fermanagh but returned to score 1-6 against Armagh and four more points as Monaghan pushed Tyrone all the way in the Ulster final at Croke Park.

That Monaghan-Armagh game was easily the best of the Ulster series and the Armagh forwards played their part in an unforgettable shoot-out. Rian O’Neill top-scored for the Orchardmen with six points on the day and he’d done the same in the quarter-final win against Antrim (1-5). Alongside his scoring ability he is a ball-winner and a leader who is equally at home as a mobile or targetman full-forward or in a roving role further out the field.

Rory Grugan continued his consistent excellence in the orange jersey. The Ballymacnab talisman had managed 1-2 against the Saffrons and he added 0-3 as Armagh came within a whisker of beating Monaghan. Conor Turbitt’s contribution also deserves consideration. The Clann Eireann forward registered 1-1 as the Orchardmen broke down stubborn Antrim and he scored the same again, including a brilliant fisted goal, in the Ulster semi-final.

Down went into their Championship preliminary round game with the confidence of having secured their place in Division Two but they were a distant second to Donegal on the day. However, one of the few positives on a disappointing evening for the Mournemen was the display of Barry O’Hagan. The fleet-footed forward took the fight to Donegal from first whistle to last and ended up with eight points (four from play) out of Down’s 1-12.

Paddy McBrearty scored a superb winner against Derry but the pick of the Donegal forwards last summer was Michael Langan. Alongside his languid running and clever playmaking, Langan top-scored against the Oak Leafers and added two more as Donegal bowed out at the semi-final stage.

Elsewhere, Shane McGuigan’s efforts for Derry pushed Donegal to the brink in a terrific north-west derby. McGuigan had already three points to his credit before he kicked a nerveless equaliser only for McBrearty to see Donegal over the line.

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