Football

Oak Leafs lead the way in Neil Loughran's Ulster Allstar side

Paul Cassidy (Derry) and Rian O'Neill (Armagh) both make it into Neil Loughran's Ulster Allstar select. Picture by Philip Walsh
Paul Cassidy (Derry) and Rian O'Neill (Armagh) both make it into Neil Loughran's Ulster Allstar select. Picture by Philip Walsh Paul Cassidy (Derry) and Rian O'Neill (Armagh) both make it into Neil Loughran's Ulster Allstar select. Picture by Philip Walsh

1. Rory Beggan (Monaghan) 

WITH his booming kick-outs, monster frees and ability to join play, Beggan’s basic skills as a goalkeeper have occasionally come under scrutiny. This year, Monaghan wouldn’t have reached the All-Ireland semi-final had it not been for some superb interventions from the Scotstown man. Made a crucial late save to deny Ronan McNamee in the dramatic Ulster win over Tyrone, brilliant stops from Daniel and Neil Flynn kept the Farney in the game against Kildare, before he was the penalty hero against Armagh.

2. Conor McCluskey (Derry) 

ANOTHER brilliant year for the Magherafelt flyer, who has become some adept at shutting the door at one end before bolting through at the other. Kept a lid on Ryan Lyons before running Conor McManus into the ground, scoring Derry’s goal in that Ulster semi-final win over Monaghan. Successfully shackled Jason Duffy then Conor Turbitt in the provincial final, poured a gallon of water on the Oisin Gallen fire in Ballybofey and edged a brilliant battle with Paudie Clifford in the All-Ireland semi-final.

3. Eoin McEvoy (Derry)

IT is a measure of the faith held in McEvoy that Derry were so eager to shift Brendan Rogers out to midfield. The transition was seamless, thanks largely to McEvoy making it look so easy. High, low, however you like it, the 19-year-old is coolness personified. Brilliant when moved onto Andrew Murnin in the Ulster final, while Darragh McGurn, Hugh McFadden, Karl Gallagher, Conor Corbett and Kerry’s Paul Geaney also got little change.

4. Aidan Forker (Armagh) 

ALREADY confirmed his intention to come back for more, which should be music to the ears of Armagh supporters. A leader, a competent man-marker, and a weapon when raiding forward. While opponents can sometimes become preoccupied with Ethan Rafferty’s forays out the field, it remains a mystery how Forker – for so long one of the top forwards in Armagh – is allowed space to do damage. Carried the fight to Monaghan, and didn’t deserve to finish up on the losing side.

5. Karl O’Connell (Monaghan) 

LOOKED like the clock was winding down on the 35-year-old’s county career, only to spring into life when summer arrived. Trademark bursts pierced holes in the Tyrone defence as Monaghan snatched victory at the death, brilliant in defeat against Derry, then popped up with the late leveller against the Oak Leafs in the All-Ireland round robin. Crucial late intervention as the Farney edged beyond Kildare, demanded to go back into battle against Armagh, giving every ounce. Epitomises all that is good about Monaghan.

6. Gareth McKinless (Derry) 

DILIGENT if not dynamic through Ulster, held his defensive station in the provincial decider with Armagh - one first half burst aside – and showed his discipline through the round-robin. Came alive in Croke Park, where Cork were unable to live with his energy as Derry advanced. Shane Ryan’s second half save proved a what-might-have-been moment, but it was the Ballinderry man who found the net in the first half and was relentless in taking the fight to the Kerry.

7. Conor McCarthy (Monaghan) 

A RELEVATION after necessity became the mother of invention at half-time against Tyrone. With the Red Hand attack ripping Monaghan to shreds, a defensive reshuffle saw McCarthy moved from forward to wing-back – the Scotstown man was superb in a second half fightback, and the rest is history. Had played that role under Seamus McEnaney at times, and there can no longer be any question this is where his pace and directness are best utilised.

8. Conor Glass (Derry) 

UNABLE to assert himself as the semi-final slipped from Derry’s grasp, but Glass can reflect on another hugely influential year. Makes the game look so easy, his ability to snuff out danger was particularly evident in the Ulster final win over Armagh. Considering he has been on the go for 18 months with barely a break due to club and county commitments, a remarkable effort.

9. Brendan Rogers (Derry) 

AN incredible athlete and an incredible asset to any team, whether with a ball at his boot or a hurl in his hand. Hardly a surprise to see Rogers thrive after being liberated from full-back, his energy and aggression the perfect foil for the more defensive-minded Glass. Bossed the first half of the Ulster final, notching a goal along the way, and level barely dipped. Saved the best for what proved to be the last, running himself into the ground as the Oak Leafs just came up short against Kerry.

10. Paul Cassidy (Derry)

HAS an uncanny knack of popping up in the right place, often clinical cutting inside on the loop, relieving some of the scoring burden from Shane McGuigan among the forward division. Radar was off in the Ulster final but otherwise a model of consistency, his selfless running creating space for those around him. Found Gavin Whyte hard to get a handle on early in the All-Ireland semi-final, but warmed to the task with two classy scores.

11. Rian O’Neill (Armagh) 

A CAMPAIGN hampered by niggly injuries and suspension saw O’Neill’s influence take hold in moments rather than outright domination. Quality told as Down were swept aside in Ulster semi-final, pulled Armagh up by the bootlaces at times against Derry, and was the man with ice in his veins to land the late levelling free that sent the game to penalties. Looked to have won All-Ireland quarter-final with Monaghan at the end of extra-time, only for the Orchard to fall short.

12. Darragh Canavan (Tyrone)

THE smile said it all. Injury woes finally behind him, it felt like he had the full faith of the Red Hand management – and Canavan relished the trust placed in him. Few players are better to watch when on-song, with the Errigal Ciaran ace negotiating the Championship’s land of giants with craft and cuteness. Led Monaghan a merry dance at times, came up with two massive scores against Armagh and, alongside brother Ruairi, was brilliant against Donegal and during the early stages of defeat to Kerry.

13. Darren McCurry (Tyrone)

A MODEL of consistency. Rampant in first half against Monaghan, carried the fight to Galway and magnificent in victory over Armagh. Even if he didn’t quite hit those heights against Donegal or Kerry, it feels like a distant memory since the days when McCurry struggled to gain the trust of a county.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR 

14. Shane McGuigan (Derry) 

REMEMBER when people used to say Derry’s main problem was the lack of a marquee forward? Well Shane McGuigan has been the premier forward – the premier player - in Ulster this year, and among the very best in the country. Underlined his class against Kerry, despite being knocked from pillar to post, and produced a tour de force in the Ulster final – deadly accurate, nerveless and superb vision to unlock the Armagh defence. Above all, though, showed incredible leadership to step up and take charge when games hung in the balance.

15. Andrew Murnin (Armagh) 

MAY not have the guile or grace of a Darragh Canavan, but there is something exhilirating about watching Murnin in full flight. Carries such an aerial threat in the square, just a shame this was only seen in bursts as he mostly ended out the field to fetch kick-outs. Considering the injuries that have dogged so much of his county career, it is a pleasure to see the Lurgan man firing on all cylinders.

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