Football

Alternative Allstars: best of the rest in Ulster up for debate

Tyrone captain Padraig Hampsey (left) marked his Kerry counterpart David Clifford in both League and Championship.
Tyrone captain Padraig Hampsey (left) marked his Kerry counterpart David Clifford in both League and Championship. Tyrone captain Padraig Hampsey (left) marked his Kerry counterpart David Clifford in both League and Championship.

THE original pitch for this piece was to be an assessment of the contenders for the 2023 Ulster Player of the Year.

Yet even with my famed ‘padding’ skills, I’d have been hard pushed to get that past 150 words.

Let’s not waste anyone’s time, or space.

  • Derry, Monaghan, Armagh and Tyrone feature as Andy Watters picks his Ulster Allstars
  • Oak Leafs lead the way in Neil Loughran's Ulster Allstar side

Derry’s full-forward Shane McGuigan was the top scorer overall in the Championship, with 2-52, edging out Kerry captain David Clifford by a single point.

Yet the Slaughtneil man, like his Kingdom counterpart, is so much more than ‘just’ a scoring machine.

McGuigan provides real leadership, drive, and determination. He ships serious punishment and just gets on with his game, drawing defenders to him, creating space for team-mates.

His club and county colleague Brendan Rogers was excellent too, including huge games against Dublin in the League and then in the narrow All-Ireland semi-final loss to Kerry, but McGuigan is the main man.

He’s surely a worthy winner of the overall award for Ulster, and should definitely be in among the contenders for the All-Ireland Footballer of the Year.

Shane McGuigan has been the best forward in Ulster this year, leading Derry to a second Ulster title in-a-row. Picture by Philip Walsh
Shane McGuigan has been the best forward in Ulster this year, leading Derry to a second Ulster title in-a-row. Picture by Philip Walsh Shane McGuigan has been the best forward in Ulster this year, leading Derry to a second Ulster title in-a-row. Picture by Philip Walsh

As with the top award, much of the 2023 Irish News Allstars team should surely provoke little debate.

However, having tried (and failed) for years to have these awards branded as ‘The Ul-Stars’, I nod to my colleague Simon Doyle and offer up some Alternative All-Stars.

I’m not saying who should drop out of any of the top 15s put forward by my sportsdesk colleagues; these are just options to consider.

Beyond Monaghan’s Rory Beggan, backed by both Cahair O’Kane and Neil Loughran, Andy Watters opted for Derryman Odhran Lynch.

Armagh goalkeeper Ethan Rafferty has plenty of supporters in the voting. The Grange clubman conceded just four goals in eight matches – not counting the penalty shoot-outs against Derry and Monaghan. Obviously there’s much more to his game than that, operating as an extra outfielder on many occasions, and even kicking scores.

Tyrone’s netminder Niall Morgan let in four goals in their six games, two each against Monaghan and Kerry in their two defeats, but he too provides the all-round template for the modern-day goalkeeper.

In defence, Red Hand captain Padraig Hampsey should come into consideration, IMNSHO. The first job of a defender remains to restrict the man he’s marking and the Coalisland man remains one of the best at that. Monaghan’s Jack McCarron was taken off having made little impact, and nor did Conor McManus or Sean Jones.

Similarly, Galway’s Damien Comer only managed one point off Hampsey, despite the Tribesmen being a man up for most of that match and two up for 10 minutes while Morgan was in the ‘sin bin’ having been black-carded. Armagh star Rian O’Neill’s frustration at the close attention of Hampsey surely contributed to the Crossmaglen man losing his discipline and receiving an admittedly harsh red card.

Even Kerry captain David Clifford did not do great damage against Hampsey, scoring just one point from play, although the Fossa forward did add a mark and convert three frees.

While Derry duo Brendan Rogers and Conor Glass were understandably selected by all three of my colleagues, Tyrone’s Brian Kennedy could have a case to displace the latter at midfield. He was excellent against Monaghan and solid throughout, apart from against Kerry when almost all the Red Hands fell short.

In the half-forward line there’s little debate about the inclusion of both Derry’s Paul Cassidy and Tyrone tyro Darragh Canavan. Completing that department looks likely to be an Armagh man – take your pic from Rian O’Neill, Ciaran Mackin, or Rory Grugan.

It’s a similar story on the inside forward line. Only a fool would not select Shane McGuigan and Armagh’s Andy Murnin has also made all three of our reporters’ teams, having once again shown his aerial ability and value to his team, even if was often deployed deeper.

The other slot is a debate between Tyrone’s Darren McCurry, Pat Havern of Down, and Monaghan maestro Conor McManus, although Armagh might throw another name into the mix, that of Conor Turbitt. The last-named started the Ulster Championship superbly, but faded somewhat after that.

Down's Danny Magill (right) impressed for the Mourne County seniors.
Down's Danny Magill (right) impressed for the Mourne County seniors. Down's Danny Magill (right) impressed for the Mourne County seniors.

Down do have their backers, having defeated Donegal and reached the Tailteann Cup Final. As noted, attacker Pat Havern made Cahair O’Kane’s selection and arguments can certainly also be made for the versatile and youthful duo of Danny Magill and Odhran Murdock.

The Donegal constituency still has its say, despite defeats by Down, Derry, and Tyrone, and they’ll point to their win over eventual All-Ireland semi-finalists Monaghan. Defenders Brendan McCole, Caolan McGonagle, and forwards Oisin Gallen and Conor O’Donnell are the Tir Chonaill players who have attracted support.

For Fermanagh, Ultan Kelm was their main man, while Tailteann Cup semi-finalists Antrim have advocates for Marc Jordan and Dominic McEnhill.

Cavan followers appear to have accepted that it was a pretty disappointing year for them, in Championship at least.

In truth, it’s hard to look past just four counties, Derry, Armagh, Monaghan, and Tyrone, for this year’s awards.