Kenny Archer: the Hardest debate in Gaelic Football and Hurling kicks off again

Kenny Archer

Kenny Archer

Kenny is the deputy sports editor and a Liverpool FC fan.

John McDermott of Meath (left) doesn't even make the cut - although he still causes nightmares.
John McDermott of Meath (left) doesn't even make the cut - although he still causes nightmares. John McDermott of Meath (left) doesn't even make the cut - although he still causes nightmares.

MY love of books is such that my collection makes my loft rafters groan even more than my long-suffering wife.

So thank goodness for the digital age. Yet once I saw the email about a tome entitled 'The 50 Toughest, Meanest, Scariest Hard-Men in Gaelic Football History' [Big print. In bold.] I knew this was one I would want to read.

Author Eddie Ryan has compiled his selection, along with the equivalent version for Hurling.

Some might suggest that the publishers, Hero Books, should re-brand themselves for these publications, or at least launch a new imprint – Villain Volumes.

Then again, these aren’t (necessarily) ‘the dirtiest’ players, more those who could ‘handle themselves’ in any circumstances.

Ryan, in his introduction, describes them as follows: “An elite band of warriors who never took a backward step, or ever bent their knee on the field of battle. They walked the line and took it to the very edge and sometimes beyond…”

Besides, if we’re being honest with ourselves, amidst all the reminiscing that takes place in pubs and clubs, as well as debating who ‘the best’ were, and ‘the most skilful’, talk will often turn to who was ‘the hardest’.

It was long accepted that much of the appeal of the Compromise/ Hybrid/ International Rules games between Ireland and Australia was the threat of violence that they always carried.

Ahead of the season of goodwill, many will enjoy recalling ill will from seasons past.

Clearly I’m not going to make the mistake of arguing for the exclusion of anyone from this list. Any one of them could shatter my glass jaw into pieces if they chose to take umbrage.

Like other readers, though, I may wonder about the omission of some.

Many of the usual suspects are there – many of them from Meath, funnily enough, including Colm Coyle (he of the Mayo 1996 All-Ireland Final dust-up infamy), Graham Geraghty, and Mick Lyons.

Yet, strangely to my mind, there’s no place for that massive midfielder John McDermott. I still occasionally wake up at night, sweating, remembering the time I stood in his spot in the winners’ dressing room after an All-Ireland Final.

His growl still echoes in my nightmares, his glare still imprinted on my retinas. And, obviously given the Royals’ fall from grace, that’s more than 20 years ago.

Incidentally, McDermott was the Meath man that referee Pat McEnaney was about to send off following that almost all-in brawl in 1996 – until one of his umpires pointed out that Coyle “was after dropping about six of them.”

McDermott will be just one name among many mentioned.

Tyrone's Ryan McMenamin (right) gets up close and personal with Kerry legend Colm Cooper.
Tyrone's Ryan McMenamin (right) gets up close and personal with Kerry legend Colm Cooper. Tyrone's Ryan McMenamin (right) gets up close and personal with Kerry legend Colm Cooper.

The publishers claim that the 50 'Hardest Men' who ever played the game come from: Meath (7), Dublin (6), Kerry (6), Cork (5), Offaly (4), Mayo (3), Donegal (3), Tyrone (3), Armagh (2), Derry (2), Westmeath (1), Galway (1), Leitrim (1), Down (1), Roscommon (1), Monaghan (1), Sligo (1), Carlow (1), and Kildare (1).

Already there are people from 13 counties in Ireland saying, ‘What? What?! What about the boul John Joe?! Or Big Paddy?...’ And that’s not to mention some of the hallions you met in London or New York…

From an Ulster perspective, I quickly noticed that there was no one from Antrim or Fermanagh.

A cynic might say that offers some explanation as to why those are the two least successful counties in the northern province since the 1950s. You do need some sort of mean streak to separate winners from losers.

Yet equally Antrim followers could offer their own hard cases, while Fermanagh folk will do likewise.

After all, even a digger couldn’t see off Martin McGrath, but perhaps he does lose marks for being an absolutely lovely, friendly guy.

At least two Saffrons are selected in hurling.

As on the pitch in recent years, the leaders are Limerick (9), followed by Clare (6), Tipperary (6), Kilkenny (5), Galway (5), Offaly (4), Waterford (4), Cork (4), Wexford (3), Antrim (2), Dublin (1), and Laois (1).

That’s only a dozen counties, although hurling doesn’t have the depth and breadth of football. Even so, Down supporters, for example, will wince at the absence of some of the savage hurlers who lifted them to unprecedented heights in the Eighties and Nineties.

Without revealing too much, it’s somewhat surprising that the meanest footballer is said to be a goalkeeper.

Even more eyebrow-raising, the hardest hurler is a current player.


Remain to be convinced about that.

It may be mostly true that every generation thinks it’s the best – however, I’d say many believe that the generation of men (and women) in their 60s and 70s is definitely tougher than those of who us who have followed.

As regards the games themselves, hurling remains a code for the bravest, but there’s definitely far less physical contact in football than there used to be.

Look at footage from old county finals, from the Eighties or Nineties.

These men knew they were being filmed. And still they launched themselves through the air at each other (sometimes when their opponent had possession of the ball, often not). They attempted decapitations. Then pleaded their innocence. Perhaps got booked for a punch. But only if it was an absolute beezer.

No, football’s hard men are definitely of the past.

Yet even if, as we should reluctantly agree as a good thing, there may not be many modern-day names added to this conversation, we can also agree on something else:

It’s time for Volume 2 in each code, or at least to put these matters to a public vote.