THIS journalism lark certainly isn’t coal-mining. These past couple of weeks we’ve had the pleasure at Irish Post towers of poring over highlights shows, fans forums and match reports in the cause of bringing you the team of the season so far. While a league all-stars selection won’t bring the controversy of the real thing this autumn, it is a fun exercise and a barometer of the footballers in form as spring turns to summer.
1 Alan Quirke (Cork)
When the ball was thrown in for the 2007 All-Ireland final, Quirke was regarded as one of the most solid keepers in the country. Seventy minutes later, his reputation was in tatters after he was involved in handing Kerry two of their three goals. That reputation is, by now, restored. Quirke will never stand out in the way that Stephen Cluxton does, but he makes all aspects of his job seem effortless and he has rebuilt from that day in September five years ago in a similar manner to the rest of Conor Counihan’s side. He faces his stiffest competition from within the side; Ken O’Halloran played several league games this year and was more than up to the task, but Quirke’s experience and kick out will see him get the nod.
2 Peter Kelly (Kildare)
Of all the reasons for Kieran McGeeney to be optimistic, the return of Kelly, an All-Star in 2010, after a year out with injury is one of the most compelling. He looks set to repeat that form this year, and was hugely effective in the division two decider against Tyrone.
3 Michael Shields (Cork)
If you look at the first half of the league campaign, then Shields might seem a strange choice. He had a troublesome afternoon against Kerry in March – even if the quality of ball to Declan O’Sullivan did him no favours – and missed the trip to Donegal. However, he was as resurgent as the rest of Conor Counihan’s side during the comeback in Castlebar, and that upsurge in form continued all the way to the second clash with Mayo, when he gave a commanding performance. Many Cork fans would still like him to be deployed at half-back in a switch with Graham Canty, but the latter’s impressive form at number six means Counihan is unlikely to see it that way.
4 Eoin Cadogan (Cork)
Regardless of anything else he did this spring, Cadogan’s man-of-the-match performance in the league final is enough for him make this team. Brings wonderful aggression and pace that again would not see him out of place further out the field, though the way he snuffed out Conor Mortimer proves that he is probably Cork’s best man marker and thus needed closer to goal.
5 Gareth Bradshaw (Galway)
There were no shortage of half-backs to impress in the NFL; if you look at our ‘second XV’ below you’ll realise we could just as easily have selected the half-back line listed there. However, Bradshaw was one of the driving forces behind Galway’s encouraging campaign under Alan Mulholland. That he is here as much for what he contributed in an attacking sense suggests that Galway will be entertaining to watch this summer.
6 Peter Harte (Tyrone)
His scoring exploits are well-documented but Harte is also one of the men that makes this Tyrone team tick, and if the league final tempered expectations, we ought to still remember that Mickey Harte’s side’s record in 2012 reads played 13, won 12, and the centre-back has been the most consistent performer throughout. However, one worry is that he was limited to 12 possessions against Kildare, something that will have been noted in Armagh, where preparations for an Athletic Grounds ambush are underway. Harte’s next challenge is to prove that he can still influence a game even when the opposition target him for special attention, and his manager will think long and hard about whether his red-headed protegee might still benefit at times from a half-forward role.
7 Colm Boyle (Mayo)
One question facing Mayo last winter was how to add fresh impetus to their encouraging autumn. One positive answer that James Horan came up with was the addition of Boyle, whose aggression and determination more than compensates for any deficiencies he has in physical stature. The proof came in his man-of-the-match performance against Kerry in the league semi-final, and the Davitts man is now set fair for his first full championship campaign since 2008.
8 Bryan Sheehan (Kerry)
Though teams such as Cork, Tyrone, Mayo and Kildare have hogged recent headlines, it should not be forgotten that Sheehan was the pre-eminent force in a team that clearly dominated the top division. His late miss against Mayo doesn’t even come close to keeping him off our selection.
9 Anthony Maher (Kerry)
Sheehan’s emergence as one of the best footballers in the country has been well flagged, but Maher’s growth as a player will be just as encouraging to Jack O’Connor. He was a powerful physical course in an area of the field where Kerry were especially dominant. Question marks about the speed of his distribution remain, though he is well down the road toward answering them.
10 Darran O’Sullivan (Kerry)
His teammates Declan O’Sullivan and Patrick Curtin were most unfortunate not to make our first XV, but Darran gets the nod for the equally impressive consistency of his offering, and he looks ready to repeat last summer’s form.
11 Andy Moran (Mayo)
Is there a more improved player in Ireland these past few years, or a better advertisement for Horan’s work in Mayo? A super-confident, creative force, Moran used to divide opinion about whether he was good enough; now the only question is whether he is better deployed on the 45 or the 14. The league final was enough to change our opinion on that; while Moran was the league’s outstanding centre-forward, Mayo need him more inside.
12 Paul Finlay (Monaghan)
One of the annoying, if understandable, things about All-Star selections is that outstanding players in struggling teams seldom get a look-in, and Finlay was outstanding, particularly in the early part of the league, when he was up there with Sheehan as the country’s most in-form footballer.
13 Sean McCormack (Longford)
We’ve only seen one of Longford’s eight outings this spring, but reports suggest that at least five of their players should be in contention for this team. McCormack’s hugely impressive free-taking hauls give him the nod. He scored nine points in the final and had previously bettered that with 0-10 against Offaly and Sligo.
14 Michael Murphy (Donegal)
It will come as a huge relief for Cavan that Murphy (pictured) will miss the Ulster SFC opener this month through injury, for the way he carried the fight in a difficult cause for Donegal when he was available was most impressive, while his side’s struggles when he wasn’t prove his value. His screamer against Cork was particularly memorable.
15 Kyle Coney (Tyrone)
If Tyrone falter this summer, many a Red Hand supporter will rue the groin injury Coney picked up while kicking a free for Ardboe, for his performances suggested he was ready to deliver on the promise of the 2008 All-Ireland minor victory. He now misses the rest of the season.
Second XV: Stephen Cluxton (Dublin); Ray Carey (Cork), Michael Foley (Kildare), Kevin Keane (Mayo); Cathal McCarron (Tyrone), Michael Quinn (Longford), Emmet Bolton (Kildare); Bernard McElvaney (Longford), Aidan O’Shea (Mayo); Darren Clarke (Louth), Paul Barden (Longford), Declan O’Sullivan (Kerry); Patrick Curtin (Kerry), Seamus Quigley (Fermanagh), Eoghan O’Gara (Dublin).