Growing up one of my favourite television programmes was Match of the Day.
This was long before wall to wall coverage and numerous live games being available on satellite television. The presenters during those years were Jimmy Hill, who was hard to listen to, and Des Lynam who was a very smooth operator.
It’s fair to say my love for the programme has diminished over the years as I don’t have nearly the same interest in the game as I did in my younger years. Part of the reason for that is that money is now god in the game, emphasised recently by Liverpool’s shocking decision to furlough their staff during the COVID crisis. Only a public outcry, much of it from their own fan base, forced a rethink and subsequent change of mind. Thankfully in the GAA we haven’t quite lost the run of ourselves with money to the extent that our morals have been totally abandoned.
Going back to my point about Match of the Day. Lately without any action to show, Gary Lineker, another smooth operator, Ian Wright and Alan Shearer have been discussing their top tens in a range of areas such as goal scorers, defenders, etc. It does pain me a bit to say it but it has made for good viewing at times, though watching Alan Shearer put himself at number one as the best goal scorer summed up for me the egotistical nature of the game. I could never see a time where Seamus Callanan and TJ Reid would put themselves top in such a poll. Our top players are much too modest and thank god for that.
The programme did get me thinking of my top picks in hurling. So, for this week’s column I am putting forward my top five hurlers of all time. These are players that I have witnessed in my lifetime, so doesn’t include the older greats like Christy Ring. I am not going to lie I have been such a fan of Kilkenny over the last 20 years it was very nearly made up entirely of the black and amber, but I resisted in the interests of some balance. Apologies to Tipp fans in advance.
5 Joe Canning
Fifth place was actually my toughest choice as I knew my top four very quickly. I eventually opted for Joe Canning the Portumna and Galway great. Canning is an exceptional talent with four All-Ireland club titles, one Liam McCarthy and five All stars with a scoring record that would make your eyes water. He can do things with the ball that few in the game can do and has lived up to the enormous expectations on his shoulders. His importance to Galway was emphasised by their poor showing last year when he was out injured.
4 TJ Reid
Still going strong at the age of 32 the Ballyhale man has 7 inter county All-Irelands with Kilkenny and 5 with his club. Remarkably consistent with an incredible scoring record his ability to excel in the big moments make him one of the all-time greats. Even though Kilkenny are not the dominant force they once were Reid continues to stand out and doesn’t look like he is finished entertaining us just yet.
3 Brian Whelehan
The Birr and Offaly man broke my own clubs’ hearts on more than once occasion in our search for All-Ireland glory. A Rolls Royce of a player he made the game look effortless. Deceptively quick, with exceptional vision he was one of the few recent players to make the GAA’s team of the millennium. He had the uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time and spearheaded both his club and county to All-Ireland glory on more than one occasion.
2 DJ Carey
This man was very nearly my number one as he was an absolute joy to watch. Nine All stars and two Hurler of the year awards gives you some idea of how good he was. Lightening quick, he is probably the most skilfull and easy on the eye player in my top five and quite why he wasn’t selected on the GAA’s Millennium team is hard to fathom. Carey really did have it all and had a tremendous ability to win his own ball and make things happen out of nothing. I always remember his famous quote “the only bad ball into a forward is no ball at all”. That for me summed him up, basically his message was get the ball into me and I’ll take it from there. He rarely disappointed.
1 Henry Shefflin
It probably comes as no surprise that the King himself is my number one. His achievements in the game are absolutely staggering. Ten All-Irelands with Kilkenny, three with his club Ballyhale, eleven All-Stars, hurler of the year three times, RTE sports person of the year, the list goes on. He has also recently taken his club to back to back All-Ireland club titles in his first management role. Not as eye catching as Carey could be but he had an insatiable appetite for the game and his work rate as a forward set the standards for those around him. As Cody said when he retired “Henry got the best out of himself”. Typically understated by Cody but Shefflin at his best shone brightly in probably the best team ever to play the game. That is why he is greatest of all.