The one player that I pretended to be playing football in the garden as a youngster was the one and only Jack O’Shea. I loved to be him, soloing the ball before blasting it against the fence as if to score a goal. The celebration would then follow and the process would be repeated time after time, day after day. Jack was one of the greatest midfielders of all time and one of the most iconic players of the 1980s. He was an absolute hero of mine. I loved how he played the game and watching him in the green and gold of Kerry during his prime was a sight to behold.
I have met my hero on a number of occasions but there is one moment that stands out. Back in 2010 when I was the captain of Ireland, Anthony Tohill asked Jack to come in and present the squad with their jerseys the night before the first match in Limerick. I remember chatting briefly to Jack just before he entered the room and he was tingling with nerves. This was such a surprise to me but it showed his honest nature. He considered he was entering a room full of the GAA’s finest players when in fact he was the finest of us all that was in the room. When thanking him for giving up his time after presenting us with a firm handshake and our jerseys, I told him that he was the player that I always wanted to be. I was delighted I had the opportunity to do so.
Other players that I also loved to watch growing up all happened to be midfielders too. Tohill, Willie Joe Padden and Gregory McCartan would be three of them. These players stood out both physically and figuratively. Seeing how they could pluck balls out of the sky and kickstart an immediate attack for their team would get me excited. Watching them go through the wars for their team and mix things up in the middle is another aspect that I loved. These guys could also kick points and they seemed to be the main free-takers for their team. Not too often we see midfielders being their team’s main free-taker nowadays but back then, midfielders seemed to have the full package. They did in my eyes anyway. Tohill kicked some unbelievable points and some really important goals for Derry during his career. As mentioned above, his talents didn’t just lie there. He was an outstanding manager as I found out with Ireland and not just because he chose me as his captain in 2010. His attention to detail and his ability to learn from losing in 2010 to winning the Cormac McAnallen cup in 2011 can only be admired.
McCartan was a colossus for Down during the 1990s and I actually ended up playing Railway Cup with him. He had an arrogance about him on the field that certainly filtered through to his teammates and had a brilliant technique when striking frees from the ground. He was unique because he had one of the best drop-kicks I ever seen and his timing always seemed to be spot on because it certainly is not an easy art to master. He could do this at ease with both feet. He is as legendary on a night out as he was on the field playing. The nearest I ever got to Willie Joe, was playing alongside his son Billy Joe and having him work alongside me as a coach with the Armagh U21 side. He is a knowledgeable guy when it comes to football as his analysis for Newstalk can justify and I’m sure that this was something he learnt a great deal from by having such an iconic father.
I love how the game is played nowadays and the tactical awareness that each manager and coach brings to the party, but I don’t feel that we are producing these types of midfielders enough. Midfielders that really had the full package. Yes, we do have David Moran, Brian Fenton and Gary Brennan currently playing that have all the attributes of the guys named above but these players are rare nowadays. I don’t think that the mark has hurt our games and maybe given more time we will start to see the re-emergence of the high-catching midfielder. Kildare won 100% of their own kick-outs against Laois the last day out so maybe this is a good sign for things to come. Once we have them catching, we need to get them kicking scores from play, taking frees, back defending, hitting crunching shoulders and mixing it up. We need them to be the full package again. Just like the good old days.