Oakleafers

Maybe it’s just me, but this year’s All-Star awards (sponsored by those old GAA enthusiasts, PWC) generated more debate and were much more fun than usual.

This year’s response from the over-excitable masses (mainly Twitter and the sporting wing of digital media publishers) shouldn’t have necessarily come as a surprise. The 2017 All Ireland Final is probably the best match I’ve ever had the privilege to attend (and I’m including the overrated Derry v Down Celtic Park in 1994 encounter in that). It had everything you could wish to see in a top class sporting event. Two teams operating at the top of their game – brilliant scores, close finish. Drama, tension, joy, heartache. The lot.

But to top all that, Dublin and Mayo have developed an intriguing relationship that has crossed the line past mere bitterness, into sporting hatred. Lovely.

So, it only seems reasonable that the GAA’s rivalry du jour should spill into the off-season. And a debate over who is deserving of All-Star accolades is as good a place to play it out as any.

All-Ireland finalists share 13 (THIRTEEN) awards

In the end, the All-Ireland finalists shared thirteen All-Star awards. Dublin with seven and Mayo six. However, the two teams were so far ahead of the rest this year in terms of quality, entertainment and monopolisation of the sporting narrative that there’s an elitist argument they should have shared all fifteen spots between them (more on that later).

But thirteen they should be content with. And yet some of their followers still feel hard done by.

Clarke > Cluxton (in 2017 season)

The main bone of contention appears to be around the selection of David Clarke as goalkeeper over Stephen Cluxton. This particular decision was exacerbated by the fact both men were in the shortlist for player of the year – which seemed ridiculous in itself considering the number of star performers in the Dublin and Mayo teams*.

* The selection committee left themselves open to serious abuse here as they knew both goalkeepers couldn’t receive an All-Star and yet they were essentially announcing that they were both in the top three players in the country. Find another way folks, for Christ’s sake.

If it was a straight competition about who is the best goalkeeper in the country, then Cluxton could drive over to the Convention Centre every January and pick up his award there and then. He might have James McCarthy riding shotgun, with Jack McCaffrey in the back and not the single eyebrow would be raised.

But All-Stars are dished out on the season’s merit. To that end, David Clarke is a deserving recipient for the second consecutive year. From the second-round qualifier against Derry through to the September final (eight games, plus extra-times), Clarke was in imperious shot-stopping form, with a solid kickout return.

Cluxton didn’t quite have the same opportunity. He’s been credited with changing the face of the position, but in the All-Ireland Final, his innovative kickout strategy was thwarted by a wall of Mayo midfielders. Perhaps he lost the All-Star right there.

Rhetoric coming out of the capital suggests Cluxton has been snubbed yet again. But I don’t think it’s anything personal especially when you consider he already has five All-Stars to his name.

Cavanagh the younger

Moving on from multiple recipients to one of this year’s five debutant winners, enter midfielder** Colm Cavanagh.

** You and me both know Cavanagh didn’t really operate as a traditional midfielder – when compared to say, Tom Parsons – but more like a defender.

The All-Stars – much like any individual sporting award – is all about narrative (see the Heisman Trophy for the very definition of this). Sure, some positions will fill themselves but the more contentious decisions need a decent story behind them.

The versatile Moy player has had an All-Star campaign behind him since the beginning of the year. “Not flashy enough”, “too quietly effective”, “living in his brother’s shadow” would be the type of phrases muttered throughout 2017 to explain how on earth Colm hasn’t followed Sean onto the All-Star podium.

When the committee decided Ulster champions Tyrone should get at least one award – it might have been Peter Harte, or Tiarnan McCann – Colm Cavanagh was the easy choice. Two birds, one stone. They’ll not have to listen to the same complaints anymore. At least not until the next Red Hand workhorse comes along.

A Kerryman. We need a Kerryman.

Speaking of complaint avoidance, no All-Star lineup would be complete without the presence of at least one Kerryman. Even when each of their three wins this year came against sub-standard opposition in the shape of Clare, Cork and Galway.

For the token gesture, the committee could have chosen nearly any Kerry footballer, so they plumped for Paul Geaney in the forward line, just as they did last year. Probably the most innocuous position they could place a Kerry player.

In fairness, Geaney was probably Kerry’s brightest and most effective forward in the 2017 SFC, but if they were intent on picking a player from the Kingdom, they should have dispensed with formality and set a new precedent by naming outstanding minor David Clifford. He is clearly the best forward in that county. And he would walk onto that All-Star team.

The curious case of Andy Moran

One award from the Dublin Convention Centre that seemed to pass through peacefully was the choice of Mayo’s Andy Moran as Player of the Year. He’s the footballing equivalent of Benjamin Button: he seems to look better as time goes on.

You’d have got decent odds on him nailing down his place in the Mayo forward line this year, let alone being named best player in the country. But he was a joy to watch this season. His intelligence, ball-winning ability, score taking and leadership set him apart.

And having just turned 34? There’s that narrative the public (and by extension, the selection committee) gobble up.

Where has the romance gone?

As I mentioned earlier, elitists will be happy with the selection. Thirteen finalists in the lineup with the other two a representative from each of the semi-finalists. Technically, this may be the correct solution, but the GAA post-season awards banquet was once a more egalitarian affair.

I tweeted an image last night of the 1990 All-Stars poster. Sitting at full-forward on the football team was Wicklow’s Kevin O’Brien. Wicklow won their first round game in Leinster that year and got no further. In the NFL they finished runners up in Division 3 (South). In other words, nothing to write home about. But O’Brien’s inclusion represented the smaller counties. Six different counties had players in the 1990 forward line.

In 1992, Derry received three All-Star awards and we never even got out of Ulster. That type of balance just doesn’t happen any more, and the PWC GAA GPA All-Stars is all the poorer for it.

It’s symbolic of how the All-Ireland SFC has progressed since the introduction of the qualifier system. It was sold to us as a format to help the smaller counties. Sure they’d get another game. But all that has been revealed to be a load of old bollocks.

The GAA’s chief concern is with getting the big counties to the big games, with anything that happens prior to the All-Ireland quarter-finals rendered meaningless. The All-Star selections in the last few years have validated that school of thought.

So forget your arguments about Clarke vs Cluxton. We should be lobbying for a more inclusive awards. Suggestion: no more than three selections for any one individual county.

Now that would set the Twitter timelines buzzing.

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