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In sports, debates are one of relevance. Not only are they fun to discuss but opinions can differ based on personal preference, bias or just simply acknowledging an individual’s brilliance or a team’s dominance.
In terms of Gaelic Football, the GAA has been home to some of the greatest teams to ever grace a football pitch with many teams showcasing their era of success and others who have been a great team but could not manage to go that one step beyond.
Many fans, like myself, tend to have their own opinions on what teams or players are better, comparing era’s, tactics, and overall success, if you ask a fan ‘’what team is the greatest of all time?’’ you will likely get different answers. Ultimately, many lists are not set in stone, and the likelihood of everyone agreeing with another’s subjective opinion are slim to none.
With the start of the 2021 All-Ireland Championship looming, I have decided I would rank in the top 10 greatest Gaelic football teams of all time. For a team to be considered for this list, the criterion for this ranking goes:
1) A team must have a level of dominance in the All-Ireland and the provincial picture.
2) Teams should have relatively the same panel for most of their dominance.
3) How many honours a team had.
4) Level of quality with the opposition they faced.
5) High volume of consistency.
6) Legacy left behind
From the ranking, some teams might not have got close to others overall success, with many teams having fewer to no All-Ireland titles to their name compared to others. However, some teams listed have shown their golden generation that holds a relevant greater weight. Quality is the main instigator for this list, but quantity also holds some significance in giving a team there just do’s along with a lasting legacy left behind after all said is done.
I can only assume some teams listed will give make some heads turn, but opinions are opinions and that is the beauty of it. So, sit back, relax, and disagree and your own leisure.
Starting off the list I have gone for a controversial pick. As a Mayo man, there is a certain bias to including this team on a list of All-Ireland winners with more than one medal to their name, but this Mayo team was special, irrespective of not winning the pinnacle of Gaelic football.
At the start of the decade, Mayo was in a problematic position as a team, John O’Mahony was still in charge and oversaw one of the most embarrassing seasons in recent memory. Losing to Cork in the National League final, getting knocked out in the first round of the Connacht Championship by Sligo and getting embarrassed by Longford in round one of the All-Ireland qualifiers. Mayo football was in a dark place and John O’Mahony resigned as a result.
Come 2011, James Horan took the reigns and completely changed the fortunes for the years to come. Winning a historic Connacht 5-in-row from 2011-2015 and reaching 4 All-Ireland finals and 7 semi-finals. Easily Mayo’s golden generation of players, they have fallen short in terms of All-Ireland success. Showing great consistency and a hunger to come back stronger each season to right the wrongs of the previous campaign. Their main problem is out of their control, battling in the same era as the present Dublin team.
Facing the Dubs in 4 finals and arguably should have won all of them It is the case of the right team, wrong time and with the stigma of ‘’always the bridesmaid, never the bride’’, this Mayo team is the most popular team to never win an All-Ireland, but it should not negate the quality and consistency that have shown.
5 Connacht Titles (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015)
4 All-Ireland appearances (2012, 2013, 2016, 2017)
7 All-Ireland semi-finals (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017)
At the time of writing this, the present Donegal side is the complete opposite of the successful Donegal team of the early 2010s. With an emphasis on fluid and vibrant football, some fans appreciate the turn of pace from the side that brought them eternal happiness.
Who brought this happiness? The one and only Jim McGuinness catapulted a very much staggered and uninspiring group of players who could barely make an Ulster semi-final into a tough, extremely fit, and effective side who played the dark arts to perfection. While not the first team to introduce a pragmatic approach, they are one of the most revered teams to set up like this.
Starting in 2011, after winning their first Ulster title in 19 years they set their sights on the All-Ireland, being beaten by another young and inexperienced side in Dublin in one of the most heated and tough games to watch in modern football. It was the game that Pat Spillane compared Donegal’s football to ‘’Shiite football’’.
Come 2012, this Donegal team perfected the art of defending while being efficient in the final third, not beating teams by much but neutralising the oppositions game plan for success. They finally won their first All-Ireland in over 20 years after defeating Kerry, Cork, and Mayo to lift Sam and what followed was another All-Ireland appearance (being the last team to beat Dublin) and numerous provincial successes to finish off their golden era.
The modern-day Donegal may play a different style of football, but the foundations and legacy left behind by that All-Ireland winning team will forever be listed in the minds of Donegal supporters across the country.
1 All-Ireland Title (2012)
All-Ireland Runner-up (2014)
3 Ulster Titles (2011, 2012, 2014)
While not showcasing high levels of the consistent quality of a level of dominance from the likes of past Kerry and Dublin sides, the Cork double-winning team showcased brilliance, if not for only a mere two years. Munster football of the 1970s and 1980s were dominated by Kerry, outshining, and overpowering good Cork teams that one would assume if any other Kerry side from past decades were playing against the Cork team mentioned, Cork would have seen a higher level of success against their provincial rivals.
Being managed by Billy Morgan, Cork came into the game with some scrutiny. Being the first team in over fifty years to lose three successive All-Ireland finals is something every team does not want to match, so the pressure coming into the Mayo game was high. No one thought they would manage back-to-back success’s, and along with winning two All-Irelands consecutively, they also managed 2 successive Munster wins and one League title to boast an Impressive era of success, even if their success were short-lived.
2 All-Ireland Titles (1989, 1990)
2 Munster Titles (1989, 1990)
1 League Title (1988-1989)
7. Dublin (1974-1979)
The 1970s was a decade that saw two teams come to prominence, Mick O’Dwyer’s attacking and dominant Kerry side and Kevin Heffernan’s battle-hardened Dublin.
The latter was seen as Kerry’s equal, even superior during the early years of the sport, with the Dubs just edging the Kingdom in overall All-Ireland titles, come the 1960s Kerry were catching up and close to edging their rivals past successes. By 1973, former Dublin corner-forward Kevin Heffernan was appointed manager and from there, the success was evident to see.
From 1974 to 1977, ‘’Heffo’s Army’’ won 2 All-Irelands, and by the end of the decade, Dublin had reached six finals from 1974 to 1979. Facing O’Dwyer’s Kerry conquerors 4 times, only managing to defeat the Kingdom once in that time span.
Although losing the rivalry to Kerry, this Dublin side was very successful, always playing at the highest of levels, and creating historical moments along the way. Ironically, ‘Heffo’s Army’ played in the same era as another great team, and were deemed unlucky despite winning multiple honours that, while being outshone by that Kerry team, their significance in the history of the GAA can only be remembered fondly.
With playing in 6 consecutive finals, Kevin Heffernan’s side should be considered as one of the greats, although they can not compare with a future side from the capital.
3 All-Ireland Titles (1974, 1976, 1977)
All-Ireland Runners up (1975, 1978, 1979)
6 Leinster Titles (1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979)
2 League Titles (1975-1976, 1977-1978)
Bernard Brogan Snr
- Galway (1964-1966)
One of the most popular teams to come out of Connacht, the Galway team of the early to mid-1960s is by far Galway’s most ambitious and prosperous teams ever assembled at that time. After losing to Dublin in the 1963 All-Ireland, the same team went on to complete a historic three-in-a-row (the first county in over two decades to achieve a three-peat) from 1964 to 1966 beating the likes of Meath and Kerry two years in a row.
While some would assume that future Galway teams like the 2001 winning side were more impressive and were overall, a better team. The three pat Galway side were more consistent, effective and in the end, a winning team.
They were a defensive unit that was hard to break down during this period of time. Players such as Noel Tierney, Enda Colleran (who captained the panel in 65 and 66) were hallmarks of their structured defence. Their standout, however, was captain and leader John Donnellan in 1964 final who was the heart of the defence in this period. Only yielding 26 points and not conceding a single goal at Croke Park.
While they went on to win Connacht and League titles, the impact of winning a historical three-peat in the wake of losing to Dublin in 1963, many Galway fans gawk at anyone who does not have this team as their greatest team in Galway’s history, and with good reason.
3 All-Ireland Titles (1964, 1965, 1966)
3 Connacht Titles (1964, 1965, 1966)
1 League Title (1963-1964)
- Meath (1987-1996)
While the Meath teams of the 1940s and 1950s were semi-successful in their own right, the level of competition was much to be desired, by the start of the 1970s they were competing with Dublin enough of the time to be respected. Come the 1980s football in Meath had changed drastically, all down to the masterful approach of former manager Seán Boylan.
Having not won an All-Ireland since 1967, Boylan introduced a winning mentality not seen previously, with three consecutive Leinster titles from 1986 to 1988. They went onto become double winners after defeating Cork on both occasions in Croke Park edging out the rebels by small margins.
This Meath team is most known for the epic four-game series against provincial rivals Dublin in 1991. Merely a preliminary round, both teams went onto draw the opening three games, two of which ended level after extra time, before Meath edged out the Dubs by a single point. In the same year, they went onto reach another All-Ireland Final losing out to Down by 2 points.
By 1996, Boylan’s first Meath side was getting older and more weathered, showing a lot of wear and tear. Although they did manage to capture another All-Ireland title defeating Mayo in a heated replay, this Meath team had their time in the sun and Boylan knew this. Easily the most famous Meath team in their history, it’s hard not to fault the talent and perseverance that led the 5 finals in 9 years, winning 3.
3 All-Ireland Titles (1987, 1988, 1996)
All-Ireland Runners-up (1990, 1991)
5 Munster Titles (1987, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1996)
3 League Titles (1987-1988, 1989-1990, 1993-1994)
- Tyrone (2003-2008)
While not seen as perineal losers in the sense of other teams, the Tyrone teams of the 1980s and 1990s were ultimate failures in terms of honours. The closest of these failures is the 1-point losing margin to Dublin in 1995 was seen as a success for Tyrone at the time. At the start of the new millennium, the arrival of Mickey Harte turned the fortunes of Tyrone for the better.
After managing the Tyrone minor team from 1991 to 1998 winning the All-Ireland title along the way, Harte subsequently managed Tyrone to back-to-back U21 All-Ireland successes in 2000 and 2001, he was appointed senior manager in 2003 and from there on, a monster was born.
While the Donegal team managed by Jim McGuinness were revered for their strong defensive capabilities, it was Mickey Harte’s Tyrone team of the early to mid-2000s that refined it. Known for perfecting the so-called ‘’blanket defence’’, the style was both criticized and commended for the rough nature and physicality that came with the tactic. Famously, Pat Spillane referred to it as ‘’puke football’’. The likes of Joe Brolly were quick to defend the style of play that was implemented by Harte and deemed Spillane’s comments as sour grapes, as the comments were made against Kerry, firmly knocking the Kingdom off their perch.
While they never went back-to-back, Tyrone at the time was always in and around the latter stages of the championship. Beating Kerry in 2003, 2005 and 2008 All-Ireland finals, they dominated the era along with Kerry, being the antagonist to the already established fluid, attacking style of play that Kerry produced on many occasions in Croke Park.
While Kerry won their All-Ireland titles playing so-called respectable football, they were unable to dethrone Tyrone when they faced them, showing that with a proper tactic based on the opponents, anyone can beat anyone, even the greats. Strong, vicious tackling and running in packs, the Tyrone team of the 2000s achieved so much in a time were one team dominated.
3 All-Ireland Titles (2003, 2005, 2008)
2 Ulster Titles (2003, 2007)
1 League Title (2003)
- Kerry (1975-1986)
Making this list was not easy, placing every team was a hard task to complete and would pluck a few feathers but I have ultimately decided to place the Kerry team managed by the great Mick O’ Dwyer of the 1970s and 1980s. Controversial to place them below a certain team from the 2000s but an argument can be made, and I would assume many Kerry people from the time would try to convince me otherwise.
When you talk about this Kerry side, three words come to mind, dominant, successful, and endearing. At the time it was regarded as the greatest team of all time, and one can see why. Sticking to the routes of Kerry’s DNA, Mick O’ Dwyer captivated a stunning attacking and energetic side that blew teams out of the water. Pressing in droves and playing to the phrase of attack is the best form of defence, they revolutionized how players modernised their game.
They beat out other great sides of their era, having a competitive rivalry with the Dublin team of the 1970s, they embarked on some great games and came out on top with many All-Ireland titles, an absurd 8 All-Ireland titles in 11 years, achieving an incredible three-in-a-row from 1984 to 1986, they were the benchmark for future Kerry teams to emulate.
Like all great teams, they need an ending, and this Kerry team were so good, that the teams of the 1990s fell short, not reaching an All-Ireland final until 1997, just shows the greatness of the side that eluded them 20 years prior.
8 All-Ireland Titles (1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1984, 1985, 1986)
All-Ireland Runners-ups (1976, 1982)
11 Munster Titles (1975, 1976, 1977,1978,1979,1980,1981,1982,1983,1984,1985,1986)
3 League Titles (1976-1977, 1981-1982, 1983-1984)
Paídí Ó Sé
- Kerry (2000-2011)
Personally, speaking this Kerry team was the team I grew up with. A tear in Mayo’s side during the 2000s, I can only appreciate this side’s pure skill and efficiency. Winning 5 All-Ireland titles in 9 years is an amazing achievement, coming from the Kerry side of the 1990s, no one would have thought the level of dominance this side had over the rest of the already established big boys of the time.
Some would say, they fail to live up to the Mick O’ Dwyer Kerry side that encapsulated the GAA of the 1970s, due to the fact they never had back-to-back successes and they never really changed their system depending on the opposition. Seeing Tyrone neutralise them in 3 All-Ireland finals from 2003 to 2008. Regardless of these factors, the well-oiled machine that was this Kerry side was awe to behold.
Not only did they feature in every All-Ireland final from 2004 to 2009, hammering decent Mayo sides and always managing to outclass Cork on the big stage, playing six finals in a row is massive, boasting something that O’ Dwyer’s team could not.
What puts them ahead for me though, is the level of competition they faced, encountering teams like Cork, Mayo, Armagh, Dublin and of course Tyrone. Playing in a much harder era puts them ahead for me. The level of dominance they had while beating most of these teams yearly with a mixture of young talents such as the Gooch and Kieran Donaghy and established more experienced players like the Ó Sé brothers, this Kerry team had everything a manager could want and from their constant performances and the winning mentality they were a pleasure to watch.
They were the side of the 2000s and managed to stay atop the ladder, the skill and class were the main reasons as to why teams like Cork, Mayo and especially Dublin did not win any All-Ireland titles during the time.
5 All-Ireland Titles (2000,2004,2006,2007,2009)
All Ireland Runners-up (2002, 2005, 2008, 2011)
8 Munster Titles (2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2011)
3 League Titles (2004, 2006, 2009)
Declan O’ Sullivan
Please leave a comment below on how wrong it is to leave Galway 1998-2001 and the Offaly team of the 80s out.
- Dublin (2011-Present)
Was there any doubt about who would take the crown of the greatest team in the 137-year history of the association? Not only has this Dublin side broke through the ceiling, but they also smashed it into little, tiny pieces. I, like many fears this Dublin side for many reasons, how did they get so good in such little time? And how can one team keep coming back for more and more success? This Dublin team is impenetrable, having very few weaknesses if any for that matter.
What is so scary about this squad of players is that what was said to be the norm in the GAA landscape is now gone. Sides like Kerry and Tyrone beat teams before they reached the pitch, Dublin gives off the same vibes but multiplied by 100. Another scary prospect is that this Dublin side is not even close to slowing down, like a speeding train without brakes, not much can be done to stop a GAA juggernaut such as this Dublin side.
It all started in 2011, Dublin had just beaten a great, but old Kerry team, the passing of the torch in some respects, a new era was predicted. Come 2012, any talk of dominance was hampered by a rejuvenated Mayo side in the All-Ireland Semi-Final. Although the Dubs did get their revenge the year later in an entertaining one-point win over the same much improved Mayo side was said to be the start of another era of dominance. Wrong, the unbeatable Dublin team lauded by the pundits were played off the park by Donegal in the 2014 All-Ireland Semi-Final.
By 2015, the era of dominance that was predicted finally came to fruition, winning the unimaginable six, yes, six-in-a-row. Maintaining guile and a will to win, the main reasons why they ousted the Mayo sides that brought them their true rival of the era, beating Mayo in three finals (2013, 2016, 2017) by one-point margins and a close 2015 All-Ireland Semi-Final.
While many fans of the GAA are worried about where the sport goes with only one team dominating the sport and leaving many counties behind in terms of quality. The Dublin players are simply faster, stronger, more skilful, and most importantly have a taste for winning. It will take an almighty surge of know-how to dethrone the giants of Gaelic football.
8 All-Ireland Titles (2011, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020)
9 Leinster Titles (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020)
8 league titles (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020)