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Burning it up - 23 young footballers who hit the headlines in 2016

There’s plenty more to come from some already established and rising stars.

MAYO STAR DIARMUID O’Connor was honoured with a second successive Young Footballer of the Year gong in November.

O’Connor scooped the individual award after showing some really consistent form through the All-Ireland qualifiers – and his absence was keenly felt against Galway when Mayo suffered a shock Connacht semi-final defeat.

The Ballintubber clubman is one of the finest young players in the game but this was a year that saw many other up and coming, and already established, stars make big impacts for their respective counties.

We’ve grouped them into different categories and, as always, we’re looking for your feedback on our selections.

U23

Brendan Harrison (Mayo)

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

2016 was Harrison’s first full season as a senior inter-county player but he performed like a seasoned veteran.

Had some nervy moments in the All-Ireland semi-final victory over Tipp but Harrison was still one of Mayo’s most consistent performers across the campaign.

A tight-marking, no nonsense corner back, Harrison is an accomplished man marker and looks set for a lengthy career at senior level in the green and red.

John Small (Dublin)

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Fortunate to escape a black card in the All-Ireland final replay against Mayo but Small can reflect upon 2016 with some degree of satisfaction.

Dublin lost the services of key defenders Rory O’Carroll and Jack McCaffrey, while James McCarthy had his injury worries, and Small put his hand up for inclusion in the team.

Small slotted into the half-back line alongside Ballymun Kickhams clubmate McCarthy and Cian O’Sullivan – and produced a man-of-the-match display in the drawn All-Ireland final.

Brian Fenton (Dublin)

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Two full seasons as a Dublin senior footballer has yielded two All-Ireland medals and an incredible unbeaten streak for Fenton.

It’s truly been a meteoric rise for the Raheny high-fielder who was man-of-the-match in the 2015 All-Ireland final – and he was nominated for the Footballer of the Year award in 2016.

Still just 23 years of age, Fenton has quickly emerged as arguably the best midfielder in the country and he’s still a few years away from his peak.

Michael Quinlivan (Tipperary)

Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

It was a remarkable calendar year for Michael Quinlivan, who helped his club Clonmel Commercials to Tipperary and Munster senior glory in 2015.

Quinlivan rejoined the Tipp senior squad after his club’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat in February and went on to enjoy a memorable campaign.

A taker and creator of scores, Quinlivan’s exploits saw him honoured with a GAA/GPA Opel All-Star award – just the second Tipperary man in history to claim one of the individual football gongs.

Niall Sludden (Tyrone)

Source: Presseye/Andrew Paton/INPHO

In his first full season as a Tyrone senior footballer, Niall Sludden made a big impact.

The former underage star settled nicely into life at the top level and the 2010 All-Ireland minor medallist is a player capable of operating in defence or attack.

Although Tyrone bowed out of the All-Ireland series at the quarter-final stage against Mayo, Sludden was still one of the best players on show for the Red Hands, and he won an Ulster medal in his debut campaign while also earning an All-Star nomination.

Patrick McBrearty (Donegal)

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It’s remarkable to think that Paddy McBrearty is still only 23 when you consider how much he’s already achieved.

An All-Ireland senior medallist in 2012, McBrearty’s also a three-time Ulster SFC winner and has also represented Ireland at International Rules level.

McBrearty’s 11-point haul against Cork in this year’s All-Ireland qualifier at Croke Park was one of the finest individual displays of modern times.

Ronan O’Neill (Tyrone)

Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Another All-Ireland minor medallist from 2010, O’Neill was an early menace for opposition defences in 2016.

He scored 2-25 throughout the Allianz League Division 2 campaign, as Tyrone gained promotion back to the top flight, and crowned his spring campaign with 1-3 against Cavan in the divisional showpiece at Croke Park.

O’Neill scored 2-2 in the Ulster opener against Derry and 0-5 in the draw with Cavan, after which his scoring tallies dropped considerably.

U22

Cormac Costello (Dublin)

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Costello was prolific during the early stages of the Allianz League campaign but found his chances more limited come championship time.

The Whitehall Colmcille forward would have his say on the biggest day of all, however, coming off the bench to score three points in the All-Ireland final replay victory over Mayo.

Costello, 22, will hope to nail down a regular place in the 2017 championship team and did his chances no harm at all with that October cameo.

David Byrne (Dublin)

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Rory O’Carroll’s exit from the Dublin scene left a void for Jim Gavin to fill in his full-back line.

And with Jonny Cooper shunted across to the central position, Byrne took his chance to nail down a slot in the left corner.

At 22 years of age, the Naomh Olaf clubman is already a three-time All-Ireland senior medallist, with the promise of more to come.

Patrick Durcan (Mayo)

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Durcan was Mayo’s senior club championship player of the year in 2015 and he carried that brilliant form into this year.

Durcan was introduced into the Mayo set-up in 2015 and he was unlucky to be squeezed out of the recent All-Star selection in a highly-competitive half-back line.

The Castlebar Mitchels player was excellent all season for the Westerners and he scored three points over the course of the two All-Ireland final clashes with Dublin.

Evan Comerford (Tipperary)

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Comerford’s kick-outs were rated in the Stephen Cluxton class as Tipperary progressed to an historic All-Ireland semi-final appearance.

A former Republic of Ireland junior soccer international, Comerford won an All-Ireland minor medal with Tipp in 2011 and a Munster U21 crown last year.

He was nominated for an All-Star award alongside winner David Clarke and Cluxton after excelling in 2016.

Ryan McHugh (Donegal)

Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Kilcar’s Ryan McHugh was named at left-half-back on the 2016 GAA/GPA Opel All-Star team.

He was selected in a line that contained plenty of classy nominees but McHugh’s credentials were impossible to ignore.

A stand-out player for the Ulster runners-up, McHugh netted Donegal’s goal as they exited the All-Ireland series against champions Dublin, and he scored two goals in the opening League match of the campaign against Down.

Damien Comer (Galway)

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Over the course of two Connacht final clashes with Roscommon, Comer helped himself to five points from play.

And while Connacht champions Galway were dumped out of the All-Ireland series by Tipperary at the quarter-final stage, Comer still lit up Croke Park with a superb goal for the Tribesmen.

As Galway look ahead to 2017, Annaghdown clubman Comer is a player that manager Kevin Walsh will look to build his attack around.

Bill Maher (Tipperary)

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

When Bill Maher was trimmed from Tipperary’s senior hurling panel earlier in the year, he accepted an invitation to link up with the footballers.

And Maher, from the Kilsheelan-Kilcash club, showed what an accomplished dual player he is by enjoying a fine championship campaign.

A former dual All-Ireland minor medallist and Munster U21 football winner in 2015, Maher is an excellent footballing wing-back and can consider himself unfortunate not to have earned an All-Star nomination.

Jamie Malone (Clare)

Malone was another player to perform for Clare as they made it into the last eight of the All-Ireland series.

Comfortable in the half-back line, Corofin star Malone is a former Clare minor captain who made his senior championship debut in 2014.

Malone can also operate effectively in the half-forward line, where he was used towards the end of the 2016 season by manager Colm Collins.

Eoin Cleary (Clare)

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Cleary grabbed the headlines earlier this year when his late free, deep in stoppage time, sealed Allianz League Division 3 glory for Clare.

The Miltown St Joseph’s clubman went on to enjoy a solid championship campaign too, with the undoubted individual highlight coming against Roscommon in the qualifiers.

22-year-old Cleary kicked six points, including four from play, as the Banner men marched into the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

U21

Jimmy Feehan (Tipperary)

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Feehan played minor football for Tipp, winning a Munster medal in 2012, before graduating to the U21 ranks.

He was a member of the team that won a famous Munster crown in 2015 and also made his senior championship debut against Louth later in the year, at corner back.

Feehan’s also comfortable in the half-back line and his performances this year earned the Killenaule clubman a Young Footballer of the Year nomination.

Conor Loftus (Mayo)

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Loftus was Mayo’s matchwinner when the Connacht champions edged past Dublin by a point in the EirGrid All-Ireland U21 semi-final.

And the Crossmolina player was at his brilliant best in the final against Cork, scoring 2-2 as Mayo lifted silverware.

Loftus also made an early impression in the senior championship, replacing black-carded Cillian O’Connor against London in Ruislip, and scoring 1-2 in a comfortable victory. He looks to have a bright future ahead of him and Mayo could certainly do with bona-fide scoring forwards at senior level.

Josh Keane (Tipperary)

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

A breakthrough season for Keane at senior level, who improved incrementally as the season wore on.

A nuts and bolts type of player, Keane gets through a huge amount of work that goes unnoticed and he was brilliant in the closing minutes of the qualifier victory over Derry, taking and making crucial scores as Tipp came from behind to claim an epic win at Kingspan Breffni Park.

Keane, from the Golden-Kilfeacle club, is also a dab hand at hurling and lined out for the county’s U21s as they progressed to a Munster final against provincial and All-Ireland kingpins Waterford. Like Feehan, he was nominated for the Young Player of the Year award.

Diarmuid O’Connor (Mayo)

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

O’Connor was at his brilliant best as Mayo surged to EirGrid All-Ireland U21 glory, and he was man-of-the-match in the semi-final victory over Dublin.

The Ballintubber man was also honoured with the competition’s player of the year gong and after shrugging off an injury that ruled him out of Mayo’s senior defeat to Galway in Connacht, he went on to claim a second successive Young Player of the year award.

O’Connor was exceptional in the senior qualifier victory over Kildare in particular and he was also one of Mayo’s best players in their final replay loss to Dublin.

U20

Brian O’Beaglaoich (Kerry)

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

O’Beaglaoich endured a baptism of fire against Dublin on the opening night of the Allianz League, giving away a penalty on his competitive senior debut.

But the former minor All-Ireland medallist learned from that experience and made his championship bow against Clare.

The introductions of O’Beaglaoich and Tadhg Morley added a freshness to the Kerry defence but O’Beaglaoich lost his starting place for the All-Ireland semi-final defeat against Dublin. He’ll work hard to regain his slot in the team for the 2017 season.

Colm O’Shaughnessy (Tipperary)

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

O’Shaughnessy was one of our 9 players to watch at the start of the year.

The Ardfinnan man is 20 this month but has already emerged as an automatic choice on the Tipperary senior team.

He made his senior championship debut as a substitute against Louth in 2015 but nailed down a starting position under new manager Liam Kearns. Still underage for the U21 ranks in 2017.

Keelan Sexton (Clare)

Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Keelan Sexton was a big find for Clare this year and when Kilmurry-Ibrickane stormed to county championship glory against Cratloe, he scored 1-4.

Sexton, a former international boxer who turned 19 in the summer, completed his second full season on the Clare senior panel in 2016.

He made a big contribution in the qualifier victory over Sligo, coming off the bench to kick three points, and Sexton will look to continue his upward curve as Clare prepare for life in Division 2 of the Allianz League.

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