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50 years of the All-Stars: 'I was meant to be sitting down the back with Jim Stynes... I ended up an All-Star'

Kevin O’Brien, Brian Murphy, Kieran Fitzgerald and Paul Murphy on their memories of the end-of-season accolades.

AllStars

JIM STYNES AND Kevin O’Brien needed a solution.

It was November 1990 in Australia and the Irish team were winding down after a successful Compromise Rules series.

It was a set-up populated by All-Ireland winners. Recent ones like Robbie O’Malley, Steven O’Brien and Jack O’Shea. Future ones like Tony Scullion, James McCartan and Paul Curran. A collection of renowned football names.

After the final test in the WACA Stadium in Perth, talk turned to the All-Star awards taking place the following month. A strong bond in the squad had proved integral to victory in the hybrid game over three tests.

The banquet was on 21 December, a core of Irish players in the shake-up for honours. A perfect chance for this travelling party to have a reunion.

Stynes was coming home to Dublin for Christmas from Melbourne where his AFL commitments anchored him. O’Brien was a footballer for Wicklow, a county below the elite. The pair figured it would be a good night and a chance to catch up again with new friends.

They just needed a means of entry.

“Dermot Power was running the show for Bank of Ireland, who were sponsoring it at the time,” recalls O’Brien.

“So we cornered Dermot in Australia to get us two tickets. We said we’d stay away from the cameras and out of people’s way. We just wanted to be with all the boys we’d been with in Australia.

“Little did I know I’d get a nomination. I was saying Power had sympathy for me.”

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The Baltinglass man found himself in the running at full-forward, Meath’s Brian Stafford and Down’s Mickey Linden the superstars in his company. The football team was announced in advance, two weeks before the presentation. O’Brien was on the road on a Friday morning in early December when he tuned his car radio into the sports news.

“Des Cahill announced that I had got an All-Star. I nearly drove the car into the ditch. And every time I hear Des, I think of that.

“To be mentioned in the same sentence as Stafford and Linden, they were outstanding.

“I used to say that all those reporters were in Australia and I’d got on well with them so that helped me. That was my line when people slagged me. A sort of defence mechanism.

“So on the night I was meant to be sitting down the back with Jim Stynes, I ended up an All-Star.

“Poor Jim, Lord have Mercy on him, he was at the back of the room. We were laughing when we got there about it all. It was a great night.”

jim-stynes-feature-1993 AFL legend, Jim Stynes. Source: INPHO

Full-forward for 1990, Wicklow’s trail-blazer Kevin O’Brien. He’s still the only player from his county to have such a title.

The 50th edition of the GAA All-Stars takes place this week, five decades after it started out, still providing moments of Gaelic Games recognition and a guarantee of hot debate over inclusions or exclusions.

***

Brian Murphy won his first All-Star back in 1973 for his displays with Cork. He added a second football award three years later before matching them up with a pair after his hurling exploits (1979 and 1981).

Experience heightened his awareness for clues as to what was coming.

“At that time they’d send a photographer down to you before the All-Stars. So if you got your photograph taken, you knew you’d a right chance. If there was no sign of a photo, your chances were very slim.”

“Some years when you went up there, you knew that you had been picked. Other years there were three nominated for a position and one would be picked on the night. It varied.”

Murphy always relished those functions in Dublin. Chances were scarce at the time to mingle with opponents in a setting off the pitch.

Transatlantic tours, supported by the original sponsors, the tobacco company Carrolls, and later AIB, were another favourable reward.

Sometimes Murphy was in the All-Star ranks, sometimes he was with Cork All-Ireland winning teams tasked with facing those selections.

In 1977 he enjoyed the twin touring status of All-Ireland hurling winner and All-Star footballer from the previous year.

“In the early ’70s, we used to stay with families out there in San Francisco and Los Angeles. I wouldn’t have been in America before that. We had fantastic families out there that had an interest in the GAA. They knew more about what was going in the GAA scene in Cork than I knew myself. They certainly made it very enjoyable.

“The matches might not have been taken as seriously as they would be here but they were great occasions for those people.

“The only thing was that fellas were not together and miles apart and might only meet occasionally during the holiday. Later on, they got us to stay in hotels. It was good for players that they would be together.”

After the early West Coast tours, there were stays in Chicago and New York, a collection of American cities packed in as pit-stops on a tour. Venues like Balboa Stadium and Gaelic Park hosted the exhibition games.

Murphy’s relentless accumulation of medals put him in the shop window for that personal recognition. Life as a Garda saw him establish roots when stationed in Kilkenny and fall in with the O’Loughlin Gaels club, saluting the All-Star wins of Andy and Martin Comerford, and Brian Hogan during the Cody Golden Years.

He had the distinction in 1981 of being the only player from hurling’s traditional Big Three to win an All-Star.

But he is drawn home to an earlier juncture for his most prized win. Cork’s Sam Maguire victory in 1973 was followed by three of the first four spots on the All-Star team being filled by Nemo Rangers men – Billy Morgan, Frank Cogan and Murphy.

“That was a special year for Cork. They hadn’t won an All-Ireland for 28 years, to win it and get that award on top of the year was great really.”

the-1973-all-ireland-cork-winning-team The 1973 All-Ireland winning team presented to the crowd before the 2013 Cork SFC final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He joins Leeside royalty in Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Ray Cummins, along with Offaly’s Liam Currams, as part of the select group who have All-Stars in both codes. The chances of a fifth member joining them are receding.

“It looks that way really, the way it’s gone with fixture clashes. The amount of matches and training, it’s impossible for fellas to do both now.

“It’s good for players to be able to do both at club level. But at inter-county I don’t see players playing both any more.”

***

Kieran Fitzgerald was sitting at his table in the Citywest Hotel on the last night of November 2001. Declan Meehan, minutes away from being named the best player in the country, sat next to him.

It had been a gripping season for Galway GAA, the hurlers reaching their September showpiece and the footballers crowned champions in novel fashion after a Connacht setback.

The All-Stars brought a chance to wring a bit more joy out of the year but a month shy of his 21st birthday, Fitzgerald was not thinking he’d be the first from the county up on stage to shake hands with then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

GalwayAllstars Source: Irish News Archive

“When the All-Ireland was won, you’d papers and fans picking teams. People would have said you’ve a good chance of getting an All-Star.

“But I genuinely had no idea. Maybe the likes of Michael Donnellan and Padraic Joyce were pretty sure they were getting them. I wasn’t sure, so it was a lovely surprise when my name was called.”

It capped off a rapid rise to the top.

Fitzgerald was togged out for the 2000 All-Ireland loss to Kerry, a teenager still getting used to the game, but the work at the bottom of the incline only truly began soon after that. The league still had an October starting date back then, there was no wallowing until spring after being denied Sam Maguire.

“There were a few poor unfortunate first-teamers that actually did play in that National League.

“It was alright for us young lads mad for road. But these guys were just after getting beat in front of 70,000 and next thing they were up in Hyde Park playing against Roscommon.”

They would be familiar foes in the narrative of Galway’s season, nudging them to the exit door in Connacht.

Amidst the despair afterwards, manager John O’Mahony believed it was a result fatal to their year’s aspirations.

“I had thought the back door was just for teams beaten in the preliminary rounds of the championship,” he later wrote in his autobiography ‘Keeping The Faith’.

“When Pat Egan (Galway board chairman) told me we were still alive, it did not really feel like much of a reprieve.

“The consensus was that we were finished.”

“I actually didn’t play any part of the game, it was a big win for Roscommon in Tuam,” recalls Fitzgerald.

“After that Johnno gave us a break for a week. Our first night back was a challenge game down in Limerick in Na Piarsaigh’s pitch against Cork.

“I started corner-back and Tomas Mannion, Johnno moved him to centre-back. I was marking Fionan Murray, he was a brilliant footballer, and I marked him later down the road in Croke Park.

kieran-fitzgerald-and-fionan-murray Kieran Fitzgerald and Fionan Murray in action during the Galway and Cork game. Source: INPHO

“Tomas Meehan was sick and missed out in that challenge game. It went well for me and the team. The rest is history.”

Away Galway went. Wicklow beaten in Aughrim, Croke Park wins against Armagh and Cork in frenetic qualifiers, the tables turned on Roscommon in Castlebar, a late show overcoming Derry and then a second-half display of supreme class against Meath on the biggest day.

Dream stuff for a defender on his maiden championship voyage.

“For me this was all brand new. I was just going training, playing games and loving football.

“When you’re young, you don’t really over-think it. I was marking Oisin McConville against Armagh. The luck of the draw, we’d actually played them in a challenge match not too long before that up in Longford on a Saturday morning. The All-Ireland semi-final I marked Gavin Diamond, he was a young lad as well.

“You’d have been given a few notes on who you were marking and you might have watched a video or two the previous Tuesday night in training.

“Like against Kilcoo last January, I was marking Jerome Johnson, I must have spent about four weeks studying him. Immediately after the Nemo game I was given videos and analysis of him and Conor Laverty. I was stressed to the hilt then.

“But that time with youthful exuberance, you just went out and had a go.”

His form flourished, catapulting him into the All-Star reckoning, but he hails those manning the defensive posts around him.

“Consider the half-back line in front of me was Declan Meehan, Tomas Mannion and Sean Óg De Paor. Then I’d the two Fahys beside me, quality defenders. I was in good company.

“When Galway won in ’98, all these guys were superstars. I’d been at all the games. To be playing football alongside them and enjoying the rollercoaster ride was great. From U10 I was stone mad for football. I travelled everywhere with my Dad, he was a GAA fanatic.

“[I] would have gone all over the country with him looking at club matches, gone down to Munster and Leinster finals. Went up to All-Ireland club finals, I remember seeing St Finbarr’s win in 1987. Just hop in the car on a Sunday and go to a game.”

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He was part of a six-strong Galway winning representation that night; the tour to San Diego would come in 2003 in the wake of Armagh’s breakthrough.

It was the start of a fallow period for Galway football though. Only Kevin Walsh in ‘03 and Burke in ‘18 have picked up those individual trophies since.

“It’s a mad stat considering the tradition in Galway. We haven’t been at the top table for a good few years. The only one in that time I really thought that should have got an All-Star was Michael Meehan in 2008. He’d a really credible shout.”

Fitzgerald became the second All-Star winner from Corofin, after Martin McNamara and before Ian Burke.

“It’s a lovely memento to have. For my family, it was a real honour.

“But I wouldn’t be on that team but for the quality of defenders and players that were around me. I’ve only them to thank.

“When you’re retired now and look back, it was an amazing year. Never could have dreamed where it would end up.”

galway-team-celebrate-2392001 The Galway team celebrating their 2001 win - Fitzgerald (back left). Source: INPHO

***

Paul Murphy likes to point out he was the ground breaker.

In 2011 himself and Danesfort club-mate Richie Hogan both landed their first All-Stars after sparkling seasons in Kilkenny colours.

But one thing separated them.

“I’d always slag Richie that he might have won Hurler of the Year (2014) but I tell him I’m Danesfort’s first All-Star because I got on the stage a minute before he did.

“You can never take that back away from me. Richie has a good laugh out of that.”

It was a landmark night for their hurling home on the southern outskirts of Kilkenny city. Danesfort had scrabbled around for years, gazing at more illustrious neighbours. But they won a county junior in 2006, built on it to lift the All-Ireland the following March and gained wider fame thereafter through the heights scaled by their marquee men.

The All-Stars were at the heart of that. Murphy was a peerless defender between 2011 and 2015, collecting four awards for every year that Kilkenny lifted Liam. Hogan hit that mark as well by the close of 2016.

“The last person before myself, Richie and Paddy Hogan from Danesfort to play for Kilkenny was a lad Mick Brophy many decades before.

“So it was incredible for our club, when it doesn’t come from that heritage, to say that the coaches had coached two players of the standard of All-Stars.

“I think of, Jim McGrath, who has since passed away. Jim started going to the All-Star awards. A big hurling fan. He just wanted to go because he was so proud of seeing myself and Richie.

“He’d dress up in his tux and go with another clubman Derek Dooley. It was probably more so a celebration for him than it was for myself and Richie. He had been in the club for so long and not seen success.”

richie-hogan-paul-murphy-and-ger-aylward Paul Murphy (centre) with Richie Hogan and Ger Aylward before the 2015 All-Stars tour. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In days after the 2011 All-Ireland, David Herity floated the prospect to Murphy during a chat on the phone that the number two spot could be his. When that feat was signalled that October, he was a first-timer but elsewhere the team had Kilkenny players reaching dizzying totals. Tommy Walsh collected his ninth, completing five-in-a-row at right half-back, and Henry Shefflin picked up his 11th.

“It’s an incredible achievement, that consistency is unbelievable. It was great to say you were hurling behind Tommy at right corner-back, he was right-half back winning his 9th.

“It was a sign that we were going well with Kilkenny. Not only were you holding your own on the pitch but you were dominating your position if you were consistently getting on the All-Star team.

“You felt you were after doing something good here. It caught me unawares the first time but it was a great privilege.”

He enjoyed the mixing with rivals at the banquets and meeting operators in different codes.

“If you’re there as All-Ireland champions, it’s very easy to enjoy the night. There are going to be times if you’re there as runners-up, you’re going to be reminded at some stage that there’s another team that are All-Ireland champions.

“It’s an environment where you can relax and talk to rivals from a different setting. I’ve had great nights where I’ve chatted to the likes of Tony Kelly and Jack McCaffrey. There wouldn’t be another setting where you would bump into these fellas. You’re not going to meet a Clare hurler walking down the High Street in Kilkenny.

“I always found them great that way. You’d step away from the Convention Centre, head into town and lads would really wind down and have a bit of craic. Same with the tours,
got to know lads outside the setting of hurling

“I got away three times. In 2011 we went to San Francisco, 2013 in Shanghai and 2015 I was in Austin, Texas. I was very lucky the way they fell for me. San Francisco you might visit but Shanghai and Austin were great experiences. Places off the beaten track that ideally you’d like to see but they’re down the list.”

In 2014 his football equivalent popped up in the Kerry ranks.

“I’d been around for a few years so Paul knew me. But we played a Walsh Cup match in Croke Park that year, the same day Kerry were playing Dublin in the league. I looked at the programme and saw Paul Murphy, right corner-back for Kerry.

“I kept an eye on him, as the year went on, you saw him getting better and better. It was a coincidence to have two Paul Murphys in the same position win in the same year. On the night we did go over and talk to each other and had a bit of craic.”

Only six hurling backs have won more All-Stars than Murphy. Three of those are from the modern era – Padraic Maher (6), JJ Delaney (7) and Walsh (9).

He slipped off into retirement a month ago, drawing a line under a decorated county career that was front-loaded with the high moments.

“Very few players get to head out into the sunset in the dream way,” says Murphy.

“If you’re involved at the top end, you realise that sport is fair and unfair. At the start I said if I won one All-Ireland, that would have been me happy. I went on to win four. The All-Stars, I was trying to get onto the best 15 players in Kilkenny, not the best 15 in Ireland.

“I thought that was too far-fetched. So when it came around, it’s a huge source of pride. In ten years time, I can look back and say there’s a team with Joe Canning and Paudie Maher and these lads, and I was hurling well enough to be in that team.

“I’m delighted with that. Okay I didn’t finish on an All-Ireland winning note but I think once the door is closed, be proud of it and acknowledge it.”

richie-hogan-and-paul-murphy-celebrates Richie Hogan and Paul Murphy celebrate Kilkenny's 2019 victory over Limerick. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

***

Everything Kevin O’Brien touched in 1990 seemed to turn to gold. The year commenced with Baltinglass reaching the peak of the club game at the expense of Roscommon’s Clann na nGael on St Patrick’s Day.

An All-Ireland win there was a springboard for a summer tilt with Wicklow. O’Brien damaged his ribs before a Leinster quarter-final against Kildare but ploughed on to fire the only goal of the game and kick the insurance point.

“It was nice to get over the line for that one because we’re living on the Kildare border here,” he recalls.

“I’d a couple of injuries. I’d had knee problems all through my career, little cartilages and ligaments to be sorted. I’d a good lot of operations, just turning quickly or sharply, and the knee would give. I’d the cruciate done to my left knee in ’87. I probably needed a year out but at the time you don’t think about that.”

kevin-obrien-wicklow-football-1561997 Source: © James Meehan/INPHO

Wicklow gave Dublin a good test but were forced to succumb next day out. That was the end of the inter-county adventure yet another opportunity cropped up. He got the call for Compromise Rules trials in Maynooth which sharpened his focus. Next thing he was boarding the plane with the squad and lining out in a warm-up game in Albury in New South Wales.

“Eugene McGee was telling us not to kick goals because that was one of the weapons we’d have against the Australians. Sure the game got unbelievably competitive and I got a couple of goals. I don’t think he was too happy and thought it would come against me for the first test. But he was very fair and honest, it worked out really well.”

O’Brien tapping into a blistering run of form, 18 points in that game and 27 across the three showdowns in Melbourne, Canberra and Perth. He was able to regard blue-chip players as team-mates, forming a full-forward line with Bernard Flynn fresh from two All-Ireland wins and Stynes a year out from winning the Brownlow Medal.

“It was just fairytale stuff, everybody playing with the best players. Pat O’Byrne was there as well from Wicklow. I worked extremely hard for it. A couple of the lads in the club helped me to do extra training.”

KOB 1990 2 Source: Irish News Archive

There is a tinge of emotion in reminiscing about two figures who shaped that experience and have passed away over the last decade.

“Eugene McGee was absolutely brilliant as manager, Lord have mercy on him. He was very helpful with .

“Jim was brilliant. He wanted to beat the Aussies more than anything. He’d take a few of us around in his car and show us the place.

“It was a well put together tour, a month was a long time to be away. Trained twice a day. Eugene was very thorough as was his backroom staff.

“Great to be part of it and win it. Made friends for life.”

Baltinglass kept motoring that year and maintained their local supremacy. They moved onto Leinster, drawing with Thomas Davis in a December decider played under 48 hours after the elite individual award was pressed into his hand. O’Brien justified his new-found status by blasting 1-2 in that game. They would lose the replay in January 1991, a fourth riveting meeting with the Dublin champions in 14 months.

When it came to that All-Star selection, there was a notable quirk at play. The scheme had long operated with a sportsmanship clause which decreed any player sent-off in a club or county game was ineligible for selection.

By 1990 the ruling was less rigid and an appeal could be made to afford a dispensation to a player.

“It was against Blessington in a league game that year,” recalls O’Brien.

“I was chasing down a player (Fergus Daly), and his foot hit my knee, this is my side of the story anyway. I’d known him from playing for the county. Their manager at the time, when I was sent-off, he was very upset over it, which was very unusual, saying I shouldn’t have been sent-off. I got two weeks anyway.

“If I’d got a month I was gone, that’s what happened to the Cork full-forward Colm O’Neill, who was outstanding that year. He got a month, he hit Mick Lyons in the final.”

O’Brien got the nod for that position. Just like Mickey Quinn of Leitrim at midfield that year, he struck a blow with a first salute for a county of so-called weaker classification and achieved it at a time when Kerry missed out out a winner for the first time since the inception of the scheme in 1971.

KOB 1990 Screenshot Source: Irish News Archive

 

Ever since he’s been wishing for another Wicklow man to emulate him, steadfast in his belief that Leighton Glynn should have been hailed at some juncture.

The statuette remains in Baltinglass even if its owner continues to do a strong line in self-deprecation.

“We’ve no shrine for it or genuflect going by it but it’s there at home alright,” laughs O’Brien.

“I was never a person that brought it to too many places. People did look for it. There was a man called Peter Keogh, a former Wicklow chairman and a well-known local journalist, who asked me to bring it up to a couple of hospitals. I never would let Peter down so I used to wrap it in a SuperValu bag, bring it in and show a few people.

“It was surreal. I don’t know whether to say I was embarrassed or what. To be mentioned in the same sentence as Stafford and Linden, wow…at times you’d think you should give it back.

“I was delighted to be representing Wicklow, Baltinglass and all those players. To me it was a mark of respect for what we’d achieved as a group. I was proud of that.”

They can all take pride in their own way.

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Fintan O'Toole

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