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Pat Spillane picks his 2016 Football All Stars

GAABy Pat Spillane
Dublin's Brian Fenton was an 'automatic choice' for Pat
Dublin's Brian Fenton was an 'automatic choice' for Pat

One of the most eagerly-awaited items on The Sunday Game every season is the announcement of the Team of the Year in football and hurling on the nights of the two All-Ireland finals.

The selection generates a huge amount of interest, a bit of controversy and no shortage of talking points.

Indeed, in recent years the selection of a Sunday Game team has taken some of the gloss from the official GAA All Star team, because, by and large, the two sides are remarkably similar in their make-up.

However, I can guarantee this won’t be the case this year. 

By now it’s an open secret that this year’s Sunday Game selection meeting was hijacked by one member of the panel. In order to save his blushes, I won’t name him.

This individual – let’s call him Joe – came with a bizarre agenda. He wanted one specific Tyrone player on the team and another Tyrone player excluded. Don’t ask me why!

None of the other selectors agreed with him – initially. They favoured the player he wanted excluded. To cut a long story short, a majority of the selectors capitulated. 

Nobody had the stomach for yet another argument with ‘Joe’.

Just to recall, the 2016 Sunday Game Team of the Year was: Stephen Cluxton; Brendan Harrison, Jonny Cooper, Philly McMahon; Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Patrick Durcan; Brian Fenton, Mattie Donnelly; Kevin McLoughlin, Diarmuid Connolly, Ciaran Kilkenny; Paul Geaney, Michael Quinlivan, Dean Rock.

When the All Star football selectors sit down to pick their team next Wednesday I expect them to come up with a more balanced side.

But here is my 2016 All Star Football Team...

1 - Stephen Cluxton, Dublin   

It is a measure of the extraordinary high standards he has that his so-called meltdown near the end of the first-half against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final was viewed as a crisis for Dublin. Apart from that wobble, Cluxton had a solid season. 

No opposition has yet managed to crack his kick-out code, which remains one of the key elements in the Dublin success story.

2 - Brendan Harrison, Mayo 

Nearly every All Star team throws up a ‘springer’ and this year it’s the turn of the Mayo No.2. Scarcely heard of outside his own county, not alone did he nail down the corner-back berth, he gave a series of superb man-marking performances – particularly in the two All-Ireland finals against Dublin.

3 - Jonny Cooper, Dublin 

At the start of the year we speculated that Dublin would be vulnerable at full-back due to the absence of Rory O’Carroll. You must be joking! 

Cooper proved as good, if not a better, than O’Carroll. A superb reader of the game, he has matured into a brilliant defender and gave a man-of-the-match performance against Kieran Donaghy in the All-Ireland semi-final.

4 - Philly McMahon, Dublin 

Won his first All Star last year and was probably even more effective this season. There is too much focus on his aggression; it tends to mask the fact that he is a damn good footballer. 

He actually curbed his wilder tendencies this year and proved a more effective defender as a result.

5 - Lee Keegan, Mayo 

An automatic selection. What a season he had; he did excellent man-marking jobs on Sean Cavanagh, Michael Quinlivan and Diarmuid Connolly. 

Scored a wonderful goal in the All-Ireland final replay and one wonders how that game would have panned out had he avoided the black card.

6 - Cian O'Sullivan, Dublin 

Even though he wasn’t as spectacular as he was in previous seasons, he remains the key player in Dublin’s defensive system. A superb reader of the game, he is rarely drawn out of position by rivals despite the best efforts to reduce his influence as a sweeper.

7 - Peter Harte, Tyrone 

This was the first position where I had to wrestle with my conscience! It was a desperately close call between Donegal’s Ryan McHugh and Harte. I gave the nod to the latter. 

He is a superb leader and hit a remarkable 3-8 from play in the championship, even though Tyrone didn’t reach the All-Ireland semi-final.

8 - Brian Fenton, Dublin 

Another automatic choice! Fenton’s probably never even heard of ‘second-season syndrome’. He had another superb campaign, even though he is now a marked man. Any team wanting to beat Dublin has to find a player capable of matching Fenton’s athleticism and pace and keep track of his forward runs.

9 - Peter Acheson, Tipperary 

This was the second marginal call. In the end I opted for Acheson ahead of Tyrone’s Mattie Donnelly. Acheson is not the tallest of midfielders nor the most spectacular fielder, but he produced a consistently high level of performances as Tipp enjoyed a historic year. His strong running and work rate were key planks in their game plan.

10 - Kevin McLoughlin, Mayo 

A controversial call because his best work was done as a sweeper. It took him a while to settle into the role, but as the season progressed he became increasingly effective.

He was such a key player in Mayo’s march to the final that I had to find a place for him.

11 - Diarmuid Connolly, Dublin 

Judged on his own exacting standards he wasn’t at his brilliant best in the All-Ireland series. But as I’ve repeatedly said, he is the best two-footed kicker in the game since Maurice Fitzgerald. 

His late point against Kerry in the semi-final personified his class and coolness under pressure.

12 - Ciaran Kilkenny, Dublin 

Granted, his scoring rate has dropped alarmingly, but his work rate, unselfish play and versatility – he is equally effective at wing-forward or wing-back – makes him a worthy choice. 

Essentially he has become the conductor of the Dublin attack and rarely if ever gives a stray pass. 

13 - Paul Geaney, Kerry

Not alone was he the team’s best forward this year, he was their best player by a country mile. He ended the season with 3-13 from play including a magnificent 1-4 against Dublin. Like the rest of us, he is probably still wondering why he was taken off that day.

14 -Michael Quinlivan, Tipperary 

Wouldn’t be a unanimous selection, but he was Tipp’s best player in what was a remarkable season for them. 

Don’t forget he nearly dragged Clonmel Commercials into the All-Ireland club final at the start of the season. The third highest scorer in the championship with a 2-27 return.

15 - Dean Rock, Dublin 

A very underrated player who hasn’t been getting the credit he deserves. 

Too often we don’t fully appreciate just how valuable an accurate free-taker is to a team. Apart from a blip in the drawn All-Ireland final, Rock was utterly reliable all season, hitting 1-58 – which represents nearly 42 per cent of Dublin’s total scores.