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star men As the race for the Sam Maguire nears its conclusion - here are my 5 contenders for footballer of the year

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Tipperary captain Conor Sweeney makes a speech after lifting the Munster trophy

Tipperary captain Conor Sweeney makes a speech after lifting the Munster trophy

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Tipperary captain Conor Sweeney makes a speech after lifting the Munster trophy

DUBLIN’S dominance of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship can seem like an immutable law of physics.

As the SFC enters the final-four phase, the oddsmakers list six of Dessie Farrell’s squad among their nine favourites to claim Footballer of the Year.

But, while the Dubs are pursuing six-in-a-row, Mayo have snatched the Footballer-of-the-Year prize twice in the last four years. And the thrilling breakthrough of Cavan and Tipperary sees their star men parachuted onto our 2020 shortlist.

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Ciarán Kilkenny of Dublin in action against Meath

Ciarán Kilkenny of Dublin in action against Meath

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Ciarán Kilkenny of Dublin in action against Meath


Ciaran Kilkenny (Dublin)

A central strut in the five-in-a-row edifice, a constant in the gallop to history, Kilkenny’s cerebral efficiency, his ability to field-marshal a battle rarely dips below superhuman.

In Dublin’s palate-cleanser against Westmeath, the 27-year-old kicked five finespun points from play, and, in the burning quality of his general performance, towered above team-mates who belong among the old game’s all-time masters.

His form has hardly dipped since: A thrilling improvised goal in a 1-3 masterclass against Laois; four more points from play as the Sky Blues devoured Meath a week ago.

Kilkenny is the very opposite of a slave to flash, more understated general than the kind to swagger through life emitting the look-at-me blaze of a Times Square billboard.

The poster-boy for ego-free football, he brilliantly embraces the Gavinesque concept that, for all his talents, a star’s supreme, underlying loyalty must always be to the team.

So Dublin’s quarterback often sacrifices his more eye-catching gifts to instead quietly, methodically oil the blue machine.

Kilkenny is the rock star who is happy to assume the roadie’s unglamorous checklist of responsibilities: His work-rate, tracking-back and tackling are evidence of a superstar with a blue-collar work ethic.

That very selflessness combined with steady-as-she-goes consistency means his phenomenal contribution to Dublin’s epic journey simply can be taken for granted.

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Cavan's Raymond Galligan celebrates with Paul Graham and Thomas Edward Donohoe

Cavan's Raymond Galligan celebrates with Paul Graham and Thomas Edward Donohoe

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Cavan's Raymond Galligan celebrates with Paul Graham and Thomas Edward Donohoe

Raymond Galligan (Cavan)

His body of work (seizing the Stephen Cluxton patent to deliver a buzzer-beating winning free, a resistance fighter in the mould of fellow Ulster goalkeepers Packie Bonner and Shay Given) is, of itself, enormously impressive.

That Galligan spoke with such thundering emotional force in the spine-tingling aftermath of Cavan’s seismic taking down of Donegal enhanced his status to another level, made the Breffni captain’s candidacy ever more compelling.

It was his 55-yard free at the very death that brought down Monaghan last month and, literally, kick-started a journey into the pages of GAA folklore.

As Cavan shifted Ulster’s tectonic plates last week, he (like his cousin, Thomas) was a towering figure in the upstart rebellion: Three second-half saves, the most critical from Jamie Brennan, made their landmark advance secure.

Then, in a post-match interview, he struck the perfect chord for a day that touched so many Cavan people to the core.

Face twisted with emotion, pausing constantly to gather himself, he described the sense of liberation that came with a first Ulster title in 23 years, the transformative effect of this gorgeous ray of sunlight on a winter bereft of hope.

Quizzed about how victory would lift the county, his entire body seems to shudder and jolt and tremble.

“Ah, massive. We had our doom and gloom over the last couple of months with Covid. There have been fantastic members of my own parish who have passed away. My own community have had a lot of hurt. But I hope we put a smile on everybody’s faces back home today.

“We knew there was thousands and thousands of people all over the world, all Cavan people, dressed in their Cavan jerseys, supporting us and screaming for us. We knew in the last quarter, there was every single mother and father and child at home driving us on. We knew that, and that got us over the line today.”

Listening to Galligan’s sincerity and sense of place, the happy ache in his voice rising and falling like the drumlins of his home county, was to understand that here was a man it would be an honour to follow into battle.

Conor sweeney (Tipperary)

On Tipp’s greatest day, he delivered a memory as lasting as the specially commissioned Bloody Sunday shirt on his back.

Sweeney inflicted upon Cork a payload of scores on a scale beyond even the great David Clifford in the semi-final.

His seven points matched his haul against Limerick – the latter collection including the outstanding score of this championship winter, a thing of wonder that seemed to pop straight from a sorcerer’s instruction manual.

Under the most intense pressure, his team a point down in the fifth minute of added time, Sweeney summoned his inner Maurice Fitzgerald.

From the left touchline – 45 yards from goal – with the outside of his left boot, he sent the ball on a miraculous, swerving trajectory, thudding off the inside of the far post and rebounding over the bar to stave off the Grim Reaper.

Colin O’Riordan’s return from Australia to announce himself as Caesar of the Munster skies last weekend carried a powerful resonance even before the pride poured out of him in a passionate post-match interview.

Sweeney’s 14-points in two games, his captaincy and even-temper at the most suffocating moment in Tipp’s year, make him the poster-boy for their breakthrough after 85-years.

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Patrick Durcan of Mayo

Patrick Durcan of Mayo

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Patrick Durcan of Mayo

Patrick Durcan (Mayo)

Brings the kind of effortless torque and rippling athletic ability to move powerfully through the gears that are hallmarks of those fellow thoroughbreds residing at Aidan O’Brien’s five-star Ballydoyle finishing school.

Cillian O’Connor is the Mayo player most fancied by the oddsmakers to emulate previous winners, Andy Moran (2017) and Lee Keegan (2016). Aidan O’Shea is more high-profile, but Durcan is James Horan’s outstanding player.

An exceptional man-marker (he closed down Enda Smith in the Connacht semi-final), versatile, with that Jack McCaffrey capacity to arrive, as if by cannon fire, to inflict his will upon a contest.

Mayo’s adventure has often been infused with a blue of counter-attacking red and green.

Durcan has merely accepted the baton from Keegan, Keith Higgins and Donie Vaughan.

Contributed three points from play in the victories over Roscommon and Galway, and will be a critical figure as the wide-open spaces of Croke Park loom into view.

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Brian Fenton of Dublin celebrates

Brian Fenton of Dublin celebrates

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Brian Fenton of Dublin celebrates

Brian Fenton (Dublin)

The midfielder’s career of high-achievement reads like a love-letter to doing the right thing.

A study in grace, Fenton devours the turf in elegant lopes, is a supreme foot passer who is setting new scoring standards for all midfield players.

The only previous winner (2018) on our shortlist, he is among six Dublin players in the first nine in Paddy Power’s Footballer-of-the-Year betting (Kilkenny is 2/1 favourite, with (inset, from top to bottom) Dean Rock, Con O’Callaghan, James McCarthy and Sean Bugler also listed).

He kicked four points from play against Laois, but it was the all-round quality of his play that emphasised again how, along with Kilkenny and McCarthy, he is Dublin’s centre of gravity.

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