Ciarán Murphy: All-Stars should not be all about the winners

Given the nature of modern championships, accolades should be spread more widely

TJ Reid is undoubtedly one of the best hurlers in the country. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

TJ Reid is undoubtedly one of the best hurlers in the country. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

It shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise to see just how quickly conversation turned in the pubs around Croke Park on Sunday evening from the match we had just witnessed to the final destination of the Hurler of the Year award and the All-Stars.

Since their introduction in 1971, the All-Stars have been a hardy perennial of every Irish winter – a staple of pub talk in the run-up, and particularly in the aftermath. The first Hurler of the Year award was given at the award ceremony in 1995, has grown in stature every year and has now comprehensively replaced the Texaco award for Hurler of the Year in prestige.

This year promised to be radically different, however. In past years the All-Star teams were dominated by the teams who got to the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals – because they were successful, obviously, but also because they were the teams playing enough games for a player’s form to be accurately adjudged to have been exceptional.

Kilkenny played as many games in 2018 just to qualify for the Leinster final as they did in 2009 to win the All-Ireland title outright. Kilkenny ended up playing seven games this year, but had only one representative on the Sunday Game team of the year announced on Sunday night, usually a fair barometer of at least 11 or 12 of the final All-Star team.

Cultural shift

There is a cultural shift that needs to happen in the GAA when it comes to All-Star teams. How often on any given year could you say that the All-Star team aligns exactly with the best team in the country? I would say it would be rare indeed to have any more than eight or nine of the best players in their position on a given year’s All-Star team.

That was the way of things, and it made sense in a way. A man might have been in the form of his life, but we just didn’t see enough of him. You could hardly say that this year. Chris Crummey of Dublin played four games, and was man of the match in two of them, for instance. Four good games was enough to get Galway players back-to-back awards in the 1980s.

If there was a transfer market in hurling, how long would it take you to pick up the phone and call for TJ Reid? You might have one phone call to make before then, maybe two ... but not many more than that. It is inarguable that he is one of the best hurlers in the country.

Did his performance levels drop even one iota this year? Absolutely not. This might have been the best year of his career, in some respects – certainly Kilkenny have never been more reliant on him. But he was nowhere to be seen on Sunday night. The team of the year gets picked apart enough as it is, and usually the furore around certain players’ omissions is a good guide for the selectors when it comes to the All-Star meetings.

Nature of the team

What I’m really talking about is the nature of the team itself. If TJ Reid really is one of the best hurlers in the country, and we get a look at him in at least five championship games every year, then that should be enough for us to hand him an All-Star at the end of every season. We’re just not entirely sure that’s what we want, though.

If you picked the best team in the country, then it stands to reason that there would be little in the way of real change from one November to the next. It is the consistency of the great ones that mark them out as great.

But we always feel there should be a place for the man who had a special, perhaps never-to-be-repeated, year above the man whose consistent excellence has been obvious for years. That’s why TJ Reid would be the best attacker on the Limerick team by a distance, but will more than likely be denied an All-Star by two or maybe even three Limerick forwards. It’s not a fetishisation of winners, necessarily, but it is seen as a just reward for going all the way.

The player of the year awards, for what it’s worth, suggest that culture could change over time. Three of the last four player of the year awards in football and hurling have been given to players on teams who didn’t win that year’s All-Ireland, and Pádraic Mannion appears to be most people’s choice for the personal accolade in hurling again this year.

In a championship structure that meant that usually only four teams played any more than three games, the old system glorified the winners and kept hidden the losers. That doesn’t have to be the case from now on.

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