All-Ireland finalists Tyrone and Mayo are likely to provide the bulk of the 2021 All-Star team, with semi-finalists Kerry and Dublin also in the running for representation. What would a Team of the Year look like minus the top four teams?
Eight players from the victorious All-Ireland champions Tyrone made the Sunday Game Team of the Year selection, with Mayo (4), Kerry (2) and Dublin (1) making up the best of 2021, and the All-Star selection isn't likely to vary wildly from that of the RTÉ panellists when it is revealed on Friday (Live on RTÉ One and RTÉ Player)
However, if one was to exclude the four sem-finalists, who else made a mark over the course of the championship?
In a knock-out format, there were fewer opportunities to shine, and given the competitive nature of Ulster, nine players from the province have been chosen.
Players such as Donegal's Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Monaghan defender Ryan McAnespie, Kildare attacker Neil Flynn, Monaghan forward Jack McCarron and Longford's Rian Brady were all in the mix, but here is the team we selected.
Rory Beggan (Monaghan)
Had little to do against Fermanagh other than rifle over a 45, but was much busier against Armagh, picking the ball out of his net twice on a weekend where football seemed almost irrelevant given the passing of Farney U-20 captain Brendan Óg Duffy. In a free-scoring encounter, the margin between the sides at full-time was two points, Beggan's tally from frees.
It was the Ulster decider where he, and his Tyrone counterpart Niall Morgan, came to the fore. Never before have two goalkeepers exerted such an influence on a game from an attacking perspective, with both men pushing up as defenders and Beggan in particular moving into forward attacking positions. He knocked over two frees, shot narrowly wide from play and another probing ball was cut out by Morgan.
Twice in the final quarter he was almost caught out, but recovered brilliantly to deny Mattie Donnelly what looked like a certain goal in the final minute. His restarts and game management is right out of the Stephen Cluxton playbook.
Chrissy McKaigue (Derry)
With one-on-one battles between attacker and defender becoming rare treats in packed defences and retreating players, the sight of the Slaughtneil man going toe-to-toe with Paddy McBrearty in the white-hot heat of Ulster championship football was something to behold.
For 71 minutes, the Derryman gave every bit as good as he got, limiting Donegal’s main dangerman in Michael Murphy’s absence to just a free.
McBrearty’s two points in injury-time sealed a Donegal win by the narrowest of margins, but that can’t take away from McKaigue’s resolute display. Thirteen years on from his Oak Leaf County bow, he looks as assured as ever and follows in an illustrious line of man-marking Derry defenders.
Seán Meehan (Cork)
The young defender’s championship career with Cork has spanned a little over 12 months, but the peaks and troughs have been stark. The Kiskeam man made his debut in the smash-and-grab win against Kerry last year, his second outing was a sobering Munster final defeat to Tipperary. This year there was the workmanlike win over Limerick before a new low with a 22-point defeat in Killarney.
You would be forgiven for thinking that a defence that coughs up 4-18 from play would see little in the way of credit, but while most others were struggling to keep up their end of the bargain, Meehan held Kerry’s talisman scoreless from play.
Post-match, then Cork boss Ronan McCarthy called for Meehan to be given an All-Star, and given how the Fossa man tore Tyrone, Galway and at times Dublin to shreds in the league, and almost single-handedly dragged an off-colour Kingdom into an All-Ireland decider, such commentary holds credibility.
Sean Kelly (Galway)
The Moycullen man has been building a steady reputation in defence and was given the task of keeping tabs on Conor Cox in the Connacht semi-final. The Rossies were second best for most of the game, with Kelly holding the Kerry native scoreless from play, as well as showing poise at the other end to notch a point of his own.
Was comfortable for the most part, like most of his team-mates, in the first-half against Mayo, restricting Ryan O’Donoghue to a point from play, but a hamstring injury ended his afternoon short of the half hour mark. Things unravelled dramatically after the break for Padraic Joyce’s men, but Kelly will be pleased with his contribution to the 2021 campaign.
Padraig Cassidy (Derry)
The wing-back was immense in the defeat to Donegal. Was a constant outlet for Odhran Lynch’s restarts, which were under pressure throughout, and diligent in defence but also the regular launchpad for attacks, bombing up the field at every opportunity. Scored a point and was the standout performer on the pitch.
Ryan McHugh (Donegal)
Made an outstanding start to the championship. On a sunny day in Newry he was far too hot for Down to handle, surging from defence to knock over four points. The versatile operator was stationed at centre-forward against Derry, but in the Ulster semi-final defeat to Tyrone, was highly involved in Caolan McGonigle’s goal, even if the Red Hand runners kept him on the backfoot for more than he would have liked. Rarely delivers anything less than 8/10.
Kevin Flynn (Kildare)
The Celbridge man enjoyed a fine summer in white as Kildare made it to a Leinster final. A scorching presence at wing-back – see his surging run against Westmeath where his solo effort came off the post – he proved to be one of Jack O’Connor’s most consistent performers in 2021. Kildare were always at arm's length from Dublin in the Leinster decider, even if Daniel Flynn made it uncomfortable for a short period, but his namesake in defence was another who kept up his end of the bargain in Croke Park.
Oisín O’Neill (Armagh)
Younger brother Rian may produce the more spectacular moments, but Oisin's reliability is one of the key assets of Kieran McGeeney’s side.
Comfortable at midfield, half-forward or full-forward, his direct running and brilliance in the air ensure he is a threat anywhere in the top half of the pitch and has been a consistent performer over the past couple of seasons. Can shoot too as he showed against Monaghan, chipping in with three points as the Orchard County went within a whisker of a first Ulster final appearance since 2008.
Hugh McFadden (Donegal)
Whether stationed in the middle, or operating as a sweeper, the Killybegs man has assumed greater responsibility in the Donegal team. First drafted into the setup by Jim McGuinness in 2013, the vice-captain allows those further ahead flourish, and in the eerie Newry Park preliminary clash, it was noticeable how vocal he was when captain Michael Murphy departed the scene. Against Derry, his early block to prevent a goal was crucial in a game decided by the bare minimum.
Donegal were outgunned by Tyone in the provincial semi-final, but his work-rate and driving runs from deep kept their opponents honest.
Michael Langan (Donegal)
The booming score from distance has become his calling card – Donegal have a number of players to call upon in that regard – but Langan’s guile around the middle third is about much more than his contribution on the scoreboard.
He averaged two points a game from play in Ulster and knocked over some vital placed balls (one uncharacteristic miss against Tyrone aside), but it’s his poise on the ball that sets him apart.
The St Michael’s man always appears to have time to make the right decision and is a proficient operator in the air.
Rian O’Neill (Armagh)
Found James Laverty a tricky customer in the opener against Antrim but still converted a penalty and five frees. Was spectacular against Monaghan in their classic Ulster semi-final though, with his aerial prowess, vision, passing and shooting of the very highest standard. Finished with 1-11 in those two outings and was one of the standout performers in the league. Arguably Armagh's player of 2021.
Eoin Cleary (Clare)
The Banner men mined just 1-08 from play and conceded 3-22 against a Kerry side that appeared to have another gear or two if required, but once again Eoin Cleary left his mark on the game.
The Kingdom made a bright start, but the Miltown Malbay sharp-shooter swept over three points during the first-half to reduce the deficit to four and suggest a comeback could be on the cards.
Two top class scores from Eoin Cleary for @GaaClare from both right and left sides of the field against @Kerry_Official in the Munster Senior Football Championship Quarter-Final #GAANOW pic.twitter.com/bOuSlDTNpB— The GAA (@officialgaa) June 26, 2021
Alas, Clare were unable to put out fires in defence, yet Cleary would finish with four points from play and two more frees. A sensational Maurice Fitzgerald-like point during the league against Laois must also get a mention.
Barry O’Hagan (Down)
Has to be included for the first-half performance against Donegal alone. Having conceded the opening four points, the Mourne men needed someone to carry the fight and O’Hagan duly delivered with a kicking masterclass.
By the first water-break he had raised all four of Down’s white flags and Declan Bonner’s side, while in the ascendancy, were simply chasing shadows when the ball came into the Clonduff man.
Unfortunately, he required more assistance in sharing the scoring burden and while he finished with 0-08, including three frees, it was a 16-point defeat in Newry.
Shane Walsh (Galway)
A man more than capable of sprinkling stardust on any occasion, his championship began, and ended, with injury concerns.
The Kilkerrin-Clonberne was rumoured to be a late absentee in the Connacht clash with Roscommon, but took to the field and Brian Stack kept close tabs on the 28-year-old. The Tribesmen were always a cut above the Rossies, but it required Walsh penetrating the opposition defence to create a handful of scores to help his team over the line.
The Connacht final in Croker will be quickly consigned to history from a maroon perspective, but the first half was one-way traffic with Walsh at the heart of it. His goal was a combination of opportunism and clinical finishing, while Galway’s second through Damien Comer was all about the industrious play of the man with 14 on his back.
His contribution effectively ended before the interval in an off-the-ball incident with Mayo defender Pádraig O’Hora. Walsh ploughed on after a pain-killing injection in the dressing room but his influence was impacted drastically as Mayo whittled down the lead to win comfortably in the end.
Daniel Flynn (Kildare)
A gifted operator who can cut it against any position. The Johnstownbridge man missed the win over Offaly, and was a late inclusion against Westmeath, but was at his devastating best in the full-forward line.
Having set-up Jimmy Hyland’s goal, minutes later Flynn raised a green flag of his own with a sensational finish, sucking in the defence and rolling the ball into the bottom corner.
GOAL KILDARE— The Sunday Game (@TheSundayGame) August 1, 2021
67mins DUB 0-17 KIL 1-08
Daniel Flynn has scored a great goal to give Kildare a boost heading into the final stages of the game, but Dublin still lead by six points. #RTEgaa
📺 Watch live - https://t.co/OwunHS9wVG 📱 Updates – https://t.co/3HezpblFBu pic.twitter.com/aQjA5s4ShB
Even against the Dubs, the former AFL man showed he can mix it with the best of them. The Lilywhites kept in the contest for around 40 minutes before Dessie Farrell’s side began to pull away, but Flynn sparked life back into the contest, if only briefly, with a superb goal, stripping James McCarthy of possession, easing past Jonny Cooper and firing into the top corner.
Follow the PWC All-Stars via our liveblog on RTÉ.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app, or watch live on RTÉ One and the RTÉ Player from 7pm.