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A Tribute To 15 Of The Toughest Men In The History Of The GAA

A Tribute To 15 Of The Toughest Men In The History Of The GAA
Balls Team
By Balls Team
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The GAA is Ireland's national sport which our tiny nation is extremely passionate and proud about. A sport rooted deep in Irish history, it is rich in passion and ferocity, not to mention it's a sport that is physical and can get rough and personal at times.


GAA players have to be physical, strong and skilled to excel in the sport, some however can play into the role a bit too much.

Here at Balls we have gathered a collection of the toughest men who've ever played hurling and gaelic football...


READ HERE: 7 Of The Wettest Days In The History of Irish Sport

READ HERE: 2023 GAA Hurling Club Championship Fixtures: The Road To Croke Park


Top 15 Toughest Men To Gave Played GAA

1. Diarmuid O'Sullivan (Cork GAA)

The kind of full-back a cartoonist could have come up with. An iconic figure and the first name on every list of GAA hard men. We suspect many players, and full-backs, have been bequeathed the nickname 'The Rock' at club level down the years, but at national level, there is only one. Corner forwards just bounced off his shoulders.


The Limerick point is his signature moment, but this incident from the 2003 All-Ireland final is oft overlooked. An idol down in Cork, his face at the end here suggests he looks like the type of man who could have taken on the British Empire single-handedly.



2. Mick Lyons and most of the Meath GAA 1987-88 team

A byword for hardness, very few teams are as secretly loved as the Meath side of the 1980s. Whenever old time GAA pundits talk about 'manliness' these days, you know they're pining for the square-jawed, ruthless hardness, the uncomplaining machismo of that Meath team.

Most of the team were hard bastards. There were a few exceptions, most notably the elegant, classy Brian Stafford, who used to trot languidly around the pitch, stoke over frees and a few from play, stroll towards the tunnel after the game, pop his glasses and his coat on, and then conduct an interview outside looking like a middle ranking civil servant.

The hardest of all was Mick Lyons, the ultimate cult hero (who was robbed of the chance to play James Bond) who, during the 1990 All-Ireland final, took a box in the face, felt his jaw-bone for a couple of seconds and walked away from the incident.


3. Francie Bellew (Armagh)

The purist's bete noire, Bellew was the name most frequently most cited by the outraged southerners when they decided to go on a rant about Ulster football.

Bellew was a key figure in the 2002 All-Ireland final, keeping the scrawny teenager Colm Cooper, who ran riot in the first half, quiet for the duration of the second period.


A Crossmaglen player, he naturally won bucket-loads of medals at club level. Notoriously, he knocked Mickey Linden's front teeth out in the 2004 Ulster club final, escaped without a card and Crossmaglen went onto win - an incident which purists regard as the ultimate triumph of evil over good.

4. Sylvie Linnane (Galway)

There's something about men with girl's names - it seems to make them tougher. John Wayne's real first name was Marion.


Linnane is perhaps the biggest cult hero from the famous Galway team of the 1980s. And probably the toughest too. Despite this he has not gone on to lament the supposed the softness of the current Galway crop in the manner some of his former colleagues have.

Linnane was quick-witted on the pitch too. Towards the end of the 1988 All-Ireland final, Galway led Tipperary by five points, and Tipp were battling frantically to manufacture a goal chance.

Marquee forward Nicky English stood over the free. Looking up at the clock and seeing Tipp trailing by five, he somewhat pleadingly asked the ref, 'How long’s left?'


Interjecting, Sylvie answered the question for the ref. 'You’ve 12 months now'.

Disconsolately, English blasted the ball over the bar, pointlessly reducing Tipp’s arrears to four points. The ref blew up.

When he was pushed over, Conor Hayes had his back.

5. Colm Coyle and most of the Meath GAA 1996 team

Pat McEnaney had made up his mind. He was going to send off two players, one from each team, Meath's John McDermott and Mayo's Liam McHale.

And then one of his umpires, Francie McMahon, came over to him and uttered the immortal words.

Pat, you're going to have to send off Colm Coyle, he's after dropping about six of them.

Like any self-respecting hard man, Coyle took a dim view of Joe Brolly's penchant for blowing kisses to the crowd, as Joe recounted in a Gaelic Life column. Brolly scored a goal in the final minute of a National League play-off encounter, before tousling the Meath goalkeeper's head and asking him whether 'that was better than sex' (the goalie had earlier made the claim that beating Dublin in Leinster was better than the aforementioned sex).

Then, I commenced to blow kisses to the crowd, interrupted only by Colm Coyle booting me.

Before he was carted off to hospital to have the 'wound stitched', Brolly's manager Brian Mullins had some soothing words for his corner forward.

You deserved that you little bollocks.

We know you've seen the row before, but here is a quite brilliant (and rather amusing) analysis of the Meath-Mayo brawl from Pat Spillane.

6. Brian Lohan (Clare)

Denis Walsh records that Ger Loughnane used to speak with the giddy joy of a proud father about the poison in Brian Lohan and his 'hatred' for any forward who came near him.

With 20 minutes left in the 1995 All-Ireland final, Clare physio signalled to Loughnane that Lohan had a torn hamstring and would have to go off.

'Tell him he's not coming off,' was Loughnane's response to his physiotherapist's advice.

Lohan played on as if there was nothing up. After Clare had won, he had to sit out the next few months. Of Lohan, Loughnane said:

When you talk about mental toughness what Lohan did in that All-Ireland was out of this world. He was willing to go through the pain barrier because the team needed him to do so.

7. Liam Harnan (Meath)


One of the only players from the Meath two-in-row team of the late 80s to go unrecognised by the All-Stars awarding committee, Harnan's bona fides as a hard man are unquestioned.

The Meath Chronicle have asserted that he was 'like Norman Hunter, Ron Harris and Graeme Souness all rolled into one with a touch of Vinnie Jones thrown in for good measure.'

A witty, thoughtful sort whose skill was overshadowed by his aggression and physicality, Harnan remains one of the most popular Meath footballers of that era.

And while he may not have gotten an All-Star, he did achieve the ultimate accolade, winning selection onto the Farmer's Journal selection of Best Farmers/Gaelic Footballers of all time.

8. Tommy Walsh and Jackie Tyrell (Kilkenny)

The word 'swashbuckling' could have been invented to describe the man jokingly called the 'bould Tommy' by punch-drunk opponents.

One of the greatest players of all time, Walsh became a lightening rod from criticism once the accusation that Kilkenny were 'playing on the edge' gathered momentum.

'Playing on the edge' was one of the great cliches of the game in the noughties and attached itself to Kilkenny. Cody cutely remarked that he hoped that his team were 'playing on the edge, because the edge is the place to be' (which would have been fair enough was the phrase 'playing on the edge' not already a euphemism).

Walsh frequently escaped punishment from referees and should have been sent off against Galway in 2004 (when he dropped his hurl and rugby tackled Damien Hayes when he was bearing down on goal in the opening seconds) and against the same opposition in 2009 (when Barry Kelly spared him a second yellow card for no real reason).

However, Walsh's toughness revealed itself when he was struck by Benny Dunne in the 2009 final. In true hardman style, he got to his feet and walked away, without uttering a word of complaint.

His amigo in the backline was the outstanding Jackie Tyrell, whose ferocious toughness is the stuff of Youtube gold. In the early moments of the 2009 final, he barrelled into Seamus Callanan, who lay prone on the ground, gasping for air.

9. Páidí O'Sé (Kerry)

A legend of almost mythic proportions, Páidí's hardness was overshadowed by his achievements. His ridiculousness toughness is best emphasised by the famous video of his encounter with Dinny Allen.

Dinny let back the elbow, whacking Páidí in the jaw. Páidí looked a tad startled for a second, before pausing and planting Allen, sending him toppling to the floor.

Then came the wonderful words, spoken as Gaeilge, which are music to the ears of all those who value hardness in Gaelic football.

I was very lucky not be sent off by the referee

No one fucked Páidí around like a loaf of bread.

10. Pádraic Maher (Tipperary)

A ferocious servant to Tipperary hurling for 13 years, he had a ridiculous record of playing nearly every championship minute for his county for years before retiring in 2022.

His hard work, determination and pure passion to win a dog fight proved worth it as he retired with three All-Ireland medals, six All-Stars awards and five Munster titles.


11. Neil McGee (Donegal)

McGee made his first county senior appearance back in 2005 and from the start he made his presence known to every player on the pitch. Able to give or take a shoulder of anybody without flinching was McGee's specialty.

He embodied the toughness and passion all full-backs should have in the game. He'll go down as one of the toughest men in the GAA, especially in Donegal GAA.


12.Teddy McCarthy (Cork)

A dual player for Cork hurling and football tells you all you need to know about his character.

A small figure on the pitch, which deceived many of his opponents. McCarthy was dominant in the air, able to win a high loopy ball competing with the tallest of men, showing height and physique is nothing without fight and determination.


13. Johnny Doyle (Kildare)

A Kildare legend, Doyle was one of Kildare's best players during the 2000's commanding the game's play from either the full forward line or in the middle of the pitch.

Doyle's versatility to play in numerous positions and score from them against any marker made him one of Kildare's all-time greats.

At 45-years-old Doyle was still playing club football in Kildare, winning POTM in the Kildare 2023 intermediate senior football county championship final.

A true warrior on the pitch and his longevity to still be playing at 45 years old and still having that winning mentality proves he is one of the toughest men in the GAA.


READ HERE: Monstrous Free Part Of MOTM Kildare Final Showing From 45-Year-Old Johnny Doyle



14. Ryan McMenamin (Tyrone)

McMenamin was one of the greatest GAA players known for their doggedness and shithousing antics, no matter if his beloved Tyrone were winning or losing.

McMenamin also spoke a big game and backed it up with crunching tackles and impressive plays.

He will go down as one of Tyrones greatest and toughest men in the GAA.

GAA Players - Toughest hardest players- Hurling Gaelic - Toughest men in the GAA

31 July 2010; Bryan Cullen and Alan Brogan, Dublin, get involved in an altercation with Conor Gormley and Ryan McMenamin, Tyrone, during the game. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Tyrone v Dublin, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE


15. Daithi Burke

Daithi Burke was named as Galway senior hurling captain back in 2022 at 29-years_old. He is one of Galway's top and toughest hurlers and has proving it year in and year out.

Burke has accumulated numerous awards for his skills and raw talent in the game, winning five All-Star awards in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2020.

GAA Players - Toughest hardest players- Hurling Gaelic

6 September 2015; Galway's Daithi Burke catches the sliotar ahead of team-mate Andrew Smith and Richie Hogan, Kilkenny. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Kilkenny v Galway, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

This article was originally published on Balls.ie in 2015.

SEE ALSO: 2023 GAA Club Championship Fixtures: The Interprovincial Football Draw

2023 GAA Club Championship Fixtures: The Interprovincial Football Draw




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