• Home
  • /
  • GAA
  • /
  • A Tribute To 10 Of The Toughest Men In History Of The GAA

A Tribute To 10 Of The Toughest Men In History Of The GAA

A Tribute To 10 Of The Toughest Men In History Of The GAA
By Balls Team Updated
Share this article

A collection of the hardest men who've ever played hurling and gaelic football...

Diarmuid O'Sullivan

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.



Mick Lyons and most of the Meath 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.


Francie Bellew

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.



Sylvie Linnane

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.


Colm Coyle and most of the Meath 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.


Brian Lohan

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.


Liam Harnan

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.

Tommy Walsh and Jackie Tyrell

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.


Páidí O'Sé

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.


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

SEE ALSO: Flynn Says Cluxton Return Not A Good Sign For Dublin GAA Future

Join The Monday Club Have a tip or something brilliant you wanted to share on? We're looking for loyal Balls readers free-to-join members club where top tipsters can win prizes and Balls merchandise

Processing your request...

You are subscribed now!

Share this article

Copyright © 2023. All rights reserved. Developed by Square1 and powered by PublisherPlus.com