Clifford, the Kerry superstar who lit up Croke Park during this year’s Division 1 final and the business end of the race for Sam Maguire
The GAA’s top two individual accolades were announced at tonight’s PwC All Stars banquet at the Convention Centre, televised live on RTÉ. And, in truth, neither decision qualifies as even a remote surprise.
Meanwhile, the young player of the year awards have gone to a brace of corner-backs - Galway’s Jack Glynn in football and Kilkenny’s Mikey Butler in hurling.
Clifford, the Kerry superstar who lit up Croke Park during this year’s Division 1 final and the business end of the race for Sam Maguire, was voted player of the year by his inter-county peers.
His fourth All Star award in just five seasons as a senior footballer had already been announced on Thursday morning.
Now the 23-year-old has completed a 2022 clean sweep of league, provincial, All-Ireland, All Star and player of the year honours … and he will hope to add another Kerry SFC medal on Sunday when lining out for East Kerry against Mid Kerry in the county decider.
The Fossa clubman was one of three candidates nominated by the All Stars selectors, comprising members of the media, but the only player from All-Ireland champions Kerry, with Galway duo Cillian McDaid and Shane Walsh also shortlisted.
“I suppose the All-Ireland is the big prize you set out to win at the start of the year,” Clifford remarked.
“But when you get nominated for something like the Footballer of the Year, it's nice to go on and win it. It's nice to get the recognition from your fellow players too which adds an awful lot to it.”
Prior to Kerry’s late victory surge against Galway last July, their talisman was in danger of being remembered as one of the greatest players yet to win a Celtic Cross.
That may seem a strange tag to place on one so young, but there is no doubt that the pressure was mounting on Kerry and their talisman.
So when the final whistle sounded, he admitted, “there was massive relief straight away. Which is probably wrong in a way. I won't say you don't enjoy it at the time, but you're just so relieved that you can't think of anything else.
“Like you said, there was probably a bit of pressure building on us. We had lost a lot of big games and a lot of big games in Croke Park. I wouldn't say we were starting to feel the pressure, but we certainly felt it was time for us to go on and win it.”
Clifford expanded: “The core of the team has been together now since 2019, so we went through a lot of those losses together. I suppose we all just rallied around each other. Tried to stay together as a group throughout those setbacks.
“There was never any negativity coming from the camp in the off-seasons or anything like that. I think it just brought us closer together going through such tough times like that.
"I think that's probably what allowed us to come through those big moments in matches this year, those past experiences.”
And peering ahead to next season, he added: “There's a good age profile there. There's a lot of us in our early twenties so we're very hungry to go on and try to improve.
"There's still things we definitely feel like we can improve on for next year, so we're really looking forward to getting going and working on those things.”
No more than Clifford, Diarmaid Byrnes was hotly fancied for hurling’s player of the year mantle – and so it transpired after he outpolled Limerick teammate Barry Nash and Kilkenny legend TJ Reid.
Not alone did he dominate his defensive patch, the towering wing-back also found time to tally 36 championship points in 2022 – 30 from placed balls and six from open play.
“It's hard to digest, really,” Byrnes admitted about his award. “Even to be nominated, it took me a while to process that, to be honest. Hand on heart, it's something I've never been striving for … I'm here now and it's like, 'woah', you nearly have to take a step back.
“I'm sure I'll be meeting people that are delighted for me, and I can sense that already in Patrickswell. I'm really honoured. It's a fantastic occasion for me as an individual, for my partner, and my family.
"Because they're the ones closest to me and see my sacrifice. They know when I'm training and the hours I'm gone every week. To bring it home for the family, first and foremost, is very special.”
Reflecting on Limerick’s historic period of dominance, Byrnes insisted they don’t take it for granted.
“The last couple of years have been just incredible,” the 28-year-old added.
“You always hear lads talking about how they were there in '94 and '96. And even now as I get older and having won one, I would have been so happy for those lads to win it back in the nineties.
“I look at men like Ciaran Carey, Gary Kirby, Barry Foley in our club. To see the success we've had and the enjoyment that we have gotten out of it, I would be so happy to be able to give them just one of mine. They were so close in their time.
“Because of situations like that, we have learned to be so grateful for what we have. It's nothing we'll be taking for granted going into next season.
"Three-in-a-row, fantastic. But, come January, it's time to knuckle down and it'll be every man for himself and just tear into the season and be the best you can for the team.”