The best of times; the worst of times HINCREDIBLY almost 36 years have passed since that momentous day, March 7, 1964, when the post-war steeplechasing giants, Arkle and Mill House, contested a virtual match for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.The fact that only four runners went to post was quite irrelevant, other than that the absence of so many indicated the superiority of two superb Irish breds, ridden by two gifted Irish horsemen.
Mill House, ridden by Willie Robinson, represented Britain because he had been bought from the Lawlor family of Naas for Bill Gollings and was trained by Fulke Walwyn. Arkle fortunately had been purchased by Anne Duchess of Westminster and remained in Ireland to be trained by Tom Dreaper and became the regular partner of the long serving stable jockey Pat Taaffe.
On the day the horses' origins mattered not a hoot. Mill House was British, Arkle Irish and to the good natured partisans on both sides this was a showdown between the two countries.
The rivalry dated from the Cheltenham festival of the previous year. Arkle could hardly have been more impressive in winning the Broadway novices' 'chase, but Mill House, also only six years old, had trounced the opposition in the Gold Cup. Mill House totally captivated the British media and public. Extravagant forecasts were made for his future, but everyone knew that the advancement of the dream would hinge on his first clash with Arkle.
Thus on a dank day in November 1963 Newbury was packed to capacity for the Hennessy Gold Cup. The outcome further fanned the flames of British ardour. Mill House won clearly from Happy Spring with Arkle only third.
Arkle, who was in receipt of five pounds, had blundered his chance away three fences from home, as far as one could see in the bad visibility. But at least one person's faith remained unshaken. When Pat Taaffe emerged from the weighroom, he told me: ``Don't write it because I don't like making excuses when we are beaten, but we were unlucky. He slipped in a soft patch and almost stopped. We'll win the Gold Cup.''
By the time the Festival opened Irish confidence was fully restored. And with Britain's faith undiminished, the stage was set for high drama. A group of us spied Peter O'Sullevan, as ever on the eve of big occasions dining alone, and still doing preparatory work. We joined him for coffee and argued the toss until a late hour. Although out-voted three to one, Sir Peter, as he now is, a Mill House fan, could not be moved.
And so the controversy raged right up to the hour of the race. Everywhere the topic of conversation was the same. Among huddled groups in the open, in the packed bars and restaurants, there was only one topic of conversation for a vast crowd divided primarily, if not exclusively, by nationality.
Then some ten minutes before the Gold Cup, panic. Snow suddenly swept in from the Cotswold hills giving rise to fears of the greatest anti-climax in racing history. Miraculously, the weather passed over equally quickly, unveiling a blue sky, and as the runners went to post, the air was crystal clear.
Every detail of the magnificent course could be seen from the stands as Mill House, with Willie Robinson full of confidence, set off in front, and there he stayed until Arkle began to close running down hill for the last time. Both horses appeared to be full of running, but Arkle's forward move extracted a huge Irish roar.
There was nothing between them at the second last. Then on the home turn Robinson pulled his whip through. The Irish, sensing victory, raised the roof. Arkle bounded over the last in front, and encouraged by Taaffe, forged away up the hill.
The crowd surged, cheering all the way to the unsaddling enclosure. The shock on Fulke Walwyn's face spoke volumes. Pat Taaffe smiled his familiar shy, modest salutation. Tom Dreaper, a typically straight face beneath sparkling eyes, dryly remarked he had alway known ``he would win by five lengths.''
* Tom MacGinty
Christy plays the shot of his life
THE European Ryder Cup team had performed what many thought was the impossible at Muirfield Village in 1987. Eamon Darcy holed that putt to beat Ben Crenshaw and Severiano Ballesteros was at his mercurial best to inspire Olazabal, Faldo, Langer et al to win the Cup for the first time on American soil.
That brought extra pressure to keep the Cup at home two years later at The Belfry. As usual, the Americans came loudly proclaiming their superiority as individuals. And, as fate would have it, another Irishman became central to Europe's cause. It was time for Christy O'Connor Junior to step out of the crowd and play the shot of his life. His memory of that historic feat is as clear as the skies that afternoon:-
``We were level going to the eighteenth. I had won the 16th with a crucial putt and we both parred the 17th. The last is a very dangerous hole. I remember the atmosphere was incredible around the tee. So many people were going crazy. I had the honour from the 16th and my main objective was to avoid the water. So I took out the three wood and drove safely on to the fairway.
``Fred Couples was number one in the world at the time and I know he expected to beat me. Well, he hit a boomer, way past the water and my ball to leave himself a seven iron to the green. I was a long way back.
``As I walked down to the ball I knew from the way the competition was panning out that I needed to win to give us a draw. The captain Tony Jacklin came over to me and said, `one more swing for Ireland.' I felt he shouldn't have done that. It just added to the pressure I was under when I wanted to be alone with my thoughts.
``The tension was awful. But I knew I was playing good golf at the time and I kept saying that to myself. I had to control myself. It was my only Ryder Cup singles match. But I had plenty of experience, having won the Irish Matchplay three times.
``As I approached the ball, I could see I had a bare, hard lie something like you would come across on a seaside course. I had to carry the ball 201 yards to clear the water and another 20 down to the flag.
``I took out the two iron. The margin for error is minimal. There is such little loft on the club, 17 degrees in all. I knew I had to hit it perfectly. I concentrated on making a big shoulder turn that is very important and hitting right down the line. Luckily, I got that fantastic crisp feeling you get when you make the right contact.
``When I didn't see any ducks fly up I knew I wasn't in the water. It pitched perfectly and ran down to two and a half feet below the hole. I think the shot killed Fred. I mean, the crowd went crazy.
``He hit a seven iron five yards right of the green, not all that bad a shot, but not what was needed. There is a huge slope on that green and his chip went to within five feet of the flag, but it was on the high side, which is where you didn't want to be. There was a swing of five inches on the putt. And that's a lot.
``You have no idea how it felt to see his putt slide by. I think he said `well done.' He seemed to be in shock. He's such a lovely guy. I was told he was really down for hours afterwards.''
That point ensured a 14-14 draw and retention of the Ryder Cup. Renowned Scottish painter Graham Baxter took his brush to canvas and created `The Shot', a widely circulated work of art that captured Christy's moment of history.
* Des Berry
Tragic tale of two geniuses
I GREW up in a home without television. Radio was the link to the world of entertainment. My father, a part-time jazz musician, had little time for female singers and my mother was a Judy Garland fan. I shared my father's views on female singers until I heard Edith Piaf belt out ``Je Ne Regrette Rien.'' The American and the Frenchwoman both led lives, ruined by substance abuse. Garland was a tragic figure, while Piaf lived her song title, seemingly regretting nothing.
In the second half of the century, Belfast produced two sporting icons, who were ultimately undone by the extravagances of their lifestyles. George Best and Alex Higgins were larger than life figures who made their contemporaries look like cardboard cutouts. I never saw either of them in a live performance, yet they provided me with compelling television viewing.
In the era before Sky Sports, Match of the Day was compulsive stuff on a Saturday night and Best rarely failed to deliver. There was always an element of cheek, skill or sheer bravado in his performance. Best's fame rests on a career that effectively ended in his mid-twenties when he was released by Manchester United. He never played in the European Championship or World Cup. ``Recreational Football'' is how he described his thirty-seven appearances for Northern Ireland between 1964 and 1977.
He had lurched into alcoholism when still a first team star at United, often failing to arrive at training and on one famous occasion missing a game against Chelsea. He avoided the hordes of pressmen by holing up in Sinead Cusack's apartment. One can only wonder how Best might have fared if the counselling, later offered to the likes of Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams and Paul Merson, had been available to him.
One can only guess, too, at the effect on Best of the death of his mother, who had not taken a drink until she was 40, a hopeless alcoholic at 45. And what would have happened had the young fly-half at Grosvenor High School stayed with the oval ball?
Unlike Best, Alex Higgins was no scholarship pupil. His first intention to be a jockey denied, he turned to snooker and the smoke and the alcohol of the clubs of the North of England. Snooker in the pre-television days was a dreary round of marathon matches in front of few spectators and minimal media coverage. Then came Pot Black and the sport took off, culminating in an audience of 18 million for the Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor World Championship Final at the Crucible.
Higgins had become the youngest World Champion in 1972 when he beat John Spencer over 72 frames. The prize money was infinitesimal but the Irishman was the stuff of television. The self-styled ``People's Champion'' was crucial to the development of the sport. It was easy to identify with the player who took outrageous risks and played the game at breakneck speed. He was nicknamed ``Hurricane'' when no other contemporary had a style as instantly recognisable.
The decline of Best was masked by the nature of team sport and his image as a playboy in the nightclubs of Manchester. There was no escape for Higgins. His life was encapsulated in 23 inches of tube. His descent into hell was chronicled night after night, in tournament after tournament, as he plied his trade in a miasma of smoke and a menu of drinks. While Steve Davis sedately sipped water, Higgins imbibed and chain-smoked.
If Busby indulged Best, then TV executives failed in their duty to Higgins. Watching Higgins drink himself into oblivion live and in colour was a tragedy that would have required the skill of Hemingway to chronicle. Like his soccer-playing countryman, the beginning of the end occurred for Higgins when he was at the height of his powers.
When he won the World Championship for the second time in 1982 on a tide of emotion, the Irishman could have parlayed his way to a fortune. The image of a tearful champion embracing his wife and daughter could have put him with Henry Cooper and Bobby Charlton in the lexicon of sporting heroes. Instead the image of a happy marriage was shattered by well-publicised rows and his behaviour on and off the baize became unacceptable.
Today both men are tragic figures. Best, parodying himself, continues to wend his way through the dinner circuit and occasional TV work. Higgins, wracked by cancer, broke and near-homeless, is now incapable of earning a worthwhile living.
* George Hook
Sonia restores her credibility
IT has been suggested that sport is an activity that should be either performed or watched, but not written about, since much is lost in the telling. Notwithstanding that, in Ireland, sport and its exponents survive long after the event is over, vivid enough to brighten the memory and lift the spirit for many years.
Fr Liam Kelleher was coming out from the 11am Mass in Whitechurch, when Ger Hartmann rang him and told him that Sonia O'Sullivan had won her second World Cross country title. ``My prayers had already been answered the day before,'' he says mischievously, ``but I must have put a little extra into them.''
Sonia had just won two world championships on the same weekend in March, and followed up in August with a pair of European Golds in Budapest. She rounded off the year by taking first in the World Championship 5K in South Africa. ``I wanted to be a part of history,'' she said. ``I went for all the firsts in 1998 and got them.''
O'Sullivan knew going into the cross-country that she had the speed to win. She trained with Marcus O'Sullivan, Frank O'Mara, and American Bob Kennedy in London. One of her final group runs was at five-minute pace. ``I knew the race in Marrakesh would not be run any faster. And so it turned out, almost dreamlike. My plan was to follow the leader in the long race and not lose too much ground. Actually, I was always in the picture without doing much of anything, and I won comfortably.''
Her decision to run the following day took everyone by surprise. ``Deep down, I wanted to run, and I was feeling good. I had lunch with Bob Kennedy who was getting ready to run the next day. As we were chatting, I made my mind up that I was going to run,'' she said.
``I was a little worried when the Kenyans took it out very fast, but I stayed relaxed and kept them in sight. At the 3k mark, I had caught up. My coach had told me to make my move at the 3k point if I was feeling comfortable, to avoid being run out in a sprint finish.'' In the next 800 metres O'Sullivan surged and put 14 seconds on them and that was it.
``In retrospect, it was very easy on both days, but the relief was enormous and the pressure was off. I didn't begin to feel the effects until somewhere along the road from Cork to Cobh.''
O'Sullivan remained on an even keel after these victories, and continued to train with a heart monitor. Her confidence in coach, Alan Storey began to grow. She broke the 2-mile World Record at the Cork City sports, and then headed for Budapest.
What is astonishing about her 10,000 metre win is that she had never competed in a track race of that distance. She ran behind the leading five for much of the race. When Ribeiro made her move at 250 metres, she couldn't drop O'Sullivan, who promptly responded with a devastating sprint at 200 metres to secure the win. This was a huge victory for the O'Sullivan family who joined in the celebrations. The nightmare of Atlanta had receded.
``This was special,'' Sonia said. ``It restored my credibility which most people were beginning to doubt.''
The 5000 metre race played out in a similar fashion, with O'Sullivan in the leading bunch, relaxed and alert, but all the time eyeing Szabo. The confrontation between these two would decide the race, and the Irish contingent waited anxiously for the first move. There wasn't any, and O'Sullivan put this race away early with a blistering last lap of 59.1, and demolished her rival to win her second Gold.
Sonia seemed a little bewildered by it and her reaction was subdued. Perhaps the enormity of her accomplishments had begun to register. ``I was just thrilled to be a factor in the final day,'' she said. ``It's the most exciting day in any major championship. To actually win another gold medal was brilliant.''
O'Sullivan concluded a never to be forgotten championship year with another win in the World Cup 5000 metres in South Africa ... a series of wins that may never be repeated, and on that basis, she is arguably Ireland's greatest ever athlete.
* PJ Browne
No fuss as Irish humble England
WHEN the English FA chose Goodison Park as the venue for their friendly with the Republic of Ireland on September 21, 1949, the omens were good ... from an Irish point of view.
Less than two years before, the IFA's all-Ireland team, including six from the Republic, had held a mighty England team to a 2-2 draw at the same ground. Con Martin, Jackie Carey, Willie Walsh, Peter Farrell, Davy Walsh and Tommy Eglington were on that team ... and they were available for selection again.
Everton FC was like a home from home for the Irish footballer at that time, with six or seven on their books, as Liverpool lived up to its reputation as the second city of Ireland. And with regular B&I and British Rail ferries from Dublin right into the heart of the city, even the fans were well catered for.
It was a game to set Irish pulses racing, but it also led to a collective rush of blood on the part of the FAI's selection committee. Ignoring the fact that Eglington was the leading Irish left-winger, and that he would be playing on his home ground, they opted instead for a part-timer from Shamrock Rovers, Tommy O'Connor. In the days before substitutes, it was asking a lot of a part-timer to perform for 90 minutes against top international players.
To this day, Eglington doesn't know why he was dropped. ``I wasn't injured,'' he says, ``and I have never been told what was behind it, but I have my own ideas.''
The English selectors followed their Irish counterparts' lead by dropping that sublime tormentor of defenders, Stanley Matthews, and experimenting with Peter Harris. It summed up England's cocky attitude: their belief that they didn't need all their best players to beat little Éire.
To some extent that attitude was shared by the Irish players. Billeted in a Southport hotel which was also playing host to a magicians' convention, Con Martin recalls thinking that his team could do with a magician if they were to become the first `foreign' team to beat England on their home turf.
However, the bookmakers' odds of 10/1 against an Irish victory were regarded as generous enough by Peter Farrell, who persuaded his Everton teammates to take him on. Doubtless they shared the view of the English journalist who wrote that morning: ``Anyone who thinks Éire will defeat England this afternoon, southern Irishmen excluded, needs to have his brains tested. For England, this is a limbering up for stiffer tests to come, for Éire a much needed money boost, and for both a happy social occasion.''
The social feel to the occasion was certainly maintained by the Irish officials, who travelled on the bus from Southport with the team and kept up a lively atmosphere with plenty of Irish songs. It was one way to approach a big game.
For the first 30 minutes of the game, which Tommy Eglington watched from the stand, it seemed as though the bookies and the English writer were right. Wave after wave of English attacks, led principally by Wilf Mannion and Tom Finney, rained down on the Irish defence ... only to find Jackie Carey, Bud Aherne, Con Martin, Willie Walsh and Tommy Moroney on the top of their form, and behind them, an inspired goalkeeper in Tommy Godwin.
``There was great spirit in the team everyone was interested in doing well for their country,'' recalls Con Martin. ``Godwin had an outstanding game and Carey and Aherne were always chatting and boosting us up.''
Sensationally, on 33 minutes, Peter Desmond burst into the England penalty area on a break and was brought down. Con Martin converted the spot kick.
England increased the tempo, putting everything into attack, as the Irish fell back in numbers. There were narrow escapes with the ball being cleared off the line on occasions, but the Irish held out and Martin recalls: ``Early in the second half when I intercepted a pass from Jesse Pye, I remember thinking, `Hey, we're not playing badly, we have a chance here'.''
How right he was: with five minutes to go Tommy O'Connor slipped the ball to Peter Farrell on another breakaway and Farrell lobbed Bert Williams for the second goal. ``A cute lob, the papers called it,'' Farrell recalled later, ``but I'm not going to pretend it was. I just closed my eyes and banged it.''
Farrell had the added satisfaction of collecting on the bets from his clubmates, but there were no big after-match celebrations for the players. Most of them made their way quickly back to their clubs and reported for training the following morning. Godwin and O'Connor travelled back to Dublin by ferry with the fans, but for Godwin it was only a short visit as his brilliant display persuaded Leicester City to sign the Shamrock Rovers' goalkeeper.
For England, the defeat was an exercise in humiliation, which was repeated to even greater effect the following summer when the USA's part-timers knocked them out of the World Cup finals in Brazil.
* Seán Ryan